By Robert Garland P.h.D., Colgate University
The mummification process in ancient Egypt was extremely important as it could help the dead have a nice life in the underworld. It was a lengthy and costly process, which was not equally performed for everyone. Some even had to start the afterlife without their inner organs, which was not the most pleasant situation, but inevitable!
In ancient Egypt, mummies were preserved bodies for the return of the soul so that the dead could have a smooth afterlife experience. The idea came to ancient Egyptians when they saw dead bodies naturally preserved in hot sand. Thus, mummifying became the way to deal with death.
What is a Mummy?
The word ‘mummy’ is derived from the Arabic word mümiya, meaning ‘bitumen’ or ‘something made of bitumen’. Bitumen is a black tarry substance that was mistakenly believed to have been used for mummification. The Egyptian word for a mummy was sah, meaning ‘nobility’ or ‘dignity’.
When an Egyptian died, the dead body was transferred to the embalmers on the west bank of Nile. The West was where the sun would set and the supposed home of the dead. How exactly did the process go?
The Greek Story of the Egyptian Process
The best source describing the Egyptian mummification process is the historical writings of Herodotus. He was a Greek historian who adored Egypt and wrote the 1000-year-old processes he witnessed in the fifth century B.C. Based on his writings, not all people were mummified the same way since the costs differed. The perfect way was the 80-day process.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Perfect Way to Die
The ideal mummification process took 80 days. The internal organs were removed through an incision on the side, while the liver, lungs, intestines, and the stomach were each placed in a jar called ‘Canopic’. Next, the brain was drawn out through the nostrils by a long needle. Then the interior of the body was cleansed, and the incision was sewed. All this happened in the first 10 days after death. In the remaining 70 days, the body would lie in natron powder so that the humidity was all absorbed, but the skin was not blackened and hardened. Finally, the body was washed and wrapped in linen bandages.
The Cheap Way of Dying
If the family could not afford the full process, the embalmers would inject oil into the body through the anus. After a while, the oil would be released, and the dissolved internal organs would flow out. Hence, the poor had to start the afterlife without organs.
Regardless of the process, the mummy was then placed in a wooden or cartonnage coffin. The relatives would pick up the coffin and take it to the tomb.
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The Ancient Egyptian Funeral
The coffin would be transferred to the tomb on a sled pulled by bulls. The mourners would follow, lamenting loudly both to show grief and to banish the evil spirits. Behind the mourners, there would be a shrine with the Canopic jars, for those who had them. Finally, there were the servants carrying all the items required for life after death: pottery, toiletries, shabtis, furniture, and little models.
Egyptians believed everything in the tomb, including the paintings, would become real in the afterlife. For example, two small ship models were also put in the tomb to help the dead person travel up and down the underworld Nile.
The mummy was then put in a standing position, and a priest performed the ‘opening of the mouth’: touching the face of the mummy with an adze, which was a tool for sharpening wood, while spells and incantations were being uttered.
Learn more about living in Mesopotamia.
The Last Step
A calf was sacrificed, and its still-beating heart was removed and presented to the mummy. After this, the tomb was closed for the person to come back to life. If the family was wealthy, they had a separate chapel next to the burial place, where they could visit and bring offerings.
There were two entities for the soul: Ka, the selfhood that receives the food and drinks, and Ba, the soul that left the body upon death. Ba visited the upper world during the day and went back to the body at night.
The mummification process in ancient Egypt was to save both the body and soul, so the afterlife would be pleasant to live.
Common Questions about the Mummification Process in Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egyptians believed the body would physically come back to life, and the soul would return to it to continue living in the underworld. The key to having a smooth reunification was the ancient Egyptian mummification process that tried to preserve all the important parts, including the intestines.
The natural mummies of Egypt were preserved in hot sand. However, in the mummification process, the Egyptians used natron powder to take out all the humidity in the body without darkening and hardening the skin. The final step was to wash and wrap the body in linen bandages.
The mummification process in ancient Egypt was a vital but expensive one. All the dead were mummified, but the length of the process and the quality depended on how much the family of the dead could pay.
King Tutankhamun or King Tut, a 30,000-year-old mummy, is the most famous mummy. This Egyptian pharaoh died at a very young age, after a reign of almost 10 years. The mummification process common in ancient Egypt was also applied for this great pharaoh but the cause of death remains unknown.