Robert Kastenbaum. Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. Volume 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2002.
The word mummy comes from a procedure often used by families in the Middle East to prepare a corpse for burial. During this procedure, the body is washed and then wrapped in strips of linen. To secure and protect this wrapping, a coating of Bitumen tar—also known as mum—may be applied. The effectiveness of this substance has been demonstrated in its preservation of extinct animals for long periods of time, as exemplified by the La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles. “Ice mummy” has also become a familiar term as both human and animal corpses have been discovered in a state of remarkable preservation.
It is this apparent resistance to decay that has made the mummy such a compelling object, whether achieved by technical knowledge and skill or by circumstance and whether intended or unintended (as were the ice mummies). There has long been a widespread aversion to the sight and smell of a decaying body, as well as the fear that one can be contaminated by contact with the dead. A corpse that appears intact, and even lifelike, deflects these anxieties. The mummified corpse also stimulates curiosity: What secret knowledge might be discovered, what elusive mysteries brought to light? And—for those not afraid to ask—can the mummy walk again?
Mummies have been most closely associated with Egypt ever since ancient tombs were opened in a continuing series of archeological discoveries (preceded by centuries of grave looting and destruction). There is good reason for this emphasis. The numbers alone are striking: Researchers estimate that about 70 million people were mummified in Egypt in addition to a large number of animals. The spectacular nature of the royal chambers and the remarkable condition of some of the mummies have well deserved their attention. Moreover, scholars have provided invaluable information about the ancient world through their studies of mummies, their surroundings, and their artifacts. The story ofmummies, though, neither begins nor ends with the Egyptians. Attention is given to mummies in other times and places after visiting the ancient dynasties that flourished by the banks of the Nile.
The Egyptian Way of Life and Death
Egypt’s large and largely arid land has been populated for at least a half million years. Drought, disease, and other hardships required a determined communal effort for survival as well as ingenuity in problem solving and a viable belief system. Death was an insistent part of everyday experience (the average life expectancy has been estimated as not much more than twenty years). Nothing was more predictable than the rising of the sun, the flooding of the Nile, and the transformation from life to death. About 7,000 years ago the Egyptians started to create a civilization that was a marvel in its own time and a source of inspiration to the present day. Astronomy, mathematics, engineering, and the healing, cosmetic, and textile arts were all brought to a new level. With every advance in their civilization the Egyptians brought additional skill, finesse, and grandeur to their dealings with death, their ancient nemesis.
The art of mummification underwent its own lengthy period of development. A small and hard-pressed population functioning on the edge of survival could only dig resting places for their dead in the dry desert sands. The historian Bob Brier noted, “Because these graves were shallow, on occasion the sand would blow away to reveal the shocking sight of a dead body that had retained its flesh and hair—a still-recognizable individual” (Brier 1996, p. 19). The lack of moisture in the parched sands was responsible for the preservation of the general shape and features of the deceased. Extremely dry and extremely cold conditions both inhibit the bacterial activity that usually consumes flesh and organs.
Belief in some form of afterlife was widespread in the ancient world. The Egyptians’ encounters with sand-dried corpses might have influenced their particular beliefs and practices regarding the afterlife. Although mummification is the most striking feature of the Egyptian way of death, it draws its meaning from a more encompassing view of the world. Both beliefs and practices continued to evolve over the long span of Egyptian history. The Predynastic period dates from approximately 5,000 years before the Common Era. The Egyptian nation came into existence about 2,000 years later during what is known as the Archaic period. Egyptian history has been divided into many other phases, but it is the Old Kingdom (starting about 2660 B.C.E.) and the New Kingdom (about 1500 B.C.E.) that are of most interest to the discussion of mummification. Pyramids were built and bodies mummified in the Old Kingdom, but the sands of time (along with many acts of vandalism and looting) have left only scattered and often enigmatic traces of the civilization. Also, mummification techniques were not as effective in the earliest years. Nevertheless, some elements of the most ancient beliefs and customs have survived within writings, illustrations, and wall paintings from the New Kingdom.
Remarkable survivors from the past are five sets of documents that reveal much about the ways in which Egyptians conceived of death and the afterlife. Most renown of these documents is a work whose title was originally translated asBook of the Dead, but which has had its more accurate title restored, Book of Going Forth by Day. The other documents are The Pyramid Texts, The Coffin Texts, The Books of Breathing, and The New Kingdom Books of the Netherworld.Earliest of these is The Pyramid Texts that were found in the tombs of Old Kingdom kings and queens (though not the whole remains of the royal personages themselves). The Pyramid Texts consists of 227 magical spells to help the deceased Pharaoh ruler to pass through the various checkpoints in the postmortem journey. It was not for the common person, nor was it an explicit statement of religious principles.
One idea embodied in The Pyramid Texts has especially impressed later historians and theologians: The dead will be judged. In fact, all the dead will be judged, even the mighty Pharaoh who judged others. The history of religion scholar S. G. F. Brandon credits the ancient Egyptians with introducing and elaborating the belief that how a person has lived will have a profound effect on the afterlife. Christian concepts of faith, good works, salvation, and damnation were yet to come, but the Egyptians had made the basic link between the quality of life and afterlife. These early texts, though, are guides not to a higher level of morality but to strategies for negotiating the perilous passage to the netherworld. The flourishing New Kingdom society provided elaborate funerals for its most illustrious people. These rituals offered channels for expressions of grief and mourning and affirmed the power of the family line—but also launched the departing soul on its journey with all the right moves. Specialists in funerals, tomb construction and decoration, and mummification were valued members of society, as were the priests with their incantations and gestures.
Inspiring and justifying all these practices were two myths that each contributed to a view of the afterlife. Osiris was revered as the person who showed the Egyptians how to create their great civilization, but his murdered corpse was hewn into many pieces. Through heroic efforts, his wife (or sister-wife) Isis put him back together again. This myth has been interpreted as a fertility and renewal symbol: Life passes into death, but from death life emerges anew. Egyptologists have noted that the Osiris myth emphasizes the importance of an intact corpse, and that their funerary art often depicted this mythological figure. The other myth centers around Atum-Re, a local god who was closely associated with the life-giving force of the sun. The pharaohs were the incarnated sons of Atum-Re and would rejoin him in the skies at the end of their days on the earth.
The corpse was regarded as more than a lifeless body. It included several spiritual forces or entities. The ka was a spirit-twin that accompanied the person throughout life and, surviving death, preserved individual identity. It remained within a ka statue created in the likeness of the living person. In turn, the ka needed to be fed and looked after by mortuary attendants. The ba, often represented as a soul-bird, lingered in the vicinity of the corpse as a faithful companion. If all went well with the funeral ritual and mummification, the deceased would achieve the status of an akh (translated by Brandon as “glorified being”). The rules for achieving a glorified afterlife were not quite the same for royalty and commoners: Other affluent members of society benefited from quality mummification and other funerary amenities, while the general population had to make do with much simpler arrangements and with less expert mummification procedures.
The Making and Unmaking of Mummies
Transforming a royal corpse into a mummy in the New Kingdom period involved the following actions, many or all of which would be accompanied by prayers and magic spells:
- Remove the internal organs by incision and pull the brain through the nostrils on an iron hook.
- Replace the heart with the carved replica of a scarab (the dung-beetle, symbolizing the recycling transactions between life and death).
- Rinse the body cavity with palm wine.
- Reshape face and body as necessary to repair damages caused by the final illness.
- Place aromatic substances within the body, sew it up, cover with “divine salts” and allow seventy days for drying and other preparations.
- Wash the body, wrap in undercoated linen sheets, draw facial features in ink to recreate the appearance of the living person.
- Place in a tapered coffin and the coffin into a sarcophagus (stone vessel).
- Add objects that could be useful to the deceased in the next life.
- Seal the tomb.
The results were sometimes magnificent. Even so, the preserved body itself was but a shell in artistic disguise. Lacking internal parts, there was no way the mummy could walk again, and the Egyptians did not have this expectation. The mummy was part of a spirit communication system, not a dead person waiting to be resuscitated.
Mummies could also be unmade. Some attempts at mummification failed. Looters destroyed many presumably successful mummies in ancient times. Royal remains were often removed from their original lodgings for safekeeping, but some nevertheless became casualties. The slaughter of the mummies began in earnest as tombs were discovered and their contents plundered by outsiders. Mummies were powdered into medicines that were sure to cure what ailed the medieval person, or so the alchemists promised. Bits of mummy remains also had commercial value as relics. Wholesale destruction of mummies occurred during the heyday of European colonialism and the Industrial Revolution. Showing no regard for religious belief or history, exploiters consigned thousands of mummies into the flames as fuel for the railroads, or held mummy unwrapping parties that destroyed the remains. Even a museum official casually tossed away a preserved arm from the Old Kingdom, in all likelihood the most ancient mummy part ever discovered. Fortunately, some of the most illustrious tombs were not unearthed until a more responsible attitude had developed in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Mummies As Frozen Time
Mummies are far from an Egyptian exclusive. As with the pharaohs, however, every mummy, wherever found, has the potential for revealing something about the ways in which people have lived and died. The ancient people of Chile, for example, developed complex mummification techniques at least 2,000 years before the Egyptians. These mummies were notable for having no tooth decay, a finding that is thought to be related to their diet as foragers. Researchers were also able to determine that there were clear divisions of labor in the society, gender-related and otherwise. Laborers, for example, had more skeletal distortion than did priests.
Discoveries in the towering and icy peaks of the Andes have added substantially to scientists’ knowledge of past societies. Ceremonial sites have been excavated on mountain peaks from central Chile to southern Peru. Here chilling discoveries were made: the mummies of Inca children—by the hundreds—who were sacrificed to the mountain gods and their supreme deity, the sun. There is one obvious similarity to the Egyptians: the belief in a sun god. The differences, though, are profound. These were children put to death in order to placate the gods and therefore receive rain, bountiful crops, and protection from disasters.
These human sacrifices occurred in relatively modern times, only 500 years ago. In September 1995, anthropologist Johan Reinhard discovered 18,000 feet high atop Mount Ampato a fourteen-year-old girl whose body was accompanied by gold and silver dolls. The remarkable state of preservation was attributed to the freezing temperatures and high altitude. The life of the “Ice Maiden,” as she has been called, was almost surely offered to the gods. The relationship, if any, between the Inca practices and those of Chileans almost 8,000 years ago remains to be determined.
Archeologists and anthropologists could add that ice is also sufficient for preservation. Notable discoveries of ice mummies have been made in other places. For example, at about the same time that Incan priests were sacrificing children on mountaintops, the Inuit were burying six women and two children in a small settlement on the west coast of Greenland. As the anthropologist Hart Peder Hensen and his colleagues reported in The Greenland Mummies (1991), the deceased were provided with warm clothing and useful items for their journey to the land of the dead. The cold terrain and the dry air had preserved their bodies until they were discovered in the twentieth century. The relatively intact bodies and their undisturbed burial hut have enriched sociologists’ understanding of Inuit history and culture (for example, people living in the rigors of the extreme north were up-to-date in European fashions and also dressed their children as miniatures of adults). It is clear that the same form of mummification—in this case, freezing—can occur within situations as different as ritual murder and loving farewell.
Researchers are still studying and learning from the highly publicized Ice Man (also known as Otzi), whose mummified body was discovered in a glacier in the Otztaler Alps on the Austrian-Italian border in 1991. Remarkably well preserved, Otzi was a Neolithic hunter more than 5,000 years ago. The exceptional condition of the permafrostprotected corpse, his clothing, and his tools has provided scientists with invaluable information about the Neolithic way of life, although not necessarily about their way of death, since the Ice Man died while apparently on a hunting expedition. Konrad Spindler’sThe Man in the Ice (1994) is a major contribution for readers who want to explore mummies and mummification beyond the Egyptian Valley of the Kings.
The Mummies of Urumchi tells still another story. The earliest of these mummies are contemporaneous with the most renowned Egyptian examples from the New Kingdom period, but even better preserved. The people are Caucasian, tall, blond, and apparently blue-eyed. They are dressed in brightly colored woolen clothing and high-peaked hats. The surprise is their place of death: the desert wilderness of China’s Uyghur Autonomous Region. Controversy immediately engulfed this discovery: Was it possible that 4,000 years ago the people of China included Caucasians who were sporting the most advanced textiles? Does world history have to be rewritten to accommodate this find? Anthropologist Elizabeth Wayland Barber makes a strong case for the proposition that many great people migrated across Europe and Asia during the Bronze Age, bringing a variety of skills with them. Furthermore, what has long been a desert may once have been fertile land.
Every now and then mummies return from various times and places. Peat bogs in Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands have reluctantly yielded their cache of bodies— some deposited there as long as 6,000 years ago. The cool, damp soil, perhaps with the help of a tanning action, seems responsible for the preservation. The deaths themselves often seem to have been caused by murder, perhaps ritualistic.
Attempts to protect a corpse from deterioration have also been motivated by the reluctance to let go of a beloved or powerful person. For example, the body of Suzanne Curchod was preserved in alcohol by her loving husband, a minister under France’s Louis XVI, to honor her wishes to remain near him. As early as the eighteenth century suggestions were made to vitrify the more notable dead, transforming them into a kind of stone-glass. As the French sociologist Philippe Ariès observes, both the actual and the proposed acts of preservation were in accord with the spirit of the times. Even the halls of academia have surrendered to the impulse. When death claimed Jeremy Bentham, a trenchant social philosopher whose writings have remained influential over the years, his colleagues at University of London had him mummified and placed in a closet. Legend has it that he has been invited as honored guest to attend occasional faculty meetings.
An ironic attempt at mummification occurred following the death of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, in 1924. The Bolshevik party, seeking complete domination, tried to replace religion with its own version of science. Before long, though, the secret police virtually kidnapped physicians and required them to mummify the fallen leader. This endeavor proved to be a tragicomedy as described by the biochemist Ilya Zbarsky in Lenin’s Embalmers (1997). The political imperative that Lenin’s body appear intact and robust was at odds with its condition when physicians were summoned to the task, and they had no effective procedures at hand. Trial-and-error ingenuity was required to create the desired but misleading impression that a high quality of mummification had been achieved. Despite all of the medical advances made since the New Kingdom, there had also been a loss of knowledge specific to mummification. Lenin’s embalmers did what they could to make a sacred icon of his body while party officials twisted in anxiety. The desire to preserve the remains of a powerful person had persisted from the sun god worshippers of ancient times to a modern society whose leaders were determined to get along without any gods at all.
In the twenty-first century mummies continue to hold interest to researchers for what they can reveal of history, illness, and past ways of life. They are also subjects of ethical and legal disputes as part of the general concern about the proper treatment of human remains. Perhaps more attention could be given to the simple fact that so much loving and often creative attention has been given by the living to those who have passed on.