How did mummification reflect Egyptian beliefs about the afterlife, which encompassed belief in the resurrection of the body and everlasting life? To answer this question, you should know that, around 2600 BC, during the fourth and fifth dynasties, Egyptians began to mummify the dead.
The practice continued and developed for well over 2,000 years, lasting even far into the Roman Period (c. 30 BC – 364 AD). But what beliefs informed this practice? Find out in this article!
Why Did Egyptians Mummify Their Dead?
Mummification was an integral part of the rituals for the deceased from as early as the 2nd dynasty (about 2800 BC). Egyptians saw the preservation of the body after death as a vital step to living well in the afterlife. As Egypt gained more prosperity, burial practices became a status symbol for the wealthy as well. This cultural hierarchy led to the creation of elaborate tombs, and more sophisticated methods of embalming.
The Egyptians believed that the mummified body was the home for the soul or spirit. If the body was destroyed, the spirit might be lost. The idea of “spirit” was complex, involving really three spirits: the ka, ba, and akh.
The ka, a “double” of the person, would remain in the tomb and needed the offerings and objects there. The ba, or “soul”, was free to fly out of the tomb and return to it. And it was the akh, perhaps translated as “spirit”, which had to travel through the Underworld to the Final Judgment and entrance to the Afterlife. To the Egyptian, all three were essential.
The Process of Egyptian Mummification
Egyptian mummification was a delicate religious procedure, hence it was performed only by special priests who worked as embalmers. The embalmers removed all moisture from the body, leaving only a dried form that would not easily decay, as it was important in their religion to preserve the dead body in as life-like a manner as possible.
This process was so effective that today we can view the mummified body of an Egyptian and have a good idea of what he or she looked like about 3,000 years ago.
The ancient Egypt mummifying process took 70 days of treating and wrapping the body. Beyond knowing the correct rituals and prayers to be performed at various stages, the priests also implemented a detailed knowledge of human anatomy.
– The Removal of the Organs
The first step in the process was the removal of all internal parts that might decay rapidly. The brain was removed by carefully inserting special hooked instruments up through the nostrils in order to pull out bits of brain tissue. It was a delicate operation, one which could easily disfigure the face.
The embalmers then removed the organs of the abdomen and chest through a cut usually made on the left side of the abdomen. They left only the heart in place, believing it to be the center of a person’s being and intelligence.
he other organs were preserved separately, with the stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines placed in special boxes or jars today called canopic jars. These were buried with the mummy. In later mummies the organs were treated, wrapped, and repositioned in the body.
– The Removal of Moisture
The embalmers next removed all moisture from the body by covering the body with natron, a type of salt which has great drying properties, and by placing additional natron packets inside the body. When the body had dried out completely, embalmers removed the internal packets and lightly washed the natron off the body. The result was a very dried-out but recognizable human form. To make the mummy seem even more life-like, sunken areas of the body were filled out with linen and other materials and false eyes were added.
– The Wrapping
Next, the wrapping began. Each mummy needed hundreds of yards of linen. The priests carefully wrapped the long strips of linen around the body, sometimes even wrapping each finger and toe separately before wrapping the entire hand or foot.
In order to protect the dead from mishap, amulets were placed among the wrappings and prayers and magical words written on some of the linen strips. Often the priests placed a mask of the person’s face between the layers of head bandages.
At several stages the form was coated with warm resin and the wrapping resumed once again. Once the priests wrapped the final cloth or shroud in place and secured it with linen strips, the mummy was complete.
– The Staging of the Tomb
The priests preparing the mummy were not the only ones busy during this time. Although the tomb preparation usually had begun long before the person’s actual death, now there was a deadline, and craftsmen, workers and artists worked quickly.
There was much to be placed in the tomb that a person would need in the Afterlife. Furniture and statuettes were readied; wall paintings of religious or daily scenes were prepared; and lists of foods or prayers finished. Through a magical process — the Egyptians believed – these models, pictures, and lists would become the real thing when needed in the Afterlife.
As part of the funeral, priests performed special religious rites at the tomb’s entrance. The most important part of the ceremony was called the “Opening of the Mouth.” A priest touched various parts of the mummy with a special instrument to “open” those parts of the body to the senses enjoyed in life and needed in the Afterlife.
By touching the instrument to the mouth, the dead person could now speak and eat. He was now ready for his journey to the Afterlife. The mummy was placed in his coffin, or coffins, in the burial chamber and the entrance was sealed up.
Such elaborate burial practices might suggest that the Egyptians were preoccupied with thoughts of death. On the contrary, they began early to make plans for their death because of their great love of life. They could think of no life better than the present, and they wanted to be sure it would continue after death.
Who Was Mummified?
After death, the pharaohs of Egypt usually were mummified and buried in elaborate tombs. Members of the nobility and officials also often received the same treatment and, occasionally, common people did too. However, the process was an expensive one, beyond the means of many.
During the Old Kingdom, it was believed that only pharaohs could attain immortality. Around 2000 BC, however, the purpose of mummification was redefined: Everyone could live in the afterlife as long as the body was mummified and the proper elements were placed in the tomb.
But, since mummification was expensive, only the wealthy were able to take advantage of it. Although mummification was not a strict requirement for resurrection in the next world, it was certainly regarded as a highly desirable means of attaining it.
For religious reasons, some animals were also mummified. The sacred bulls from the early dynasties had their own cemetery at Sakkara. Baboons, cats, birds, and crocodiles, which also had great religious significance, were sometimes mummified, especially in the later dynasties.
How Did Mummification Reflect Egyptian Beliefs?
The ancient Egyptians believed that, when a person died, their spiritual essence survived. This essence went on a journey where it encountered numerous divine and demonic beings, with its ultimate destiny to be judged by Osiris, the god of the dead. If found blameless, the deceased was allowed to live with the gods in an eternal paradise.
In order for the spiritual part of the deceased to make this journey, the body needed to stay intact, which was why the Egyptians placed such importance on mummification, and why the procedure was undertaken with such meticulous care.
This belief was rooted in what they observed each day. The sun fell into the western horizon each evening and was reborn the next morning in the east. New life sprouted from grains planted in the earth, and the moon waxed and waned. As long as order was maintained, everything was highly dependable and life after death could be achieved provided certain conditions were met.
To ensure the continuity of life after death, people paid homage to the gods, both during and after their life on earth. When they died, they were mummified so the soul would return to the body, giving it breath and life.
Conclusion: The End of the Practice
Egyptian mummification was still practiced under Roman rule but gradually faded out in the fourth century. Then, with the advent of Christianity, the mummification process ceased.
Today, except for very rare instances, mummification is a lost art. Most societies consider it bizarre or archaic; a leftover from a bygone time. But echoes of the process can nonetheless be seen in modern funeral homes, where embalming the dead plays a role in honoring our loved ones. Here are the highlights from this article:
- Mummification was an important practice in Egyptian burial customs. The delicate procedure was only performed by special priests, known as embalmers.
- The Egyptians believed it was important for the journey to the afterlife for the body to stay intact.
- This procedure however couldn’t be afforded by everyone. Only the Pharaohs and other nobles could afford the perfect mummification.
- Animals which were important to the household also got mummified.
- Egyptian mummification lasted until Roman rule but ended with the advent of Christianity.
After this overview on mummification in ancient Egypt and its meaning, you can say you’re a real expert!