Egypt And Mummification Essay, Research Paper
Ancient Egypt & Mummification Rituals
Ancient civilizations are studied today to help us understand more about our worlds past and what has brought us to where we are today. Our findings have not only answered questions, but also brought us to ask questions. Perhaps one of the most studied and yet least understood civilizations ever were the Ancient Egyptians. Located in northern Africa, Egypt is a country unlike any other that is situated on the vast continent. Ancient towns that once thrived have now been reduced to mostly rubble. Intriguing artifacts have been discovered over time that help us to understand what it was like to have lived back then.
One of the keys to understanding the ancient civilization is the Rosetta stone. This artifact was discovered in 1799 and helps us even today to interpret the writings of the ancient hieroglyphics. Egypt s history, religion, and beliefs were left on these hieroglyphics. Some of the writings included stories of the kings that ruled during the different dynasties. Gods were also very prominent during this time and played a major role in the way people lived their lives.
Not everyone was able to read or write, so people who were able to read or write hieroglyphics were held highly in the community. Children whose families were considered important were able to attend a special school in which they were taught how to read and write. These children would then grow up to become scribes. Scribes seemed to lead a better life than most people because they had power over them. The actual power to read and write was more valuable than food, water, and clothing. Scribes were considered so powerful because they were able to copy sacred texts onto royal books, that were carved into the tomb walls of the kings and queens of Egypt. As in today s society woman had to struggle for equality among men. There is little evidence that women knew how to read or write. It is believed that only wealthy women were able to read and write, but there was no place for them in the career world for them to do this.
The period that is most thought of when thinking of ancient Egypt is the time when Egypt was ruled by the pharaohs after 3000 B.C. Settlers and sailors came to Egypt from Palestine, Syria, and Iraq around 5000 B.C. After realizing how fertile the land was many decided to stay and try to domesticate the land. Soon after small huts and villages began to rise up everywhere and the colonization of Egypt had begun.
The hieroglyphics offer to us what it was like for the average person living in ancient Egypt. Egyptian marriage wasn t always arranged as most people think. This was usually only done by royal families where a brother would marry his sister in an arranged marriage. Most men were married by the age of twenty and most of the women were married by the age of fourteen. Becoming married was often not a problem. Ancient Egyptians didn t have state or church ceremonies, so all you had to do was obtain a marriage contract and begin living with your spouse. Getting a divorce was just as easy as getting married. If the man was at fault then the woman was entitled to 1/3 of the settlement, and if the woman was at fault she was entitled to maintenance from her ex-husband.
The social system was actually very well defined. The Pharaoh was the considered the leader of the people and was thought of as a god. Next came the Pharaoh s family, then the nobles, the priests, and the officials who helped the king keep order over his kingdom. After them came the lower priests, the artists, soldiers, and lastly were the peasants and slaves. The difference between a peasant and a slave was that the peasants worked the fertile land and the slaves worked the mines.
More than 90% of Egypt is covered by desert, also called the Red Land. The desert could support only small settlements in wadis (river valleys) and oases. The early Egyptians lived on the banks of the Nile River or beside canals extending from it. The area near the Nile was Kemet, or the Black Land, named after the rich dark silt on which the farmers grew their crops. Civilization could not have been established in Egypt without the fertility of the land. The flooding of the Nile River was a sign for ancient Egyptian farmers that it was the beginning of the farming season. Even in modern day times Egyptians have depended on the flooding of the Nile River. Exploiting the resources that it provides to the area was never taken lightly. When the Nile waters subsided, the farmers went to work sowing barley and emmer wheat. The result usually was a good summer harvest.
Appearances were extremely important to the Egyptians. Although some people believe that ancient civilizations were not concerned with their hygiene, they could not be further from the truth. The Egyptians washed their bodies and mouth out everyday. They wouldn t use the Nile s water without filtering it first because snails laid their larvae in the water. Different types of oils and fat made from crocodiles, cats, and hippos were used to prevent the skin from drying up and is also aiding in keeping it looking young. They also used deodorant everyday and washed with Natron. Many people also believed that the black eye paint that was worn was used as a fashion statement, but it was actually used as a shade from the sun. Women mostly wore tight dresses that stretched from their chest to their ankles. The men wore kilts, which went from the waist to their knees.
The most important aspect of ancient Egyptian life was preparing for life after death. This has been one of the most documented fascinations of the modern day world. Elaborate tombs have been found with extensive treasures inside. One of the most famous belonged to King Tutankhamon. His tomb held some of the most magnificent treasures inside.
Egyptians believed that, in addition to a body, every person had a soul or spirit that would live on after death. The spirit would be able to enjoy the same pleasures that the body did when it was still living. In order to do these things, the spirit had to have a recognizable body to dwell in. If the person s body was destroyed, the spirit might not be able to live on after death. So preserving the body was very important. To properly preserve the body for the passage into the afterlife, it would have to be mummified.
The Egyptian embalming process was a significant and complicated process performed by priests. Employing a crooked piece of iron, the brain would be removed through the nostrils. Next an incision was made in the gut using a sharp stone or piece of glass. All of the organs where removed and discarded with the exception of the stomach, intestines, liver and lungs. They were removed and placed in separate containers of wood, pottery, or stone that would be later placed in the tomb forever along with the mummy. These containers are called canopic jars. The word canopic comes from the ancient city of Canopus in northern Egypt where Osiris was worshipped in the form of a vase topped with a head. At the time of the Middle Kingdom, it was usual for each of the four canopic jars to be topped with a carving of a human head. The ancient Egyptians believed that as long as their body parts where preserved after death, then they would magically be reunited with them after their passage to the afterlife.
The next step in mummification was drying out of the body itself. This was done by thickly coating it inside and out with a powdery white salt. This salt, known as natron, had the ability to draw water from the skin and other tissues.
Drying the body in natron took anywhere from thirty-five to forty days. During this time, the corpse would lay on a slanted board known as the bed of mummification. The moisture dripped through a channel as the lower end into a pan or bucket. The body shrank as it lost its water content, and the skin became withered and leathery.
The odor of a slowly drying body, especially in the hot desert climate of Egypt, couldn t have been very pleasant. So both before and after the natron treatment, the body was cleansed inside and out with spices, sweet-smelling gums, and palm wine. These spices and such were also used to purify the body. The organs that been removed and placed in canopic jars were dried in natron and treated the same way as the body. Because they were much smaller, they took less time to prepare.
Once the body was thoroughly dried, the abdominal cavity was packed with more natron and with fresh spices wrapped in linen. The cut that had been made in the gut to remove the organs was sewn up or sealed with resin. The nostrils may have been plugged with wax and the mouth packed with pads of linen soaked in resin. The entire body was then rubbed with oil and painted with melted resin to give it a waterproof finish.
Now the time had come for the wrapping and bandaging of the mummy. A combination of large pieces of cloth and narrower strips of linen were used. The wrappings were applied in many layers. The mummy of a very important noble or a great king might have anywhere from sixteen or twenty layers of wrapping to as many as eighty. The layers added up to a thickness of one-half inch to about two inches, and the entire wrapping process is believed to have taken fifteen days or more.
The wrappings covered whatever jewelry had been placed on the mummy. The different items of jewelry included necklaces, collars, girdles, bracelets, anklets, and rings. Precious objects were also tucked in between the layers of bandages. The Egyptians also used magical items to provide additional protection for the mummies. Hand and feet amulets were placed on the decaying body before the wrapping process took place. They would act as substitutes for decaying limbs. Face amulets were used to restore the lost powers of sight and speech. The ankh, a cross with a looped top, was the Egyptian sign for life. The ankh amulets provided the wearer with powers of steadfastness and strength. Scarab amulets were placed on the mummies to symbolize the rising sun. Dried onions were stuffed into the ears of the mummies and along the bandages as well, although the significance of this is still a mystery.
The name of the dead person was marked on the ends of the linen bandages. Many centuries later, royal mummies that had been stripped of their jewelry and nearly destroyed by tomb robbers were identified by the shreds of bandages still clinging to their bodies.
As the layers of bandages were applied, warm melted resin was poured over each one, again for the purpose of keeping moisture from entering the body. Unfortunately, the resin tended to darken the skin. In the case of the most famous king Tutankhamen, too many body oils and resins were used. The two substances interacted chemically after the tomb was sealed, forming a sticky, gummy, black mass. When the king s burial chamber was discovered, over three thousand years after his death, his mummy was found to be stuck to the bottom of the coffin in which it lay. Only tatters of leathery flesh still clung to the bones.
Another practice used by the Egyptians to aid the departed soul involved mass human sacrifice. Many times if a prominent person passed away the family and servants would willfully ingest poison to continue their servitude into the next world. The family members and religious figureheads of the community did just about everything in their power to aid the deceased in the transition to a new life.
The next step, for the mummies of ancient Egypt was the journey to the tomb, or the house of eternity, as they knew it. The community made sure the chambers of the tomb were furnished with everything necessary for the comfort and well being of the occupants. It was believed that the individual would be able to access these items in the next world. Some of the more important things that the deceased would need at his side were a concoction of spells. A conglomeration of reading material ensured a successful passage as well. The Pyramid Texts, The Book of the Dead, and the Coffin Texts all aided the lost soul in their journey through Duat into the Fields of the Blessed. If the deceased was of high importance within the community they would take into the tombs with them small statuettes called, Ushabi. If the deceased were called to work in the Elysian Fields he would call upon one of the statues to take his place and perform the task for him. It was not unheard of for an individual to have a figure for every day of the year to ensure an afterlife devoid of physical exertion. The statues essentially represented slaves of the deceased. Just about everything the embalmers and burial practioners did during the process was done for particular reasons.
We can only try to interpret what happened during this ancient civilization by writings, structures, and tombs. Still today very little is known about the way these people lived and what they were surrounded by on a day-to-day basis. The more findings that are discovered, then more questions are asked to solve the never-ending puzzles of ancient Egyptian history.
1. White, J. E. Ancient Egypt: Its culture and history. Dover Publications.
New York. 1970
2. Spencer, A. J. Death in Ancient Egypt. Penguin Books. New York. 1982
3. Wilson, John A. The Culture of Ancient Egypt Phoenix Publications.