The Rhind Bilingual Papyri: Mourning and Magic Numbers


By Bob Brier, Ph.D.Long Island University

Papyri were sometimes discovered in tombs with mummies. The Rhind Bilingual Papyri provides some information about the processes around mummification, as well as some rituals such as mourning. Why were these rituals important?

Ancient Egyptian papyrus.
Some papyri found in ancient Egyptian tombs provide clues about the mummification rituals. (Image: Kriveart90/Shutterstock)

Alexander Rhind and the Mummy Tags

In 1860, Alexander Rhind, a Scottish lawyer with a penchant for excavation, discovered a tomb that was sealed in plaster. The door had been sealed during the reign of Amenhotep III. So he thought he had found an intact XVIII Dynasty tomb. He was disappointed when he opened the tomb. It was a tomb that had been robbed, and probably re-sealed during the time of Amenhotep III. What he found on the floor of the tomb were many damaged mummies. Also, on the floor, were 14 of what we call ‘mummy tags’.

Now mummy tags are little pieces of wood. These had the names of the various mummies on them. They were placed on the mummies in the embalmer’s workshop. These were used to keep track of mummies, especially after they had been wrapped. The embalmers put a tag on the toe, on the foot, with the mummy’s name and family.

Rhind found 14 of these tags on the floor, more than we ever found in one place. In the back of this tomb, he discovered an intact tomb that the robbers apparently had missed. And it went down deep into the ground. It was a tomb of the Roman period, when the Romans were occupying Egypt. He found a stone sarcophagus with a nice wooden canopy around it. Inside, there’s a gilded mummy. The mummy had been sort of coated in gold.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Time and Ritual Numbers

But more importantly, on the left side of the mummy was a papyrus. This is one of the Rhind Bilingual Papyri. It’s a misnomer to call it ‘bilingual’. It’s not two languages. It’s Egyptian in demotic, the script of the late period, and also in hieratic, a cursive form of hieroglyphs.

This papyrus tells the details of wrapping and some of the rituals. This is a key source for us. Now, what does it say? One of the things it says is that the mummy is left in the “place of cleansing” for 35 days. What was the “place of cleansing”? The mummy was at some time placed in a substance called “natron,” to dehydrate it, for about that length of time. Perhaps this was the “place of cleansing”.

A sarcophagus for a mummy.
Many rituals were carried out in ancient Egypt before a mummy was kept in a sarcophagus. (Image: Jose Ignacio Soto/ Shutterstock)

It also tells us a little about the magical rituals that took place. And numbers were important. For example, it talks about the seven openings of the head. Well, it’s got to be the eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth. Seven was a sacred number. There were also seven sacred oils that were used in preparing the mummy. And it also talks about 17 rituals that have to be performed on the body. And it even says there are 17 parts of the body. And then it also said that the body had to be placed in the tomb after 70 days.

Learn more about ancient Egyptian medicine.

Vignettes of Death

This papyrus also tells us that each bandage, as it’s put on, has a name. It wasn’t just a process of taking out internal organs. It was a big ritual that had to be done in a certain way.

Papyrus showing the funerary couch.
Funerary couches were used in the funeral rituals. (Image: matrioshka/Shutterstock)

The Rhind Bilingual Papyrus also had drawings. There are drawings on the top of it. And some showed the dead person lying on a funerary couch. A funerary couch is a special kind of bed. It had legs like the feet of animals. And sometimes it would have, at the head, where the headboard would be, the head of an animal.

This is only one of the papyri Rhind found in this tomb. This was the burial of a man with his wife. Now, the man’s wife died only 46 days after the husband. They both died in 9 B.C. during the reign of the emperor Augustus. And she had a papyrus also buried with her mummy, on the left side, almost a duplicate of the one for her husband.

Learn more about ancient Egyptian magic.

Mourning for the Dead

One wonders, why the Egyptians buried the dead with the papyrus that tells you how to wrap a mummy? There is a very interesting little touch about the woman’s papyrus. It says that she mourned her husband, and it includes a little ideogram, a picture. It is a determinative telling you what it means, it’s a lock of hair.

When a person died, mourning was an important part of the ritual. Very much like when we go to the funeral and that kind of thing. But what they would do is, the women of the house—and if it was an important person, the women of the village—would all tear their hair, as a sign of grief. So hair became a sign of mourning.

So, the ‘Rhind Bilingual Papyri’, these two papyri, one for a man, one for a woman, tell us something about how long the procedure took and the different rituals involved in it. Though we don’t actually get what the procedure was, we get a lot of scattered information about the smaller rituals surrounding death.

Common Questions about the Rhind Bilingual Papyri: Mourning and Magic Numbers

Q: What did Alexander Rhind find in 1860?

Alexander Rhind found a tomb with damaged mummies and 14 wooden mummy tags, the most that had ever been found in one place. These were tags that were used by the embalmers to identify mummies after they had been wrapped.

Q: What does the Rhind Bilingual Papyri tell us about the oils used in preparing the mummy?

The Rhind Bilingual Papyri tell us about seven sacred oils that were used in preparing the mummy.

Q: Why is it inaccurate to call the Rhind papyri ‘bilingual’?

The Rhind Bilingual Papyri are not really bilingual. The Papyri are actually in the same language—Egyptian—which is written in two different scripts—the demotic, and the hieratic.

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