Mummification first occurred as a natural effect in Predynastic burials. Heat and the aridity of the sand often served to dry out the body enough that it was preserved. Presumably the early Egyptians first became aware that this was happening because of shifting sands exposing older burials. Once it became known that bodies can be preserved from decay, it must have made a strong impression on them.
The practice of wrapping the body in strips of linen and the use of coffins both began a little later in the Predynastic period, specifically in the second Naqada phase. At present, we cannot determine what these developments meant theologically, but it was a period in which social stratification rose and a variety of experiments were carried out in the funerary sphere.
The construction of tombs in the late Predynastic created an unexpected problem. Tombs, which are cool inside and potentially damp, do nothing to foster the kind of natural mummification that had occurred in sandpit graves. Somehow the Egyptians came to realize this, and it forced them to begin looking for a way to do artificially what had previously happened naturally.
Progress during the Old Kingdom was slow; few successful mummies have been found. The tomb of Queen Hetepheres contained a box for the viscera, demonstrating that as early as the beginning of the Fourth Dynasty, the Egyptians had begun to remove the internal organs. This is an important step, as they are among the first portions of the body to decay. Even so, the preservation techniques of the Old Kingdom were unreliable, and to compensate, more effort was spent on giving a lifelike appearance to the mummy. The wrapping process became so detailed that each finger and toe was wrapped separately. In many cases a plaster-like substance called cartonnage was applied to the surface, especially around the face, and the wrappings were then painted to represent the image of the deceased. This was not vanity, but a consequence of Egyptian magical thinking: if the body could not effectively be preserved, then as lifelike a substitute as possible would be provided.
The Middle Kingdom brought more satisfactory results, especially with the innovation of removing the brain. As the brain is composed primarily of fatty tissue, and it begins to decay very quickly, this was another important step. By the New Kingdom, the embalmers of Egypt had become very good at their craft, which had attained its classic form.
The entire process of mummification took about 70 days. It began with a very thorough washing of the body, along with the use of aromatic oils. The next step was the removal of the brain, which was usually effected by pulling it out piecemeal through the nose with long metal hooks. After that, the intestines, stomach, liver and lungs were removed and stored separately for burial. These high-risk body parts were placed in Canopic Jars, each under the specific protection of one of the Sons of Horus: Hapy, Imsety, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef. The heart, which was viewed as the core of the body and the seat of thought and emotion, was too important to be separated from the body. This was not a problem, however, as the heart is comprised of muscle tissue. It was removed, dried separately, wrapped separately, and then placed back inside the chest during the packing phase.
When the body cavity was emptied and cleaned, the desiccation process began. This is still imperfectly understood, but it is believed that the body was covered with a desert salt called natron and allowed to sit until the corpse was quite dry. Once again, the body was anointed with oils and unguents, some of which served to soften the dried skin before packing. During the packing process, the heart was returned to the body cavity, which was then filled with other materials from linen rolls to sweet-smelling vegetable products to small amulets. The eyes, which had collapsed during drying, were given a substitute, such as onions. Sometimes padding was introduced under the skin to make a sunken surface seem more lifelike.
Then the wrapping process began. It was extensive, with even the toes requiring separate treatment, but it also included opportunities to fortify the mummy with amulets and spells for its protection. The mummy was generally completed with a mask of some kind, from the early cartonnage masks to the great golden masks of New Kingdom pharaohs, as demonstrated by the mummy of Tutankhamun. The average mummy generally had its arms positioned along the sides of the body. Royal women had one arm laid across the chest; the classic image of both arms crossed in front of the chest was the prerogative of the pharaoh. The body was then placed in its coffin or coffins and dragged in the funereal procession to the tomb.
Mummification was believed to be important for the well-being of the person in the afterlife. To understand this, one must first consider that the Egyptian conception of the components of the human person was more complex than ours. We tend to think in binary terms of body and soul. The Egyptians saw several additional components; even a person’s name was an intrinsic part of his being. What is most relevant here, though, is the role of the Ka. The Egyptians had two forces that are sometimes compared with our word “soul.” One of these, the Ba, represents the active side of a person’s spirit. That is the part that can go out into the world and work his will. The other, the Ka, is more of a sustaining force; it must be fed so that it can maintain its strength, and thereby preserve the essence of the person. The Ka could derive sustenance from offerings of food from the living; or from food that is magically given, such as by images of food offerings painted on the tomb walls.
In order for the Ka to do its part, however, it needs to be housed. It is not like the Ba, free to go where it will; during life, it lives in the body, and if the body is well-preserved, it can continue to live there after death. A botched mummification, or even the loss of the body, does not necessarily mean that the Ka is homeless and must die, however. The Ka can take refuge in an image of the person, such as in a statue placed inside the tomb. Still, the Egyptians were very cautious, and they did not care to depend upon a statue as a home for their Kas if they could possibly preserve their own body as the primary home. Redundancy was a valuable characteristic, and moreover, they tried as much as possible to look after the overall integrity of all of the components of their person after death.
Finally, the rise of the cult of Osiris gave another meaning to the process of mummification. Osiris is one of the very old gods of Egypt, but like nearly all of them he started out as a local god and gradually attained national prominence, first as the protector of the dead kings and only later as a protector of all of the blessed dead. That transition is more or less coterminous with what is often called the “democratization” of the Afterlife. At the end of the Old Kingdom, and through the First Intermediate Period, the Pyramid Texts that gave magical protection to the spirit of the king on his journey to the Afterlife became the Coffin Texts that might accompany any Egyptian who could afford to have his body mummified and to have the spells inscribed on his coffin. By the New Kingdom, with the Book of the Dead that replaced the Coffin Texts, a new dimension to mummification had become clear: the dead person became identified with Osiris. Osiris was the first to be mummified, under the combined efforts of Anubis and Thoth. When Thoth completed the spell that became the Opening of the Mouth, Osiris could live again. The extension of mummification and its attendant spells to mankind offered the opportunity to share in the miracle of Osiris; it is for this reason that in the Book of the Dead, the deceased is typically identified as “the Osiris (personal name).”
It is characteristic of Egyptian culture that both explanations for mummification, that of preserving a home for the Ka and that of participating in the mysteries of Osiris, should be maintained side by side. New ideas do not displace old ones; they merely enrich the range of possibility. Mummification certainly demonstrated this kind of cultural richness, but one final observation must be made: in the end, mummification was not an embrace of death, but an affirmation of life. The Egyptian treasured life so much that he was prepared to do anything he could to ensure that “life” could go on after death.
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