Initially, early Egyptians used to bury their dead in small pits, wherein the bodies would get dehydrated and natural mummies were formed. With time, the rituals changed, and they started to cremate the dead in crude tombs. While that was a novice method, problems would arise when these bodies were mutilated by wild animals in the desert. As a solution for this, it was decided to put the bodies in coffins. Soon, however, they realized that the dead bodies in coffins would decay very soon.
The belief in afterlife was prominent in ancient Egypt; so, the problem of decaying bodies was not taken lightly. Eventually, they came up with the idea of preserving bodies to tackle this problem and thus, came into existence the process of mummification. The steps involved kept changing with time, as new rituals and methods to preserve bodies were introduced.
Mummification in Ancient Egypt
The basic steps of the mummification process in ancient Egypt were categorized into two parts: (i) embalming and (ii) wrapping the dead. Given below are the step by step details of each of these two parts.
- The process of embalming began in a tent referred to as the 'ibu' or 'place of purification', where the dead body was washed with palm wine and rinsed with the water from river Nile.
- A small cut was made to the left side of the body and some internal organs, like the liver, lungs, stomach, and intestines were removed. This was done as these organs were believed to be the first to decompose.
- Next the brain was removed using a long hook, one of the most important mummification tools, which was inserted into the body through the nose.
- Then came the drying stage, wherein the body was stuffed and covered with natron, and allowed to dry for a period of 40 days.
- After 40 days of drying, the body was again washed with the water from river Nile and smeared with sweet smelling oils, so that the body could retain its elasticity.
- As the last step towards embalming, the body was filled with dry matter, like sawdust and linen. Finally, it was again smeared with sweet smelling oils, and thus, the body was ready to be wrapped in linen.
- Next came the process of wrapping the body, wherein various parts of the body were wrapped with linen. First the head was wrapped, followed by neck, fingers, toes, arms, and legs in this particular order.
- While wrapping the body, the secret amulets, i.e., the Isis knot and Plummet, were placed between the layers, as these amulets―the Egyptians believed―protected the dead during their journey to the underworld.
- While the body was wrapped, a priest recited the spells from the 'Book of the Dead'. This was done to ward off the evil spirits that could hinder the persons journey to the underworld.
- The arms and legs were tied together, a scroll with the spells from the 'Book of the Dead' was placed between the hands of the dead, and the entire body was wrapped from head to the toe.
- While wrapping, the body was smeared with a resin, which acted like a glue to hold the linen strips together. A cloth with the picture of Osiris―the Egyptian God of the Underworld―was also wrapped around the body.
- Towards the end, another large cloth was wrapped around the body, and linen strips were wrapped around the cloth to keep it in place. Thus, the mummy was ready.
Next, the mummy was placed in the first coffin, and then the first coffin was placed in the second one. This was followed by various ceremonies, including the actual funeral and the opening of the mouth ceremony, which―according to the Egyptians―helped the dead to breathe and speak. The mummy was then placed within the sarcophagus―a stone coffin with carvings on it and kept in the tomb, which was its final resting place.
As for the internal organs, the Egyptians believed that the dead needed them in their afterlife. So, each of these organs was put in separate canopic jars, which were then put in a canopic chest and buried in tombs. Interestingly, these jars were shaped to resemble the deity of each particular organ: Imsety, a human-headed god, to preserve the liver; Hapy, a baboon-headed god, for the lungs; Duamutef, a jackal-headed god, for the stomach, and Qebehsenuef, a falcon-headed god, for the intestines.
That traced the journey of a dead body from the Ibu―the place of purification, to the tomb―the final resting place. The process of mummification is an apt evidence of how advanced the Egyptian civilization was. Their technique of preserving bodies was highly efficient, and the Egyptian mummies existing in several pyramids across Egypt speak volumes about the same.