Observations on the topic of mummification in ancient Egypt By Anthony Holmes Mummification, the art of preserving a body, is a defining element of ancient Egyptian civilization. Mummification differs from the science of embalming. The latter is defined as delaying decomposition to keep the corpse looking natural. The traditional Egyptian mummy, swathed in bandages, is a far cry from an embalmed lifelike body such as that of Vladimir Lenin. However the two terms have become intertwined and are used interchangeably, even by experts.
We have learnt that the word ‘mummy’ is derived from ‘mummia’, a bituminous resin found in ancient Persia; however ‘mummy’ is a relatively modern term. Apparently “mummia”was not used in mummification, but when mummies were discovered covered with dark plant resin it was assumed “mummia” played a role and the term mummification was coined.
There are two elements to mummification, the physical process and the religious symbolism. The physical process was a secretive art. Our knowledge is derived from ‘reverse engineering’ of the mummies that survived. Information has been derived from the experiment in modern mummification conducted by Robert Brier. The recent discovery by Otto Schaden of KV63, the “embalmers’ cache”, has also helped to shed light on the subject. It is thought that shortly after death the body was taken to a place of purification (ibw), probably a tent on hill where the wind would blow the smell away. The brain was ‘liquefied’ by using a hook inserted through the nostrils and rotated like a whisk. The body was turned upside down and the brain matter drained out and discarded. The cranium was cleaned by inserting strips of linen through the nasal cavity and swabbing the inside of the cranium. The body was washed in a natron solution. Natron is a naturally occurring salt of sodium carbonate and sodium bi-carbonate. A 10cm incision was made in the side of the corpse using an obsidian knife (sharper than modern day steel scalpels!). The internal organs were removed through the incision. The organs were cleaned, dried, wrapped and placed in four canopic jars. Four deities were assigned for the protection of the organs: Qebehsenuf (intestines); Hapy (lungs); Duamutef (stomach) and Imseti (liver). The clean cranial space was filled with resin. The eviscerated body cavity was cleaned with palm wine and packed with small bags of natron crystals and of wheat chaff. The body was covered in natron salt crystals above and below until it was desiccated. About 250 kilograms of natron were used for a single body.
After 35 days the body was dry, but still slightly flexible. The natron was removed and the body was moved to the house of beauty (pr nfr) where it was placed on blocks and carefully bandaged with linen strips and coated with resin. Particular care was taken with the fingers and toes. Amulets and spells were bound into the wrapping to give the body magical protection. The mummy was placed in its coffin, sometimes with a mask and garlands of flowers and herbs. The entire process of mummification took seventy days.
The religious symbolism may have stemmed from the mythological story of Osiris who was murdered by his brother Seth. In a depraved act Seth cut his brother’s body into several parts and distributed them over Egypt. Osiris’s sister/wife Isis searched until she found the pieces of her husband’s body and had the body reassembled and bound together using strips of linen. Using an act of powerful magic, Osiris was resurrected and granted the power to impregnate his wife Isis. She bore a son named Horus and Osiris returned to the state of death. He entered the afterlife and became Lord of the Dead. The myth describing Osiris’s re-assembly and resurrection is believed to be the foundation for the practice of mummification. Osiris was allocated the star constellation of Orion and his wife Isis was identified with the bright star Sirius. Sirius is absent from the night sky for precisely seventy days every year as it dips below the Egyptian horizon. The bright star’s reappearance coincided with the start of the Nile flood and the period of the rebirth of the seasons. Perhaps Isis’s seventy day absence was the basis for the time allocated to mummification.
Mummification was initially reserved for royalty, but over the centuries nobles and common folk who could afford it were also mummified. Some of the mummies that survived are incredibly well preserved and are providing a source of DNA for scientists engaged in unravelling the complex relationships of the royal families.
Let us now ask the obvious questions: Why did the ancient Egyptians mummify their dead? Was it because they believed in the resurrection of the dead? Regrettably we only have theory and supposition to guide us. There is as yet no documentation that satisfactorily answers the questions. The most quoted answer is: “Bodies buried in the hot dry sand of the Egyptian desert were naturally desiccated but when burials began to take place in tombs, the bodies decomposed. Mummification was introduced to replace what had occurred naturally in the past.” In a recent article in the excellent journal ‘Ancient Egypt’ (Jan 2010), the editor Bob Partridge, makes a compelling case for the theory that mummification was essentially used to gain sufficient time for the deceased’s tomb to be completed. Mummification was instituted in order to preserve the body in an acceptable state for interment once the tomb was complete. One has to ask why the process was so complex if it was merely used for keeping the corpse from decomposing too soon. Partridge also questions the traditional view of the cause/effect relationship between the necessary practice of delaying decomposition in order to complete the tomb and the religious associations with mummification that may only have come about subsequently.
I have researched mummification from the religious perspective and conventional wisdom states the following as the religious reason for mummification:
“Preservation of the body was essential. Without the body, the "Ka" could not return to find sustenance, and if the body decayed and was unrecognisable the “Ka” would go hungry and the afterlife of the deceased would be jeopardised. Mummification was therefore dedicated to the prevention of decay.” There is a second theory containing a similar explanation:
“The Ka, Ba and Akh, elements of the soul, were believed to be perishable and at great risk. The tomb, the whole process of mummification, the rituals and magic spells ensured the preservation of the dead body and its Ka, Ba and Akh. The purpose of mummification was implemented to keep the soul alive and ensure a clear path to the afterlife.” These answers have become accepted without much debate, but they deserve further scrutiny. It appears (with certain variations) the ancient Egyptians believed humans comprised seven elements:
Kha The mortal body that eventually died.
Ka The Immortal Spiritual Double, born at the same time and spiritually associated with the placenta. The Ka was separated from the Kha at death.
Ib The Heart, portrayed as a vessel that held the deeds of a lifetime.
Sah The Spirit-body of the deceased destined to become the glorified spirit (the Akh).
Ba The Immortal Spirit of Intelligence, portrayed as a bird with a human head. At death it moved to a new-born infant and thereby accumulated the wisdom of several lifetimes.
Ren The Name of the deceased. The Ka was invigorated when the name was spoken favourably by a living person.
Khaibit The Shadow. Once the mummy was entombed the Khaibit ceased to exist.
The mystical element called the Akh, closely allied to the concept of a soul, appeared after the successful trial of the deceased.
Akh The immortal spirit (soul) created when the deceased received favourable judgement. The Sah was transformed into the Akh and took the heart (Ib) to eternity. In the reign of Pharaoh Djoser (approx 2600BC) the Akh was believed to join the stars around the North Celestial Pole, (the imperishable ones). In the New Kingdom about 1200 years later, the Akh was destined to ride with Ra in the solar barque. 1400 years later with the advent of Christianity came the belief that a pure soul entered Heaven. The introduction of Islam about 600AD brought with it the concept of an afterlife spent in Paradise.
So what were the ancient Egyptians trying to achieve with mummification? Of the seven elements of the body, three remained after death; the name (Ren), the body (Kha) and the immortal double (Ka). The physical heart was often left in the dead body, but the mystical heart vessel, the Ib, was taken to judgement. The name (Ren) of the deceased was protected by being inscribed in a mortuary temple. Providing its name was spoken, the Ka could use spells to transform any painting, model or sculpture into the “real” thing and to enjoy the pleasures of it forever. The Ka could pass through the false door in the tomb to enjoy the afterlife, an existence much like normal life but free from its imperfections. This description does not however, explain the reason for the elaborate process of mummification of the body (Kha).
I have read treatises and listened to lectures on this subject by Egyptologists and read papers, articles and blogs by well-qualified individuals, but I have not come across a well-founded archaeological or Egyptological substantiation for the notion that the Ka needed the mummy in order to survive. The conventional wisdom may well be correct, but it lacks the incontrovertible authority of proof. I have come to the conclusion that the actual reasons for the practice of mummification in ancient Egypt have yet to be revealed.