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Mummies of Egypt

QUESTION: Why were the mummies of Egypt so important to its people?


While mummy-making cultures existed all over the world, ancient Egypt is best known for preserving anything from a peasant to a pharaoh, a cat to a crocodile. To pass from death to an afterlife, embalmers painstakingly prepared the body. The Egyptians believed that five nonphysical aspects coexisted with their body -- the major ones were the ba, the ka, and akh (similar to the idea of spirits and souls). After death the ba and ka took care of the person -- but only if there was a mummy to visit. Without a mummy, the person would not travel their long journey to their afterlife (akh) to a state of immortality.

How were the mummies of Egypt prepared?
Egypt’s hot climate caused a rapid decomposition. Immediate attention was given to the body’s organs, which were the first to decay. Embalmers, who were always men, worked in open-air tents on the west bank of the Nile River -- the side associated with death where the sun “died” each day. The body was initially purified by washing it in a solution of natron (mineral salts). A team of embalmers in the “House of Beauty” each quickly handled a specific task. First the “non-essential” brain was broken down, suctioned out through the left nostril, and discarded. A “scribe” marked an incision line along the abdomen. The left side of the abdomen was then opened by the “slitter,” and with his bare hands, the lungs, liver, intestines, and stomach were removed. These organs were individually mummified and placed in canopic jars by the “pickler.” The “essential” heart and kidneys were left undisturbed.

The next phase of mummification consisted of drying out the body, removing as much moisture as possible. As much as 500 lbs. of natron might be used. Rags and straw were also inserted into the body cavity to give it a lifelike shape. Complete dehydration would take 40 days. The final stage was wrapping the body in linen strips -- a job that took 15 days. In the case of pharaohs, items of jewelry, plaques, and all sorts of amulets were included within the wrappings. The mummy of Tutankhamen contained 143 such items. In all, the entire process of mummification took 70 days.

Where were the mummies of Egypt laid to rest?
The dead person’s family provided a “chest of life” or house for the ka. This coffin often acted as a “body double” and was ornately decorated. Protective spells were inscribed upon it, as well as a “map” showing the route to the afterlife. If the body was somehow lost, the coffin would become a substitute so the person could still attain immortality.

The coffin was placed in a tomb. Outside the tomb, a priest touched the mouth, ears, eyes, and nose of the mummy. This “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony restored the person’s senses so that they would function in the afterlife. The canopic jars as well as goods needed in the spirit world were left with the coffin. The wealthy buried everything from food to furniture in the tomb. The tomb entrance was then permanently sealed. Each hollow body preserved for thousands of years . . . forever waiting to live again.

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