Mummification in Ancient Egypt

According to ancient Egyptian mythology, or at least some versions, Osiris was the first pharaoh. He was given the throne by his father Ra.

To make a long story short, Osiris was killed by his brother Set (also known as Seth) and was cut up into pieces and thrown in the Nile River. Osiris’s wife Isis and fellow god Anubis put him back together again but could not bring him back to life in this world. Instead, the dead pharaoh’s father Ra made Osiris the king of the afterlife. Thus, the process of preserving the body in this world became a ritual to allow the spirit to live on in the afterlife for all pharaohs, and later, it was believed that every Egyptian could live on if the proper procedures were followed.

The actual roots of the idea of preserving dead bodies in Egypt probably came from the natural preservation of bodies buried in the desert sands away from the Nile. Because of the very low humidity, bodies were well preserved just by the natural drying that occurred. Of course a body buried in the sand was subject to being uncovered by a wind storm or wild animals. This made it necessary to protect the body by placing it in tombs like mustabas, pyramids, or other underground tombs.

The problem was that in a shelter, there was more moisture, and bodies were subject to decay. The ancient Egyptians figured out, however, that if they removed the moisture from the dead body and treated it with chemicals and wrapped it up, it could be well preserved.

The procedure for mummification, at least in the late periods (circa 500 BC) were documented by the Greek historian Herodotus. He actually wrote about three methods, classified basically by the expense required to perform them. It is a bad metaphor/simile/analogy, maybe, but it was kind of like getting a car wash. For ten bucks, you can get the full wash, wax, and get the inside vacuumed, but for a paltry three bucks, you just get the wash and and quick blow dry.

Here are the three methods…

The Full Treatment:

The brain is removed by breaking through the bone and/or cartilage in the nasal passage with an iron hook. The brain is basically scrambled with the hook and pulled out through the nose. Any remaining matter in the skull is removed by a chemical rinse. The nostrils are then plugged by wax. Afterall, it would not do to have scarabs running around or laying eggs in the poor corpse’s skull.

Next, the entrails (intestines and other juicy internal organs) are removed by making an incision in the abdomen with an Ethiopian stone knife. The heart is left in the body or removed and then replaced. The Egyptians believed that the heart performed most of the functions that we now know the brain performs. The organs — intestines, stomach, liver, etc. — are treated with chemicals and placed in four jars (canopic jars), the lids of which are in the image of the four sons of the god Horus.

The abdominal cavity is then filled with linen rags, spices, and/or other filler material to restore it to the shape it was in life, and the incision is closed.

The body is then covered with natron (a salt) and left to dry for seventy days. After the drying period, the body is wrapped. In the case of King Tut, the body was wrapped very painstakingly. Each finger and toe was individually wrapped. The wrapping is held in place by a gum (probably a gum or pitch from a plant or tree). Finally the body is placed in a coffin (sarcophagus). In the case of pharaohs or other high royalty, several coffins were used, one being placed inside another.

The Middle of the Road Treatment:

The body is injected with cedar oil and soaked in natron for seventy days. The cedar oil is then drained (I don’t know and don’t want to know from where). With the oil comes the liquified organs, or at least most of them. The dead persons relatives can then come pick up their corpse and bury it as they see fit.

The Bargain Basement Mummification Special:

The body is cleaned out by enema, soaked in natron, and returned to its rightful owners.
I have made light of some of the procedures the ancient Egyptians used to preserve their dead. Make no mistake, however, it was no joke to them. It was a matter of completely ceasing to exist versus being able to live on in the afterlife with King Osiris.

Also note that while the mummification process was taking place, there were numerous rituals, prayers, and ceremonies that went along with it. Perhaps I will cover some of those in a future post.

References: Herodotus - The Histories - and my brain, or what’s left of it.