Is death a definitive end or the beginning of a new journey? This question has baffled humans since ancient times and even today we don't have an answer. Unlike the existentialist thinkers of today, the ancient civilizations chose to believe in an afterlife. Almost all religions even today believe in afterlife in which we are judged by the deeds we perform in this life. The Egyptians and other ancient civilizations believed that the body of the dead person needs to be preserved for its journey into the afterlife. This gave rise to the mummification process, which was aimed at preserving the bodies of the dead for eternity.
In ancient Egypt, it was an established ritual for the dead and especially the 'rich' and 'powerful' dead, but they were not the only ones who started this practice. Other civilizations in North America were also known for embalming their dead.
A mummy is a dead body which is substantially well preserved due to accidental or intentional application of certain chemicals that help preserve the body tissues. A corpse could also be preserved as a mummy if it is buried in conditions of either extreme low temperatures or dry, low humidity conditions with little exposure to air. That is the process of natural mummification.
The modern English word of 'Mummy' has its origins in the Latin word 'Mumia' which itself is derived from the Persian word for Bitumen ('mum') which is supposed to be used in the embalming process. Preserved remains in the form of mummies were most extensively discovered in Egypt, where this was a common practice from before 3300 BC, till as late as 400 AD.
Facts About Mummies and the Ancient Egyptian Mummification Process
Here are some interesting facts about how the Egyptians preserved their dead and developed a systematic embalming procedure.
- The very ancient Egyptians buried their dead in dry sand, which preserved the bodies through the natural process described before. However, as their idea of afterlife evolved, they felt the need to protect the body by encasing it in a tomb and burying them with resources for their afterlife journey. This and the discovery of chemical preservatives led to the evolution of a systematic embalming process which was perfected during the reign of the 18th to 20th ruling dynasties of the Egyptian new kingdom (from 1500 BC to around 1100 BC).
- The chemical which made the preservation possible was 'Natron.' It was a naturally occurring material found in dry lake beds. Natron is a mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate, sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and common salt. On moisture exposure, Natron increases pH and leads to the creation of hostile conditions for bacterial growth. These properties made Natron, the ideal embalming agent for the process in Egypt.
- The process (which lasted for 70 days) began with removal of the brain which was not stored and preserved like the other vital organs. The rest of the organs, excluding the heart but including the lungs, intestines and stomach were removed after making incisions in the left hand side of the body. They were stored in separate jars filled with Natron to preserve them.
- Next, the whole of the body cavity was stuffed with Natron, and its outside was covered with Natron too. This chemical drew out all the moisture from the body, halting the process of decomposition. This process of dehydration lasted for forty days.
- After the body was adequately dehydrated, oil was applied to the skin and the insides to preserve the elasticity of tissues.
- Then the dehydrated organs were returned to the body after being wrapped in linen and the body was stuffed with materials like saw dust to make it appear life-like.
- Again oil was then applied and the whole body was finally wrapped and covered with resin soaked linen from head to foot. Various amulets were tied inside the linen and the body was finally placed in a sarcophagus. There were elaborate rituals where spells were read out to get rid of evil spirits.
- The Pharaohs had tombs like pyramids built for themselves where their bodies were preserved in mummified form and buried with all their possessions (including mummified pets!).
- An ancient Egyptian mummy makes for a great piece of scientific evidence which tells us a lot about the life in Egypt at that time. The most famous mummies discovered were those of the Pharaohs- Seti I, Ramesses II and Tutankhamun.
This short compilation of facts must have surely intrigued you a lot. Preserved mummies from Egypt and around the world are displayed in museums all over the world, including Berlin, London, and of course Cairo in Egypt. Today, these preserved mummies are symbolic of the eternal question that death presents us.