Mummies and Mummification

Mummification, the art of preserving a body, is a defining element of ancient Egyptian civilization. Mummification differs from the science of embalming. The latter is defined as delaying decomposition to keep the corpse looking natural. The traditional Egyptian mummy, swathed in bandages, is a far cry from an embalmed lifelike body such as that of Vladimir Lenin. However the two terms have become intertwined and are used sometimes interchangeably.

‘Mummy’ – Origins of the word

The word ‘mummy’ is derived from ‘mummia’, a bituminous resin found in ancient Persia; however ‘mummy’ is a relatively modern term. “Mummia” was not used in mummification, but when mummies were discovered coated with dark plant resin it was assumed“mummia” played a role and the term mummification was coined.

There are two elements to mummification, the physical process and the religious symbolism. The physical process was a secretive art. Our knowledge is derived from ‘reverse engineering’ of the many mummies that survived. Information has also been derived from the experiment in modern mummification conducted by Dr. Robert Brier of Long Island University.

Mummification – the Physical Process

Shortly after death the body was taken to a place of purification (ibw), probably a tent on a hill where the wind would blow the smell away. The brain was ‘liquefied’ by using a hook inserted through the nostrils and rotated like a whisk. The body was turned upside down and the brain matter drained out and discarded.

The body was then washed in a natron solution. Natron is a naturally occurring salt of sodium carbonate and sodium bi-carbonate. A 10cm incision was made in the side of the corpse using an obsidian knife (sharper than modern day steel scalpels). The internal organs were removed through the incision and then cleaned, dried, wrapped and placed in four canopic jars. (Pictured: the four jars can be seen under the bed).

The eviscerated body cavity was cleaned with palm wine and packed with small bags of natron crystals and wheat chaff. The body was covered in natron salt crystals above and below until it was desiccated. About 250 kilograms of natron were used for a single body.

After 35 days the body was dry, but still slightly flexible. The natron was removed and the body moved to the house of beauty (pr nfr)where it was placed on blocks and carefully bandaged with linen strips and coated with resin. Particular care was taken with the fingers and toes. Amulets and spells were bound into the wrapping to give the body magical protection. The mummy was placed in its coffin, sometimes with a mask and garlands of flowers and herbs. The coffin was then placed in a stone sarcophagus (sarcophagus from the Greek literally means “flesh eating”).

Mummification was initially reserved for royalty, but over the centuries nobles and common folk who could afford it were also mummified. Some of the mummies that survived are incredibly well preserved and are providing a source of DNA for scientists engaged in unravelling the complex relationships of the royal families.

Why Mummification?

Egyptian mummyBut why did the ancient Egyptians mummify their dead? Was it because they believed in the resurrection of the dead? Regrettably we only have theory and supposition to guide us. There is as yet no documentation that satisfactorily answers the questions. The most quoted answer is that bodies buried in the hot dry sand of the Egyptian desert were naturally desiccated but when burials began to take place in tombs, the bodies decomposed. Mummification was introduced to replace what had occurred naturally in the past.

Mummification – the religious symbolism

The religious symbolism of mummification may have stemmed from the mythological story of Osiris’s cut-up body being reassembled after his gruesome murder and being wrapped in linen by his sister/wife Isis as mentioned previously. The god of mummification Anubis, (actually a priest wearing a canine mask) was the overseer of the procedure. The entire process always took 70 days, precisely the same time the star Sirius, believed to be the goddess Isis, spent below the horizon each year before re-appearing on the horizon and being reborn in the night sky over Egypt.

In considering the religious aspect of mummification, it is clear that preservation of the body was essential to the ancient Egyptian belief in the afterlife. Without the body, the “Ka” or spirit could not return to the tomb to find the sustenance left by relatives and friends. The spirit would not be able to access the spells inscribed on the walls of the tomb or in the Book of Life papyrus buried with the corpse. These spells were essential for the “Ka’s” survival. If the body decayed and was unrecognisable the “Ka” would be lost, go hungry and the afterlife of the deceased would be jeopardised.

Anthony Holmes

Read more in Ancient Egypt: History In An Hour published by Harper Press and available in various digital formats, and audio.

See also articles on Howard Carter, the pharaohs Rameses the GreatTutankhamun, Akhenaten, and also article on the Great Pyramids at Giza.

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