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Ancient Egypt is probably best known for three things: the pyramids, the Great Sphinx, and mummies. Since the pyramids and the Great Sphinx are not easily moved, this means that museum displays about Ancient Egypt often feature mummies. In addition, public interest in mummies has led to many movies and television programs about them. Unfortunately, a lot of information presented by the popular media doesn’t really tell the whole story.

Mummy 1

Religious Context:

Central to the Egyptian beliefs regarding life after death were Isis and Osiris. Isis and Osiris (brother and sister; wife and husband) descended to earth in order to civilize Egypt. Osiris taught the world how to be civilized while Isis kept her evil brother Seth in check. Seth tricked Osiris into climbing into the box that became his coffin. Seth then nailed the coffin shut and threw it into the Nile River. Osiris thus died and his coffin eventually ended up in Byblos. Isis journeyed to Byblos and recovered her husband/brother’s body so that it could be returned to Egypt for burial.

Isis 1


After Isis returned to Egypt with the body of Osiris, Seth managed to obtain the body and hacked it into 13 pieces. He then scattered them over the Nile. Isis and her sister Nephthys managed to find all of the pieces except for the phallus which had been eaten by a fish. They reassembled the body, constructing a prosthetic phallus. Isis then breathed life into Osiris and he became the first person to be resurrected. Osiris thus became the god of the dead.

Isis 2

Among ancient Egyptians it was extremely important to be buried in Egypt. Thus, while Egypt waged wars in the Levant, they never established colonies because no one wished to die outside of Egypt.

Mummification Background:

The Egyptians mummified bodies for about 3,000 years. During this time they made great advances in the science and art of mummification. Mummification started as a natural process: bodies were buried in the desert sands and became naturally mummified. Egypt’s air and soil were excellent preservatives and the naturally mummified bodies of the ancient dead gave the Egyptians the idea of helping the process along with artificial means.

During the Predynastic Period (2950 to 2575 BCE), Egyptian kings were buried in mastabas (underground burial chambers made from stone and/or mud brick) which meant that the bodies were not longer subject to natural mummification. By the time of the Old Kingdom (2575 to 2134 BCE), mummification had become more formalized, particularly for royalty.

During the Old Kingdom, mummies were more like statues than preserved bodies. The bandages were coated with plaster and the faces were painted on. During the Middle Kingdom (2940 to 1640 BCE), the embalmers began using natural salts to remove moisture from the bodies. The mummies were also ritualistically bathed with oils and perfumes.

In the 21st Dynasty (which began in 1070 BCE), the mummification process reached its peak. By this time, the embalmers had perfected the technique of opening a small slit in the left side of the abdomen through which they removed the internal organs except for the heart. These were placed in canopic jars. The brains were pulled out through the nose and then discarded as they were thought to be useless.

The Process of Mummification:

The emptied body was covered in natron, a form of salt. Natron is a natural compound of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate. This speeded up dehydration and prevented decomposition. Natron dries the body up faster than desert sand, thus preserving the body better. Natron was also packed inside the abdominal cavity. AApproximately 400 pounds of natron was used to cover the exterior of the body.

According to one Egyptian papyrus the body stayed in the natron for 35 days. This was known as the place of cleansing. Then, on the 46th day after death the bandaging took place.

The body was wrapped with strips of white linen that protected the body from being damaged. These strips of linen were torn from the bed linens of the deceased. Often finger and toe protectors were placed over the mummy's fingers and toes to prevent breakage. In some instances, additional pads of linen were used to fill out sunken areas in the body which had occurred from the desiccating procedures of embalmment. The body was then wrapped in a sheet of canvas to further protect it.

Frankincense was place in the head and myrrh was placed in the body. These helped to dehydrate the body and to keep it from smelling.

Many sacred charms & amulets were placed in and around the mummy and the wrappings. This was meant to protect the mummy from harm.

Once the body had been wrapped and placed in the coffin, a liquid preparation of resin or pitch was poured over the wrappings and coffin. This may have been a form of ceremonial anointing or it may have been intended to preserve the body. In some cases, the pitch fused the tissues or it produced a chemical reaction in which the flesh was consumed.

Seventy days after death the body would be placed in the tomb.

The Embalmers:

The embalmers were known as the Men of Anubis. Anubis is the jackal-headed god who is shown as a man with a jackal’s head. Jackals were associated with the dead (their digestive systems prefer rotting meat) and so they would prowl the cemeteries looking for something to eat. Thus they became associated with embalming.

Anubis 1

The embalmers had broad responsibilities that went beyond simply preparing the corpse for entombment. The embalmers were also responsible for tomb maintenance. They were in charge of sealing the tomb once the body was inside and keeping track of tomb ownership.

Embalmers belonged to specific families and each family took responsibility for embalming the people within a particular area.  

Anubis 2

Originally posted on Street Prophets

Originally posted to Ojibwa on Sun Dec 26, 2010 at 07:42 AM PST.

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