The Art of Mummification in Ancient Egypt

The religion of ancient Egypt was truly the pinnacle of their existence. Religion played an essential role in their everyday lives. The ancient Egyptians accredited everything from personal illness, low food supply, love, family and even the floods of the Nile River to their deities. They went out of their way to prepare their people for the afterlife . By appeasing their gods and goddesses, they believed they were guaranteeing them a smooth transfer to the spiritual realm. The ancient Egyptians religion is often difficult to explain mainly due to the many aspects. They were not only a polytheistic society but also humanistic. The fact that they worshipped numerous deities makes them polytheistic, but they also worshipped their pharaohs so this is the humanistic aspect of their faith. Some scholars throw naturalistic into the mix, as the Egyptians believed they could manipulate the forces of nature.
Egypt’s most popular sect is the one devoted to the god Osiris, the fertility god of the Nile. The myth, according to priests, was that his brother, Seth , murdered Osiris. Seth cut up his brother’s body and scattered the numerous pieces throughout Egypt. Isis, Osiris’ wife, collected the pieces and wrapped them in linen . He was then restored to life to father Horus and bring fertility to the land. He was branded ruler of the dead in the underworld. It was believed that every mummified Egyptian could become another Osiris , capable of resurrection and a blessed eternal life. Without this myth, mummification would never have come to be. Wrapping the body in linen to protect it became an essential rite. Each body was carefully preserved awaiting its day of resurrection and eternal life.
Some people believed that the dead lived on in the tomb. Others thought of the dead as having gone to a blessed afterworld in some far distant place. That being the case they proved goods needed for both worlds. In no other civilization have such elaborate preparations for the afterlife been made in the preservation of the dead. To the Ancient Egyptians, their soul, their being, was made up of many different parts. Not only was there the physical form, but there were eight immortal or semi-divine parts that survived death, with the body making nine parts of a human. The Egyptians other worldly parts include khat (kha) which is the physical form, the body that could decay after death, the mortal, outward part of the human that could only be preserved by mummification . The Egyptians used the term “Ka” to refer to the soul, which remains in the tomb. Lucie Lamy describes is in her book, “The ka is a complex idea for which we have no linguistic counterpart. It is currently thought that the ka is a manifestation of vital energy but this fails to explain why statues, formulas, and offerings are dedicated, in the funerary ritual, to the ka; or why a narrow “false door” is left in the tomb for the ka to come and go and eat of the food figured on the walls .” The ba or soul is a represented by a human headed bird. The heart is closely associated with the soul. It is the source of good and bad thoughts as well as more understanding of right and wrong. The heart or ab can move freely and separate or unite with the body at will. It can also enjoy life with the gods in heaven. The Khaibit represents the shadow. References to this part are infrequent and often the meanings are obscure. The spirit is known by several different names, the akh, khu or the akhu. This is the immortal part of man and it lives in the sahu or spiritual body. The Pyramid Texts state that the akh is for heaven while the kha is for earth . The ren or name that exists in heaven is thought to be the power of the being. If someone knows the secret name, they gain power over that person. Lastly, is the sahu or spiritual body. Within the sahu, all the mental and spiritual attributes of the natural body are united. Being viewed with great importance, the ancient Egyptians made every possible attempt at appeasing all sides of the being.
When an ancient Egyptian died, it was believed that his soul flew away at death. Many cults believed that the soul was a human headed bird with the face of the deceased. During life, the soul had resided within the body- probably in the belly or in the heart- but after death; it flew freely about the world, taking refuge in the tomb at night, when evil spirits might be about. In order to find the right tomb, it was necessary that the soul be able to recognize the body from which it had come. Hence, the body of the deceased was preserved in the best possible way. It was mummified.
The word ‘mummy’ is not of Egyptian origin but is derived from the Arabic ‘mumiyah,’ which means ‘body preserved by wax or bitumen.’ This term was used because of an Arab misconception of the methods used by the Egyptians in preserving their dead. The earliest ancient Egyptians buried their dead in small pits in the desert. The heat and dryness of the sand dehydrated the bodies quickly, creating lifelike and natural mummies. Later, the ancient Egyptians began burying their dead in coffins to protect them from wild animals in the desert. However, they realized that bodies place din coffins decayed when they were bit exposed to the hot, dry sand of the desert. Over many centuries, the ancient Egyptians developed so they would remain lifelike. Even later, the process developed into the funeral rites and long process we see illustrated in ancient Egyptian texts.
The actual process of embalming as practiced in ancient Egypt was governed by definite religious ritual. A period of seventy days was required for the preparation of the mummy, and each step in the procedure was coordinated with relevant priestly ceremonies. In charge of the mummification was the ‘hery seshta’ or overseer of the mysteries, who took the part of the jackal god Annubis . The assistant was the ‘hetemw netjer’ or seal bearer of the god, this was a title previously held by Osiris. The ‘hery heb’ or lector priest would read the magic spells during each ritual while the ‘wetyw’ or bandagers undertook most of the actual evisceration and bandaging of the body. Because this act was considered unclean, the wetyw’s role in society was severely limited.
Removal of those organs most subject to putrefaction was the initial step in preparing a corpse for mummification. The embalmers placed the body on a narrow, table-like stand and proceeded to their task. The brain was removed through the nostrils by means of various metal probes and hooks. Such a method necessarily reduced the brain to a fragmentary state. The ancient Egyptians believed the brain held no conscious thought and was therefore discarded. An incision was then made in the left flank of the body to permit removal of the viscera, save for the heart, which they left inside the body. The liver, lungs, stomach and the intestines were each placed in separate jars. These canopic jars were composed of several different materials such as limestone, calcite or alabaster . The lids atop the jars were shaped as the head of one of the minor funerary deities known as the Four Sons of Horus. The baboon-headed Hapy guarded the lungs. The human-headed Imsety was the guardian of the liver. Jackal-headed Duamutef guarded the stomach and upper intestines and falcon-headed Qebehsenuef guarded the lower intestines .
After the removal and preservation of the internal organs, dry natron was used as a desiccant. Small parcels of natron wrapped in linen were placed inside the body. The outside was covered with loose natron or packages of the linen wrapped natron. The dry atmosphere of Egypt accelerated the desiccation process. Once dried out, the temporary stuffing would be removed, with any body parts being retained for burial and the body cavity would be re-stuffed with various aromatics. The brain cavity was filled with resin or linen, the openings in the skull packed and artificial eyes often added. The body was then ready to be bound into that compact bundle we know as a mummy.
Only linen was used in the wrapping. To give a more natural appearance, linen pads were placed in the hollows caused by the drying. The arms and legs, sometimes even the fingers and toes, were bandaged separately. Then some twenty or more layers of alternating shrouds and bandages were wrapped around the entire body. Between every few layers of linen, a coating of resin was applied as a binding agent. The proper wrapping of a mummy required several hundred square yards of linen. The shrouds were sheets six to nine feet square, and the bandages-strips torn from other sheets were from two to eight inches wide and three to twenty feet long. The linen used in wrapping mummies was for the most part not made especially for shrouds but was old household linen saved for this purpose. Often the linen is marked with the name of the former owner, faded from repeated washings. Occasionally bandages bear short religious texts written in ink. When the wrapping had been completed, the shop was cleaned, and all the embalming materials that had been exposed to the mummy were placed in jars for storage in the tomb.
The making of a corpse into a mummy was not all that took place during the seventy-day ritual. The artisans were engaged meanwhile in all the activities essential to proper burial might number in the hundreds. The construction and decoration of the tomb, if not already complete by the deceased during his lifetime, presented an enormous task. Woodworkers were constructing the coffin or a series of coffins, each to fit within another-tailored to measure. Artisans were busy decorating the coffins. The fine painting on the coffins was rarely done directly on the wood, but rather on a smooth plaster coating of whiting and glue over linen glued over the wood. The beautiful colors on many cases are pigments from minerals found in Egypt, often covered with a clear varnish. Countless other helpers were engaged in constructing and assembling the numerous articles to be deposited with the mummy when it was laid to rest in the tomb. An extremely important task also undertaken during the seventy days of mummification was the preparation by priests or scribes of magical texts to be placed in the tomb. These texts, now known as the ‘Book of the Dead’ were written on papyrus rolls varying in length from a few sheets to many sheets, some rolls approaching a length of one hundred feet. Often they were exquisitely illustrated in color. The Egyptians believed that knowledge of these formulas, hymns and prayers enabled the soul to ward off demons attempting to impede it progress, and to pass the tests set by the 42 judges in the hall of Osiris. The soul passing these tests was allowed to mingle with the gods. If it failed the tests, it was devoured by a monster. The texts of the Book of the Dead also indicated that happiness in the afterlife was dependent on the deceased’s having led a virtuous life on earth.
An elaborate funeral procession of priests, relatives, friends, servants, and professional mourners accompanied the mummy to the tomb. Attended by priests, the mummy, in its magnificent coffin, was carried on a great sledge pulled by oxen. The mourners followed behind the sledge. In the procession, too, were porters bearing gifts to be placed in the tomb. These mortuary accouterments believed essential for a happy afterlife light be furniture, weapons, jewelry, food, linens- any or all of those things that had made for comfort and happiness in the earthly life. The final ceremony at the tomb was the opening of the mouth. Through this ceremony, the mummy was thought to regain ability to move, talk and eat, in order to fulfill his destiny in the afterworld. It was necessary that the priests perform this last rite, which would restore to him the functions of a living person.
The mummy was then carried into the tomb and sealed in the outer coffin or sarcophagus. The Book of the Dead was placed near him, mortuary gifts were piled about, and priests in the guise of gods made sure no evil spirits lurked in the tomb. According to Egyptian belief, interment of the mummy did not automatically insure entrance into the afterworld. The deceased had first to appear before a group of 42 spiritual assessors and convince them that he had led a righteous life on earth. The in a final trial before Osiris, kind of the nether world, the heart of the deceased was placed on the great scales and balanced against a feather, symbol of righteous truth. Annubis, the jackal headed god who presided over embalming, did the weighing, while Thoth, the ibis headed scribe of the gods, and recorded the result on a tablet. If the heart of the deceased passed this test, he was admitted into heaven. If not, his soul was doomed to roam the earth forever .
The pre-dynastic Egyptian (before 3000 N.E.) was buried in the sand and was surrounded with pottery jars containing food. He was placed on his side in a contracted position, and was occasionally wrapped in reed matting or animal hide. Later, the dead were placed in crudely made baskets, boxes, or pottery coffins, which were buried in the sand or deposited in small natural caves at the base of the cliffs in the Nile Valley. By 3000 B.C., men of importance had small chambers cut for themselves in the rock, often with a shallow pit or niche to receive the coffin. From these beginnings evolved the typical Egyptian tomb consisting of two essential parts: the burial chamber and a room in which offerings to the dead were placed .
Most impressive of all Egyptian tombs are those of the Pyramid Age (2800-2250 b.c.). Those colossal tombs that are as famous as Egypt herself developed from a less elaborate form now called mastaba . The mastaba tombs are low, rectangular structures of brick and stone built on bedrock. The building houses an offering chamber, or a series of them, and a secret room containing a statue of the deceased. A vertical shaft in the superstructure leads down into the bedrock to the tomb chamber some twenty to eighty feet below. The limestone walls in the offering chambers of the mastaba tombs are covered with sculptured scenes done in low relief. They were originally painted, and some of the color remains. It is from these skillfully executed scenes depicting contemporary Egyptian life that we derive much of our knowledge of the period. The mastaba tombs are for the most part those of nobles, the pharaohs preferring the more monumental pyramids. The great pyramids at Giza, tombs of the Fourth Dynasty kings, are by far the most imposing of the pyramid tombs .
The Egyptians were mummifying their dead even in the days of the pyramids. Indeed, there are mummies that antedate the pyramids. These ancient mummies are wrapped in the contracted position characteristic of Pre-Dynastic burials, whereas the mummy of the Pyramid Age lays length on its back, enclosed in a box type coffin decorated to resemble a house. In the early days of mummification, only the kings were definitely conceded the opportunity to attain an exalted afterlife. Religious texts to aid the dead kings in gaining entrance into heaven were carved on the stalls of the mortuary chambers of some of the pyramids. There are now known as the Pyramid Texts. It is on the walls of the pyramids of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasty kings at Saqqara – smaller and less imposing pyramids than those at Giza- that these oldest collections of Egyptian religious texts are found. Although nobles of the Pyramid Age were also accorded sumptuous burial, no texts are found in their tombs .
By the time of the Middle Kingdom (2100-1780 BC), after the period of the mastabas and pyramids, tombs and their accessory chambers were usually hewn out of solid rock in the sides of the hills along the Nile. Occasionally, however, tombs were enclosed by or built under mortuary buildings erected on the plain. These buildings served as chapels or offering chambers. The mummy of the Middle Kingdom was placed on its left side in a rectangular wooden coffin on which was painted religious texts. These Coffin Texts were excerpts from the older Pyramid Texts, with the addition of new thoughts and symbols. Some mummies had a cartonnage mask over the upper portion of the body. These cartonnage coverings were composed of plaster soaked linen or papyrus were shaped in human form and painted. Sometimes the entire mummy was enclosed in such a covering, a practice that quickly led to the making of coffins themselves in mummy form.
A person of rank or wealth, and these went hand in hand, would have a series of two or three coffins, each case fitting inside the other, with the inner one the most elaborate. Often the outer coffin would be carved from stone in mummy form, or would consist of a huge stone sarcophagus. It was late in this period when liberalization of religious concepts extended the privilege of an afterlife to those in less fortunate circumstances than kings and nobles, which beards appeared on mummy cases. The beard, heretofore worn only by divinities and kings, indicated presumption on the part of the deceased that he would be accepted into their immortal presence. During the time of the 18th and 19th dynasties, the rock cut tombs reached their zenith in the famous Tombs of the Kings in the valleys at Thebes. These tombs consist of corridors, chambers, and halls descending into the solid rock of the hillsides a distance of several hundred feet. The walls are covered with religious texts and scenes and with inscriptions and pictures portraying every phase in the life of the deceased, all beautifully painted.
Mummification practices varied with the passing centuries too. The use of canopic jars as repositories was discontinued during the 21st Dynasty, and the viscera were henceforth wrapped in packages and replaced in the body or bound with it. Hollows in the desiccated body were cleverly filled out by placing pads of linen underneath the skin. From this period on, the art of making good mummies went into a gradual decline, even though mummification continued to be practiced for another fifteen hundred years. Less attention came to be paid to the condition of the body itself, and more to the external appearance of the wrappings.
In Roman times, a garish type of coffin came into use. Showy cartonnage coverings were formed and painted in fanciful likeness of the deceased. At the same time, coffin-makers were building coffins of simple board boxes. On the cover there might be a life-sized plaster face modeled after that of the dead. Sometimes a painted portrait of the deceased was placed inside the coffin over the face of the mummy. Quite naturally, wealth was always a dominant actor in the mummification and burial accorded an individual. Although actual Egyptian records of the cost of mummification are lacking, Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian who traveled in Egypt, touches on burial costs in his writings. According to Diodorus, at the time he journeyed in Egypt there were three grades of burial. The elite who could afford the best spared no expense in their preparations.
Tombs for the common people had no chambers. The coffins were placed in walled recesses in the side of a rock or in shallow holes gouged out of the rocky plain. Mummies of the poor were placed in common repositories, either with or without coffins. The bodies of those with no money at all were given a perfunctory ceremonial cleansing, were sometimes covered with a cloth, and were buried in the sand. The Egyptians believed that a god incarnate assumed the form of an animal. Nearly every deity was associated in his or her minds with a certain bird or beast. Therefore, it is not surprising that we find near the sites of ancient cities large cemeteries devoted to the burial of animals. Usually only one type of animal was buried in a given cemetery. Adjacent to each such cemetery was a temple devoted to the cult of the god identified with the specific kind of animal buried at that place.
The animals were mummified, but not always too carefully. Chief stress was laid on the bandaging, the object having been that the package should clearly indicate the kind of animal enclosed. Often these animal mummies were placed in theriomorphic coffins. There are mummies of jackals, cats, ibises, snakes, lizards, gazelles, hawks, bulls, sheep, baboons, crocodiles–in fact, almost every conceivable kind of animal known to Egypt. At some places, animal tombs such as those of the Apis bulls at Memphis are found. The tombs of the Apis bulls, which date from the Eighteenth Dynasty and later, consist of subterranean passages and vaults hewn in the rock an aggregate length of some twelve hundred feet. Many of the bulls were placed in huge stone sarcophagi. The ambition of every Egyptian was to have a well-mummified body and a perpetually cared-for tomb. The children of the deceased were charged with the maintenance of this home on earth and the observation of all attendant ceremonies. In the case of a favored government official, a portion of the state revenue might be assigned as an endowment for the care of the tomb .
As the number of deceased ancestors and officials multiplied, however, and the consequent cost of tomb maintenance became excessive, the tendency was to neglect those of the remote past and to concentrate attention on those of the more recently deceased. Thus, the living inhabitant of ancient Egypt, with all the faith he placed in the preservation of his own mummy, was constantly faced with the anomaly of neglected and despoiled tombs -for tomb robbers were at work even during the days of mummification. We have Egyptian papyri recording the robbery of royal tombs and the capture and punishment of the despoilers. An archaeologist rarely finds a tomb that has not been plundered .
From what has been happening in society and all the discoveries being made about Ancient Civilizations, the society, in the future that is, will be even more affected by the Egyptian ways than it is now. The Egyptians, with their wacky life styles, presented the world with materials and artifacts that have never been created. They truly were the stepping-stones of modern society. They have been working on life changing, so to say, tools that will always be used and will be constantly worked upon to upgrade them. Their ways of art, design, architecture, and culture were amazing, thus effecting modern art, design, architecture, and culture. As the years pass by, modern society will keep being affected by societies of the past.

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