History of the Egyptian Mummy Part 2

About the history of the Egyptian mummy and tradition of mummification as part of their culture.


The mummies are remarkable in their lifelike detail. Some are 5,000 years old, though not many, since mummification was not perfected until the millennium before the birth of Christ. Their faces bear the stamp of the people they were; some have hair, its color still bright; their bodies, even to the genitals, are desiccated but intact.

The most complete account of the process of mummification comes down to us from the Greek Herodotus, who observed it as an eyewitness on a trip to Egypt in 484 B.C.

Essential to its success were the dry, hot climate of Egypt, which acted to preserve organic material, and a natural substance called natron, a hydrated sodium carbonate, used first in solution and later dry to desiccate and preserve the bodies. (The dry method was far more efficient, as proved by 19th-century scientist Alfred Lucas in an experiment involving chickens.)

The procedure combined religious ritual and surgical techniques highly sophisticated for their time. (Practicing mummification made Egyptian doctors the best in the ancient world.)

First the corpse's brain was removed by inserting a hook through the nose and into the cranial cavity to draw out the gray matter bit by bit. After the nostrils were plugged with wax, the viscera were removed, all but the kidneys and the heart, which, as the sacred seat of mind and emotions, had to stay in the body for the day when, in heaven, it would be weighed on a scale against a symbol for truth. In earlier times, for a brief while, the viscera were eliminated from the body with a gruesome enema of oleoresin, much like turpentine, which dissolved the organs. Later they were cut out with a knife. The body cavity was cleaned, often treated with molten resin, then, like a Thanksgiving turkey, was stuffed, in one period with the wrapped-up organs and in later periods with spices, linen, sawdust, and even onions. The organs were treated always with respect; they were kept in special canopic jars, which were put inside the body or placed with the body inside the wrappings. Covered with natron, the body was left for weeks to desiccate. Once dried, it was rubbed with cedar oil and spice, then wrapped in an intricate bandaging of 150 yd. or more of linen (Ramses III was done up in 350 yd.). All was accompanied by rituals, many meant to insure perpetuation of the dead person's identity. The whole process took 70 days or more.

Besides grave robbing, mummies have suffered many other indignities. They have been chopped up to make medicine; unwrapped in front of large audiences; denuded of their bandages, which were used to make wrapping paper; and x-rayed by doctors and scientists.

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