Monday, January 21, 2008
In ancient Egypt when a person died it was important that the body was preserved for the 'afterlife'. Ancient Egyptians believed that the body went on a journey to the stars where they then met their god. It was therefore important that the body was in good condition, mummification was therefore dedicated to the prevention of decay. It is thought that this practice was not immediately mastered but took several generations to achieve such a sophisticated level.
The greek historian HERODOTUS (c.450 BC) can provide us with the best explanation to how they achieved such good results, he states:
"There are those who are established in this profession and who practice the craft. When a corpse is brought to them they show the bearers wooden model of mummies, painted in imitation of the real thing. The best method of embalming is said to be that which is practiced on one whose name I cannot mention in this context (i.e. OSIRIS). The second method they demonstrate is somewhat inferior and costs less. The third is the cheapest of all. Having indicated the differences, they ask by which method the corpse is to be prepared. And when the bearers have agreed a price and departed, the embalmers are left to begin their work.
In the best treatment, first of all they draw out the brains through the nostrils with an iron hook. When they have removed what they can this way they flush out the remainder with drugs. Next they make an incision in the flank with a sharp Ethiopian stone through which they extract all the internal organs. They then clean out the entire body cavity, rinsing it with palm wine and pounded spices, all except frankincense, and stitch it up again. And when they have done this they cover the corpse with natron for seventy days, but no longer, and so mummify it. After the seventy days are up, they wash the corpse and wrap it head to toe in bandages of the finest linen anointed with gum, which the egyptians use for the most part instead of glue. Finally they hand over the body to the relatives who place it in a wooden coffin in the shape of the man (below) before shutting it up in a burial chamber, propped upright against a wall. This is the most costly method of preparing the dead."
"Those for whom the second and less expensive way has been chosen are treated as follows: the embalmers fill their syringes with cedar oil which they inject into the abdomen, neither cutting the flesh nor extracting the internal organs but introducing the oil through the anus which is then stopped up. Then they mummify the body for the prescribed number of days, at the end of which they allow the oil which has been injected to escape. So great is its strength that it brings away all the internal organs in a liquid form. Moreover the natron eats away the flesh reducing the body to skin and bone. After they have done this the embalmers give back the body without further ado."
"The third method of embalming, which is practiced on the bodies of the poor, is this: the embalmers wash the abdomen with a purge, mummify the corpse for seventy days and then give it back to be taken away."
The embalmers took great pride in their work which is not implied by Herodotus. For example, the overseers held priestly titles, stemmed from the distant past when only the rich and royalty were embalmed. It should also be noted that for most of egyptian history the poor were buried in simple graves in the sand, which had its own effect similar to embalming (below).
The embalming staff consisted of the following :
'overseer of the mysteries' (hery seshta) who took the part of the jackal god ANUBIS.
'seal-bearer of the god' (hetemw netjer) who was Anubbis's assistant.
'lector priest' (hery heb) who read the magical spells.
'bandagers' (wetyw) whose job it was to extract the organs and bandage the corpse.
As you can tell from the above list, mummification was not only a process but was part of a ritual belief. We know from a couple of papyri how the ritual commenced. Shortly after death the body would be taken to a tent which was known as ' Place of Purification' where it would be washed, before being taken to the next tent called 'House of Beauty' this is where the mummification took place. As Herodotus described, the internal organs were removed but these were not discarded, they too were dried, rinsed, bandaged and placed in CANOPIC JARS (below) or parcels. They were then placed with the body or later in Egyptian history, placed back in the body.