Mummies III

As I was saying, the Egyptians were obsessed with preserving their bodies in any way that they could, even the Greeks and the Romans who were living in Egypt during the Late Period, were being mummified. However, by then the mummifying process had deteriorated (let’s face it, who was bothered to wait so long to bury a guy? and worse, the expenses were through the roof!) Eventually mummifying became just a distant memory, especially since the ancient Egyptians and their beliefs were disappearing to be replaced by the Coptic church.

Though the mummifying process was long forgotten, the mummies were not. Mummies were now considered sacred items, and many thought that they had healing powers and so people did their best to find as many pieces of mummies as they could find in order to sell them. This belief wasn’t maintained only by Egyyptians, westeners came to believe in the healing powers of the mummy already in the Greco – Roman period (from c. 4th century B.C.). In fact, pieces of mummies were still being sold to westeners well into the late 1800s.

Mummies are no longer a thing of the past, they no longer belong only to the Ancient Egyptians, they are here. They can be found in museums and they receive medical care, just like living beings. Because they are no longer in the safety of their coffins (or the Greek word ‘sarcophagus’ which literally means ‘flesh eater’), they are exposed to all types of infection and in recent times, when infections are detected, mummies are taken swiftly to the hospital to be treated.

sarcophagus from the Middle Kingdom belonging to an official

At the same time we can discover many things from x-raying the mummies, such as their condition when they died, what type of diseases they had, and how was their nutrition. Sometimes, by doing DNA tests we can discover which mummy is related to which (and perhaps this way find out more about the royal liniage?).

Mummies II

Anubis the God of Embalmers

 

Ironically the first intentional mummies were much less preserved as the accidental ones (meaning the poor people who could only afford to bury their dead in shallow graves with very few burial goods). Pieces of early mummies have been found, but they were only bones wrapped in linen. No mummifying process has been used on them and it is clear that the first attempt was to keep the body dry.

Just like with the ‘Pyramid Texts’ the pharaohs were the first to be mummified and preserved, though many did not survive the process. A famous example is a left foot that was discovered in Djoser’s famous Step Pyramid. It is unknown whether the foot belonged to Djoser himself, but it had been clearly mummified, though it had been poorly preserved.

Step Pyramid

 

Just like with the ‘Coffin Texts’ and the ‘Book of the Dead’, the mummifying process became available to the nobility and to the common people. The mummifying process was perfected in the New Kingdom, however, it was very expensive and only the very rich could pay the high bills. In order to get more clients, the embalmers had several qualities to offer their clients (think of the original iPod and the subsequent cheap knockoffs). The more money you could pay, the better chance your body had to survive through the centuries.

After the glory of the New Kingdom, the mummifying process detirioated and mummies from that period are amongst the worst in the group known as the Egyptian mummies.

Ramses I’s mummy (?)

Mummies

It is simply incredible the lengths that the Ancient Egyptians went through to in order to make sure that they will be secure in the Afterlife. The first thing that comes to everybody’s mind is MUMMIES! (alright, maybe it’s the second, the pyramids in Giza are most likely the first thing that people think about when asked of the Ancient Egyptians.)

The first known Egyptian mummy ever found is Ginger, so named because of the colour of his hair. Ginger was the first of six mummies that were found by Wallis E. Budge back in the late 1890s, and is considered the first Egyptian mummy (from the Predynastic Period, c. 3500 B.C.). It is unknown whether or not Ginger was the result of a natural process or whether he was intended that he should be mummified. It is very likely that because the Egyptian desert climate was good for creating mummies without the ‘special treatment’ that the Egyptians happened on a poor sod that had been buried in a shallow grave (and who succeeded in not getting eaten by scavengers) and conceived the idea that the only way to insure their place beside Ra is to preserve their earthly bodies. From here came the myth of Isis mummifying Osiris after his death so he would be whole to rule in the Underworld.

Ginger

The mummifying process could take up to seventy days. The first step was to break the naval and, with a poker, the embalmer would take out the brain (well, some of the brain…) because it was believed that the brain was the least important organ (they must have been surprised when they reached the Afterlife that they needed the brian after all!. The next step involved taking out all the inner organs and placing them and the body in natron to dry. Then the organs were wrapped in linen and placed into four canopic jars that were then placed into a canopic chest. The body itself was then wrapped in yards of linen. With each new layer of linen small pendants were inserted to insure that the dead will pass the many tests that it had to go through in order to reach the ‘Field of Reeds’.

The mummy is now ready for burial.

Scan of a 3000 year old mummy

Egyptian Coffin from the 21st Dynasty

The Afterlife

The Ancient Egyptian idea of life after death is so simple, to go to sleep one day and wake up beside the gods and goddesses of Egypt the next. On the other hand, nothing could be more complicated, their thoughts on the Afterlife clouds everything including the archaeological evidence they left behind. The question of the famous Egyptian wall paintings on the tomb walls have been puzzling researchers for years. Do they represent real life? Oh do they represent the perfect idea of the Afterlife where the dead will spend the rest of all eternity? On the other hand, there are many stories in literature that tell us not only of the spirits of the dead looking after the living (as in so many other religions, such as the angels?), but also of the dead visiting each other’s grave to have….you’d never guess…. tea!

So where do the dead of Egypt go? It is doubtful that they can ALL join the sun-god Ra in his endless sky journey, the boat would be too overcrowded! So, who decides which of the dead joins Ra and who gets to work the fields? There are so many different variations of the Afterlife, of the creation myths and of the order of things in the Egyptian mythology that one could get completely lost in the meaning. Worse than that, for even in the Afterlife the rich can still cheat and not do any work by creating as many as 356 shabtis statues (one for every day of the year) to take their place in the work field. So, do the wall paintings represent real life? or hope?

Tomb owner and wife plowing the fields in the Afterlife (New Kingdom)

Further more, the Egyptians also built their tombs with a specific architectural meaning. In the mastabas of the officials from the Old Kingdom, the tombs were constructed in such a way that the further in you go, the closer you are to the Afterlife. The wall paintings at the entrance with the statue of the deceased standing at the door, sometimes with his arms stretched out waiting for the visitor to enter and murmur a pray to fill his dishes with food again (another reason the spirits of the Ancient Egyptians must be ecstatic that we have learnt how to read ancient hieroglyphs again for they must have been starving for centuries.) The journey down the corridor, and the wall paintings, could represent not only the daily life of the Ancient Egyptians, but also the journey the deceased has to undertake in order to reach his final and desired destination, the ‘Field of Reeds’.

Eample of a Mastaba's plan belonging to Idut (Giza, 6th Dynasty)