My interest in Egyptology began on a forbidden note. I was eleven and a snooty relative of mine had a whole array of beautiful volumes on Ancient Egypt that I was expressly forbidden to even touch. Naturally, I didn’t just touch, I read them all from end to end. I was fascinated. Particularly by the Mummies and the whole mummification process. I remember standing in front of the mirror, carefully inserting a thin hooked wire up my nose, just to see what it felt like. What are you doing, demanded my mother coming upon me. Extracting my brain, I said.
The Ancient Egyptians were smarter than me. They didn’t undergo such experiments until they were dead.
However, the Egyptians were perhaps unique in the Ancient World in making the necessary preparations a long way before. Theirs was a morbid culture preoccupied with impending death and the after-life. Except for the very poor and the enslaved, probably everyone had an upcoming grave in the works. I wonder what went through their mind. I mean, what did it feel like to wake up and look out the window and see your pyramid coming up in the distance? What did they think? Oh, what a beautiful morning, and I must ask them to make the top portion more pointed?
The Egyptian process of embalming their dead, which is known as Mummification, developed over many centuries, possibly before 4000 B.C. It is likely that the idea came from a previous tradition of simply burying the dead in sandy desert pits, where, dehydrating from the hot, dry atmosphere, the bodies became transformed into life-like ‘mummies’. This was a preferred state, give the Egyptian belief in the body rising again in the After Life – how was a person to thrive in the After Life if his body wasn’t in a good enough condition? Later, when they began the practice of burying their dead in coffins, they found that, since the body tended to decay without a direct contact with the sand, an artificial method of preserving it was needed.
The process they finally perfected, after many trials and errors no doubt, was a long one needing around seventy days for completion.
Soon after a person died his body was turned over to the Professional Embalmers, usually trained Priests, who set about to working on it either in a tent that was called ‘Ibu’ or ‘Place of Purification’, or in a ‘Wabet’ or workshop on the outskirts of town. Since the Egyptian God Anubis was considered the Patron of the Mummification Process and moreover was supposed to greet the departed soul in the After Life, the Chief Embalmer wore an Anubis Mask in his honor – it was also in supplication in case the departed soul, waiting for his body to follow, decided he didn’t like the way it had been cut and came back to haunt the cutters; with his mask having overlooked the procedure, Anubis, of course, wouldn’t let him/her be so vengeful.
First the body was thoroughly washed and cleansed with water and scented palm wine, and then an incision was made in the left side of the abdomen, just below the ribs, in order to remove the internal organs. This was necessary to delay decomposition.
The organs removed in this manner were the liver, the lungs, the stomach, and the intestines. Not the heart, which the Egyptians considered as central to Intelligence and Feeling and therefore not to be trifled with – possibly it could be put to better use in the After Years than it had ever been in this life.
The Egyptians had no use for the brains, however. These were extracted piece by piece by pushing a wire up the nose and pounding around, and then simply thrown away.
After removal, the internal organs that were retained were each washed in turn and each separately packed in a natural salt known as Natron. The body and the body cavity, into which resin had been poured, were similarly packed with Natron.
After forty days, when the body and organs had sufficiently dehydrated, the Embalmers returned to work. Once again the body was bathed and this time massaged with perfumed oils for both the obvious reason and to preserve the skin in a leathery condition. The internal organs in earlier days were wrapped in linen and put in wood or stone jars that were shaped to resemble the deity of each particular organ – Imsety, a human-headed god, to preserve the liver; Hapy, a baboon-headed god, for the lungs; Duamutef, a jackal-headed god, for the stomach, and; Qebehsenuef, a falcon-headed god, for the intestines. But later on, linen-wrapped, the internal organs came to be placed back inside the body cavity. The God-headed jars, however, remained in symbolic vogue.
The body was then stuffed with sawdust, leaves, spices, and linen, and underwent another oil anointment.
Now it was time to wrap the Mummy. A Priest was summoned to chant spells all the while that this was being done; it was supposed to ward off evil spirits and facilitate the journey into the After Life. Possibly it provided some unintended psychological relief to the Embalmers as well. They began wrapping from top down, starting with the head and neck, using strips of fine linen – your social position dictated the fineness of the linen. The finger and toes, the arms and legs, were then wrapped, each in their individual turn. The abdomen after that. Several linen layers followed the first, each being coated with a resin application to bind them all together, and in between the layers were placed amulets like the ‘Isis Knot Amulet’ and the ‘Plummet Amulet’, with protective powers to see the person safe into the next life and keep him or her sane and balanced there. After several layers, the arms and legs were tied together and a papyrus scroll bearing spells from the Book of Dead was placed between the wrapped hands. This was followed by many more layers of resin-covered linen. A single large sheet was wrapped about the body then and painted with a likeness of the Egyptian God Osiris. This was followed by another sheet that was tied all around with strips of linen. The mummy was now placed into a coffin. A portrait of the deceased, as they had looked in life, had by this time been executed on a wooden board and this was now placed on top of the coffined mummy – to ensure correct identity after crossing the bar, I guess. The first coffin was then placed inside a second one and this sometimes into a third.
Now the Mummy was ready to depart to the previously readied tomb, together with an assortment of food, clothing, and valuables thought necessary for the future. A farewell ceremonial ritual called ‘the Opening of the Mouth’ was performed. This was done in order to allow the deceased to eat and drink again.