The ancient Egyptians believed in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. This belief was rooted in what they observed each day. The sun fell into the western horizon each evening and was reborn the next morning in the east. New life sprouted from grains planted in the earth, and the moon waxed and waned. As long as order was maintained, everything was highly dependable and life after death could be achieved provided certain conditions were met. For example, the body had to be preserved through mummification and given a properly furnished tomb with everything needed for life in the afterworld.
Mummification, the preservation of the body, was described in the ancient Pyramid Texts. With the death of Osiris, god of the dead, the cosmos fell into chaos and the tears of the gods turned into materials used to mummify his body. These materials included honey, resins and incense.
Before mummification evolved, the corpse was placed in a sleeping fetal position and put into a pit, along with personal items such as clay pots and jewellery. The pit was covered with sand, which absorbed all the water from the body, thus preserving it. Burial pits were eventually lined with mud bricks and roofed over, and the deceased were wrapped in animal skins or interred in pottery, basket ware or wooden coffins. With these "improvements", decay was hastened because the body no longer came in contact with the hot sand. To solve this problem, the internal organs of the deceased were removed and drying agents were used to mummify the body.
Canopic jars. One of Horus's four sons was represented on the lid of
each jar. The human-headed Imsety looked after the liver; Hapy, a
baboon, guarded the lungs; Duamutef, a jackal, protected the stomach;
and Qebehsenuef, a falcon, cared for the intestines.
Royal Ontario Museum
The practice of mummification began in Egypt in 2400 B.C. and continued into the Graeco-Roman Period. During the Old Kingdom, it was believed that only pharaohs could attain immortality. Around 2000 B.C., attitudes changed, however: everyone could live in the afterworld as long as the body was mummified and the proper elements were placed in the tomb. But since mummification was expensive, only the wealthy were able to take advantage of it. Although mummification was not a strict requirement for resurrection in the next world, it was certainly regarded as a highly desirable means of attaining it. The prayers in the Book of the Dead were intended to help the deceased make a successful transition to the afterlife.
The art of mummification was perfected in the Third Intermediate Period (1070-712 B.C.). Around 450 B.C. (Late Period), the Greek historian Herodotus documented the process:
"As much of the brain as it is possible is extracted through the nostrils with an iron hook, and what the hook cannot reach is dissolved with drugs. Next, the flank is slit open . . . and the entire contents of the abdomen removed. The cavity is then thoroughly cleansed and washed out . . . Then it is filled with pure crushed myrrh, cassia, and all other aromatic substances, except frankincense. [The incision] is sewn up, and then the body is placed in natron, covered entirely for 70 days, never longer. When this period . . . is ended, the body is washed and then wrapped from the head to the feet in linen which has been cut into strips and smeared on the underside with gum which is commonly used by the Egyptians in the place of glue."
Bob Brier, Egyptian Mummies
Natron, a disinfectant and desiccating agent, was the main ingredient used in the mummification process. A compound of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate (salt and baking soda), natron essentially dried out the corpse. Obtained from dried-up river beds, it was packed around and inside the body in linen bags, and left for 35 to 40 days to draw moisture out of the tissues. By removing the organs and packing the internal cavity with dry natron, the body tissues were preserved. The body was filled with Nile mud, sawdust, lichen and cloth scraps to make it more flexible. Small cooking onions or linen pads were sometimes used to replace the eyes. Beginning in the third dynasty, the internal organs (lungs, stomach, liver and intestines) were removed, washed with palm wine and spices, and stored in four separate canopic jars made of limestone, calcite or clay. Prior to this, the abdominal contents were removed, wrapped and buried in the floor of the tomb. However, the heart was left in the body because it was considered the centre of intelligence.
|Materials used in mummification:
(replicas based on examples from the Rijksmuseum, Leiden)
(Royal Ontario Museum 948.1.17)
(Smithsonian Institution 221.389)
The corpse was then washed, wrapped in linen (as many as 35 layers) and soaked in resins and oils. This gave the skin a blackened appearance resembling pitch. The term "mummification" comes from the Arabic word mummiya, which mean bitumen, a pitch substance that was first used in the preservation process during the Late Period. The family of the deceased supplied the burial linen, which was made from old bed sheets or used clothing.
In the Middle Kingdom, it became standard practice to place a mask over the face of the deceased. The majority of these were made of cartonnage (papyrus or linen coated with gesso, a type of plaster), but wood and, in the case of royal mummies, silver and gold, were also used. The most famous mask is Tutankhamun's.
Wood covered with painted gesso
Canadian Museum of Civilization XXIV-C-63
Moulded and painted linen
Royal Ontario Museum 910.15.3
The ancient embalmers used very few tools, and once their work was completed, they sometimes left them in or near the tomb. The basic tool kit included a knife to make the abdominal incision, hooked bronze rods to extract brain matter, a wooden adze-like tool to remove internal organs, and a funnel to pour resins into the cranial cavity through the nose.
The Egyptians mummified animals as well as humans -- everything from bulls and hawks to ichneumons and snakes. Some have been found in large quantities, while others are rare. Many species were raised in the temples to be sacrificed to the gods. Autopsies on cats show that most had had their necks broken when they were about two years old. Cats were highly valued members of the ancient Egyptian household. They destroyed the rats and mice that would otherwise infest granaries, and assisted in hunting birds and fishing. In the nineteenth century, vast quantities of cat mummies were sent to England to be used as fertilizer.
This practice reached its height during the eleventh and twelfth centuries B.C. in Thebes, where the present-day cities of Luxor and Karnak are located. The purpose of mummification was to keep the body intact so it could be transported to a spiritual afterlife.
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