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This story appears in the March/April 2017 issue of National Geographic History magazine.
Throughout the 1800s, the new archaeological discipline of Egyptology fed a keen public appetite for stories about pyramids and mummies. An 1869 story by Louisa May Alcott, “Lost in a Pyramid,” recounts an archaeologist bringing down a curse on himself when he destroys the mummy of a young girl. “I sometimes wonder if I am to share the curse,” recounts his assistant later, “For I’ve a vein of superstition in me, and that poor little mummy haunts my dreams still.”
Mummies have haunted popular culture ever since. By the time of Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, the idea of a “mummy’s curse” was already well established in early cinema. Mummies have been Hollywood staples since horror superstar Boris Karloff starred in The Mummy in 1932. The 1999 movie The Mummy and its sequel The Mummy Returns continued the trend of the mummy as a tormented, vengeful being caught somewhere between life and death.
Why did the Ancient Egyptians develop this costly, and to contemporary eyes, ghoulish ritual? Only by stripping away modern associations can the significance of mummies be understood. Objects of awe and mystery, they were created out of respect both for the gods and the deceased, and regarded as a natural continuation of the journey after death.
Mummification has deep roots in Egypt’s climate and geography. The oldest mummies date back to the fourth millennium B.C. and received no elaborate preservation at all. At that time, bodies were buried without any kind of casket in the desert, where conditions dried and preserved the remains. As customs changed in early Egyptian society, bodies began to be placed inside caskets and tombs. Separating bodies from the ground inhibited the corpses’ drying out, so Egyptians began to develop techniques to preserve bodies before burial.
These techniques were closely connected with religious beliefs, which described people as an amalgam of elements. Some of these were material: a person’s body, shadow, and name. Others were associated with their spirit: the ka, or cosmic energy received at birth; the ankh, or vital breath; and the ba, the personality. These elements were momentarily separated when a person died—a source of much anguish to the Egyptian mind. Mummification allowed the spirit of the deceased to recognize its own body, joyfully return to it, and be reborn.
The ritual mirrored the story of Osiris, god of the underworld, who was killed by his brother, Seth. Osiris’s murderer scattered his body parts across the land. Only when his consort Isis intervened, reuniting and burying the fragments, could Osiris be restored to life. In Egyptian art Osiris is often mummified, a task carried out by the god Anubis. The myth underscores how Egyptians believed the soul had no hope to navigate the hereafter unless its body was whole.
The Business of Mummification
Initially, mummification was the exclusive preserve of royalty and the court. During the period of the Old Kingdom (ca 2575-2130 B.C.), there was only one team of royal embalmers, who mummified members of the pharaoh’s family, courtiers, and officials to whom the monarch granted that privilege. Later, the ritual became more widespread, and independent workshops were set up. The “democratization” of mummies brought market realities into play, and levels of craftsmanship would vary widely depending on how much customers were able to pay.
Even so, embalmers from all workshops were regarded as qualified professionals. Since they possessed anatomical knowledge and had to carry out a series of rituals, they were seen as both doctors and members of the priestly social class.
Various papyri have been found that detail the different professionals involved in the process. One of the most notable was the “Lord of Secrets” (hery sesheta), who performed the rituals wearing a mask of Anubis, the god of embalming believed to have carried out the mummification of Osiris himself.
There were also lector priests (hery heb), who read aloud the instructions for the ritual and magic spells as the dressings were applied. Meanwhile, the cutters removed the lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines from the incision in the side of the corpse. Their social status was the lowest due to the impurity associated with the ritual.
A Drawn-Out Process
The embalmers performed their task during a long time phase between death and burial, which normally lasted over 70 days, although there are records of even longer periods. One account tells how the 4th-dynasty queen Meresankh III, wife of Pharaoh Khafre (the builder of the second of the great Pyramids at Giza), was not buried until 274 days after her death.
Writing in the fifth century B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus observed how when the mourning period had ended, the body was given to the embalmers and “whenever a corpse was conveyed to them, they showed those who brought it wooden models of corpses made like reality by painting.” Once a price had been agreed upon, the embalmer’s work would begin.
The first stage was carried out quite quickly, since decomposition occurred rapidly in the intense Egyptian heat. The purification ritual for the deceased took place over three days in a temporary structure called an ibw, where the body was washed. Once the body had been purified, it was taken to the wabet (pure place) or per nefer (house of beauty), where the actual mummification began.
According to Herodotus, the embalmers started their work by emptying the corpse’s head. The ancient Egyptians did not see the brain as the center of reason and identity, so they made no effort to preserve it. A long hook was inserted up the nose into the cranium and swirled around to liquefy the brain, which would then be poured out into a bowl.
Next, the internal organs were removed through an incision, usually made in the left-hand side of the abdomen. But the heart, believed to be the center of wisdom, was deliberately left in place. Spells 27, 28, and 29 in the collection of mortuary texts known now as the Book of the Dead state the importance of keeping this organ connected to the body.
Dehydration was essential to the embalming process. The material used was solid-state natron, a hydrated sodium carbonate often found near salt lakes. Immersed in this mixture for a period of 40 days, the body’s cavities filled with the substance and dried out from the inside. In an experiment performed on a corpse in 1994, Egyptologist Bob Brier and Dr. Ronald Wade found that 580 pounds of natron were needed to entirely cover and dry a body.
Various oils and liquid resin were later rubbed into the flesh. This may have helped prevent or delay insect predation and mask the odors of decomposition. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus visited Egypt in the first century B.C. and observed the mummification process: “They carefully dress the whole body for over 30 days, first with cedar oil and certain other preparations, and then with myrrh, cinnamon, and such spices as have the faculty not only of preserving it for a long time but also of giving it a fragrant odor.”
Wrapping Things Up
The key trait of the mummy is its linen wrappings, often the last step of mummification. This final procedure was carried out with great solemnity, the wrappers taking many days to entirely envelop the body. The amount of fabric used varied from one mummy to another and, in the case of less well-off clients, belonged to the deceased in their lifetimes. Every single action was defined in minute detail and accompanied by the appropriate spell. Amulets of various kinds were placed inside the folds of the linen to provide greater protection, as well as papyri with magic spells.
If the deceased was a member of the elite, the mummy was covered with a mask and placed in a sumptuous casket, which was in turn placed inside a sarcophagus. A funerary procession carried the sarcophagus to the tomb, the “house of eternity,” where the body of the deceased, now properly fitted out for the rigors of the afterlife, could rejoin the elements of its soul and be born again.
Egyptologist Milagros Álvarez Sosa participated in the excavation of an 18th-dynasty tomb at Thebes in 2014.
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