Mummification

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Mummification is the name given in ancient Egypt to the preservation of a corpse for eternity. Although it appears as a practice in several other African societies, mummification remains most identified with the Egyptian society. The Egyptians left no detailed descriptions of the mummification process, although there are enough fragments of pictures to give contemporary readers an understanding of the complex process. Almost all written descriptions of the details of mummification derive from the writings of the early Greeks, who visited Africa and recorded what they saw or were told. Greek writers such as Diodorus, Herodotus, Plutarch, and Porphyrus provide enough detail to allow us to reconstruct the process of mummification.
Usually the process began right after death and could last for 70 days. The body was moved to a special funerary house for purification where the preparation for eternity began. Among the first actions of the priests responsible for the mummification was the laying of the body on an operation table, where the brains were removed. Then the specially trained surgeons, the ones who dissected the body, would select one of their number to make an incision in the left side of the cadaver with a knife made of flint. This was a ritual incision that would be used to allow the priests to remove the organs. Each of the organs was treated separately and with great respect. The organ was embalmed, drained of blood, wrapped in cloth, and then placed in specially prepared vessels. These viscera jars were first found in the funerary cache of Queen Hetepheres, the mother of Per-aa Khufu.
These viscera jars, often erroneously called canopic jars, were placed alongside the Neb Ankh, often called the sarcophagus. Here they were protected by the Four Sons of Heru, Imsety, Hapi, Duamutef, and Qebehsenuef, who guarded the liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines, respectively.
The heart and the kidneys were most often left inside the body because of the difficulty of removing them.
Next, the priests began the process of salting the body by placing it in natron for about 35 days. The priests often used henna or ochre to dye the limbs of the corpse after the application of the natron. Thus, the male corpse appeared red and the female corpse yellow after this process. One can see this pattern reflected in some of the paintings on the walls of the temples and tombs. They would then pack the chest and abdomen with pieces of material provided by the family of the dead person. Relatives might bring their special fabrics to be placed inside the corpse for the journey to eternity. It was important that the priests soak the wads of material in various gums, herbs, and unguents so that the body could be molded and shaped to its original form. Then the opening in the left side of the cadaver was covered with a plaque that was protected by the Four Sons of Heru.
Once the officiating priest was satisfied that the body had been properly restored, cleaned, and purified, and all of the rituals had been stricdy observed, the body was wrapped in linen bandages. This process had to be carried out according to the ancient codes and strict regulations handed down by generations of Africans. There were several stages to this process. It was neither easy nor quick. In the first instance, it was necessary that the entire body be wrapped with sheets of linen. Each individual part of the body had to be wrapped separately, including the phallus, the fingers, and the head. Subsequently, a large piece of fabric, like a shroud, was placed around the entire body. The entire abdomen was bandaged and neatly wrapped according to the discipline of the priestly practice. If a ritual was missed or a step violated, the priests would have to start from the point of the infraction and start over in the process.
It did not make any difference whether the body was that of a king or a private individual; the same process had to be carried out. It is believed that the only difference between the mummification of the kings and others had to do with the value of the amulets that were placed in the wrappings surrounding the body. At a certain period, especially around the New Kingdom, the practice began of including certain texts from the Book of the Coming Forth by Day, and Going Forth by Night in the wrapping fabrics. This text was inserted between the legs of the mummy or on the chest. Additionally, jewels were sprinkled on the linen as well.
After the priests had assured themselves that the mummy was ready for the eternal journey, they would outfit the face of the mummy with a mask. Sometimes this mask, depending on the rank of the person, was made out of gold and lapis lazuli; at other times, it might be made out of cartonnage. Furthermore, it was not unusual to see mummies that had the entire body covered with a sort of board covering.
The mummy was then placed in a coffin, a kind of rectangular box, as the house of the deceased, decorated with texts, a façade of a palace, and a false door. Coffins were usually decorated with texts, offering sayings, and libation texts. Once the coffin, eventually designed according to the shape of the mummy, was placed inside of the Neb Ankh, usually made out of stone or carved out of rock, the deceased, properly mummified, was on the way to eternity.

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Further Reading

  • Erman, A. (1971). Life in Ancient Egypt. New York: Dover.
  • Grimal, N. (1992). A History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  • Kamil, J. (1988). The Ancient Egyptians. Cairo, Egypt: American University.