Ancient Egypt /
Preserved, dehydrated corpse. A mummy may have been embalmed or treated with chemicals, or it may have been naturally dessicated by extreme cold, dryness, or even lack of air.
King Ramses 2. National Museum, Cairo, Egypt.
Ginger, the world's oldest mummy. British Museum, London, UK.
Mummy of unknown woman. British Museum, London, UK.
Portrait of the deceased, a popular style of Fayoum Oasis, Egypt.
Cats in honour of the goddess, Bastet. British Museum, London, UK.
Crocodile in honour of the crocodile god, Sobek. From the temple at Kom Ombo, Egypt. Photo: momo.
Egypt is the country with the largest number of mummies, posessing the longest and most interesting history of the phenomenon. Other countries that mummified a corpse are outside the geographical scope of this encyclopaedia, and cannot be considered here.
According to ancient Egyptian religion, the body of a person was the home of his or her ka. By preserving the body, the ka was assured of sustenance. Without a body, the ka would go hungry, placing its existence in the afterlife in jeopardy.
The term 'mummy' actually results from a misunderstanding. Because of the blackened skin of the mummified body, it was initially assumed that bitumen had been extensively used in the embalming process. The Arabic word for bitumen is 'mumiya'. The word may also have an etymological connection to the Persian word 'mum', meaning 'wax'. It has been suggested that the Persian kings were mummified in wax, but this may have been a way of preserving the corpse for the time between death and burial.
The sophisticated technique of mummification has a long history, gradually being developed over some 2,000 years. The oldest known mummy dates back to about 3500 BCE, and is nick-named 'Ginger' because of its red hair (see photo).
Ginger's mummification didn't involve any chemicals. Rather the dryness and extreme heat of the desert prevented the corpse from decomposition. Stones had been piled above it to protect the body from animals, proving that contemporaries were concerned held the dead in respect.
Initially, mummies were placed in reed caskets in the desert. Later, wooden tombs immersed in the sand were introduced.
The need to give the bodies a more aesthetic appearance led the Egyptians to wrap them in tightly-woven linen strips. Internal organs were be removed in order to prevent the interior of the body from decomposing through contact with the decaying organs.
Mummification as ritual
The institutions involved in mummification held high status in Egyptian society. The leaders of larger institutions generally had a priestly role and assumed responsibilities as an "overseer of the mysteries." Such a role was related to that of the god, Anubis.
The mythological background during the era of Egyptian mummification was tied to the mummification and burial of Osiris.
Each stage of the mummification process was done within the framework of regulated religious rituals. This was the reason why the mummification process could only be performed by the priestly class. The regulations and methods were not commonly known by their contemporaries. As a matter of fact, no Egyptian record of its details have survived, if it ever existed. The main sources about mummification process are foreign visitors to Egypt.
At some period in history, new techniques came to be introduced. Natron, extracted largely from the Natrun Valley to the west of the Nile Delta, was discovered to be very effective in creating a long-lasting, life-like mummy.
According to the Greek historian, Herodotus, writing in the middle of the 5th century BCE, there were 3 forms of mummification, of which 2 were chemical. The most elaborate was for the select rich who could afford it, the simplest form being for the poor.
As soon as possible after death, the body of the deceased was transported to the nearest facility for mummification and embalming.
With the most expensive form of mummification, the brain was first removed using an iron hook swished around in the skull, pulverizing the brain matter. After liquification, it could be drained out through the nostrils. Then, all the internal organs were removed through an aperture in the left side, with the exception of the heart. The body was cleaned with palm wine and pounded spices, before being stitched up again.
Commonly, the internal organs would be placed in 4 canopic jars or parcels, which would be placed next to the mummy before final burial. The canopic jars had lids taking on the form of the four sons of Horus. Already early in the 11th or 10th century BCE, this custom changed, with the intestines being wrapped and returned to the body cavity. Canopic jars, now empty, were often still placed next to the body.
The dessication of the corpse was earlier believed to have resulted from immersing the body in a liquid natron solution. More recent research has shown that the body was covered with a mound of natron, it being placed in the bodily cavities as ell, and left for weeks in the heat. This process reduceed the body to 25% of its original weight.
Then the body was coated with resin, making the skin even darker. Sometimes, cosmetics were added, recreating the lifelikeness of the deceased. The process was completed with the body being wrapped in linen bandages. The bandaging took place over an elongated period of 15 days.
The burial would take place after 70 days, a period probably connected with the phases of the dog star, Sirius. The deceased was believed to return as a star. A person having passed through this very advanced form of mummification would be placed in a decorated case, aid by the wealth of royalty or nobility, inside a stone sarcophagus.
A central part of the burial process involved the Opening of the Mouth ritual, in which a priest touched the mouth of the mummy with a hooked stick (the stick of Osiris), so that the deceased was allowed to speak and breathe in the afterlife.
The other two, simpler forms of chemical mummification were cruder versions of the method above. Yet, it should be noted that this was true for the majority of mummies.
In a less extravagant process, the body would be filled with cedar oil through the anus. After a few weeks, the internal organs would have become liquified and extracted. Finally, the body was covered with natron in order to dehydrate it.
In the least extravagant of the 3 methods, no chemicals were used. The abdomen was washed before the body was left to dry in the desert sand and heat.
Mummies in the West
Egyptian mummies have long been among the most fascinating aspects of ancient Middle Eastern history. For a long period of time, special qualities were ascribed to the mummies, creating numerous legends and even fostering the use of powdered mummies in medicinal potions.
Many mummies are exhibited for the curious visitor today. The most interesting exhibit by far is found in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Egypt, while the best foreign museums are the British Museum, London, UK and the Ägyptisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.
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