Why did the Egyptians Mummify their Dead?

Jackal-headed Canopic Jar

The word “mummy” comes from an Arabic word that refers to asphalt, which alludes to the black color of the mummified bodies of ancient Egyptians. It was believed that this black color was a result of the corpse being treated with bitumen. We now know that the black color of ancient Egyptian mummies is a result of oils, resins, dirt and age.[1]

Since their rediscovery, in the 19th century, we have learned a great deal about the ancient Egyptians and the reasons they left mummies behind. It is commonly said that the Egyptians mummified their dead to preserve the body for the afterlife, but this is an oversimplification of a very complicated process and a corresponding set of beliefs. The practice of embalming, anointing, wrapping and reciting spells for the dead reflects the sophisticated way in which the Egyptians viewed life, death, and the underworld.


Religious Beliefs about the Human Body and the Afterlife

The ancient Egyptians conceived of the human body as an amalgam of smaller parts including the limbs, organs, blood, bone, hair, et cetera and that this collection of parts constituted a whole, which was the earthly home for the three parts of the soul. These parts were known as the ka, the ba, and the Akh. The Ka was the part of the soul that existed in the living realm, and the Akh was the part of the soul that existed in the land of the dead or the underworld. The Ka and Akh were each a kind of “double” of their host. The Ba, which was often depicted as a bird with the head of the deceased, could travel between the two realms of the living and the dead.[2]

The Ka, the Ba, and the Akh relied upon the body to function effectively in the afterlife.[3] It was necessary for the body to remain whole throughout life and after death, because of the function it served as a home for the parts of the soul.[4] Without a physical meeting point, the parts of the soul would become lost from each other, and the individual would cease to exist.

The Egyptians harbored a deep fear that their physical body would be damaged or disfigured after death. Tomb walls and religious texts feature prayers and spells for protecting the body and guiding the parts of the soul back to the person’s tomb should they get lost or become unable to recognize the body.[5] Essentially, the individual’s eternal afterlife depended on their body's successful preservation so it could be recognized in the afterlife and be reanimated by its soul.

The role of ritual in death and the transition to the afterlife

Egyptian Mummy in Albany Museum Grahamstown

The mummification process involved a great deal of ritual and prayer. It was believed that death was the process of transitioning from the land of the living, a world of suffering and limitations, to the land of the dead, where the deceased (if properly buried) could assume godlike powers including everlasting life and the ability to take any form they choose.[6] Any person who could afford it was mummified.[7]

When a person of great wealth or status died, the process of assisting them in their journey to the afterlife began immediately. The body was transported to the necropolis as a part of a ceremony that constituted a symbolic journey from the land of the living in the east, across the Nile to the land of the dead in the west.[8] When the body arrived on the west bank, it was met by a group of priests and priestesses who informed the gods that the deceased had arrived. Each priest involved played the role of a particular god who received the deceased and participated in their transition to the underworld.[9]

The mummification process

It is important to remember that the practice of mummification was carried out throughout thousands of years. The process changed throughout history, and there is no one way that the Egyptians mummified their dead. Described in this article is what Egyptologists call the “classic” manner of mummification, or mummification as it was carried out in the pharaonic period.[10]

There are no written accounts of the detailed process of mummification, but texts indicate that the process took seventy days.[11] The first stage of the process was the “purification of the corpse” which lasted about three days and consisted of washing the body, reciting prayers and reading from sacred texts.[12] The body was disinfected using palm wine or a solution of a salt called natron. Next, the internal organs were removed through an incision made in the left torso. The organs were mummified separately, and the body cavities were also disinfected. The brain cavity was soaked in resin, and the brain was removed via the left nostril. It is believed that the brain and organs were removed because they were prone to disintegration.[13] In some periods the mummified organs were returned to the body cavity, but the most common practice was to place them in their separate jars, known as canopic jars, to be buried alongside the mummy.

Next, the body was treated with salts inside and out in preparation for a desiccation process that took approximately thirty days.[14] This process of drying the body was the most important aspect of mummification because of the lack of moisture preserves the body tissues. Although the body would remain untouched while it dried, there was a great deal of ritual and prayer that took place around it. The entire process was intended to transform the deceased into the likeness of a god, much like the god of mummies and the underworld who was called Osiris.[15]

After the desiccation process was complete, the body underwent thirty days of final preparations which included ritual, prayers, sprinkling aromatic sawdust over the body and anointing it with oils. The oils were both ritual and functional, as they likely softened the body in preparation for the delicate wrapping process, which was known to cause extremities to snap. Prayers were recited, and the body was wrapped in resin-dabbed linen and incense. It was the process of wrapping which was believed to transform the body from a deceased human to a divine being.[16] Once the deceased had been properly mummified, wrapped in linen and wearing its painted mask, wig and ceremonial beard, they were no longer a human. They had assumed a godlike form and were prepared for the afterlife.[17]

Conclusion

The process of mummification remained common, particularly for the noble classes, from the earliest dynasties all the way to the end of the time of Cleopatra. Although the details of the ritual changed, the intent remained the same; to preserve the body such that it can perform its essential role of housing the soul in the afterlife.

References

  1. Ikram, Salima. “Mummification.” UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology. 2010 ed. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles. Web. 11 Nov. 2015, p. 2.
  2. Riggs, Christina, “Body.” UCLA Encyclopedia Of Egyptology. 2010 ed. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles. Web. 11 Nov. 2015, p. 4.
  3. Ikram, 2
  4. Ikram,UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology p. 2
  5. Riggs,UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology p. 4.
  6. Hays, Harold M. ”Funerary Rituals (Pharaonic Period). ” ‘’’’UCLA Encyclopedia Of Egyptology’’’’. 2010 ed. UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology, Los Angeles. Web. 11 Nov. 2015, p. 1.
  7. Ikram,UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology p. 1.
  8. Jones, Dilwyn. ‘’’’Boats. Egyptian Bookshelf’’’’. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1995. Print. p. 25.
  9. Riggs,UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology p. 4.
  10. Ikram,UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology p. 2.
  11. Ikram, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology p. 2.
  12. Hays, UCLA Encyclopedia Of Egyptology, p.1.
  13. “Mummification in Egypt.” The British Medical Journal 1.2409 (1907): 521–521. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
  14. Ikram, UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology p. 1.
  15. Hays,UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology p. 1.
  16. Ikram,UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology p. 2.
  17. Riggs,UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology p. 4.

Updated January 4, 2018. Admin, KatherineFl and Ewhelan