Mummification: Preparing the Dead for Resurrection

Egyptian collection, British Museum, London, November 2004 - photo by Klafubra License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The following process evolved over centuries of time, and it was really only available to those lucky enough to be in a position to afford it. Its somewhat secretive yet commercial nature provided fertile ground for shoddy practices and corner-cutting, which led to some mummies being preserved rather poorly, and in some cases having missing body parts—an unforgivable sacrilege. You may be surprised to learn that two of the very best to be preserved were in fact Ay’s father and mother, Yuya and Tuya, despite how I chose to paint Ay as a person in The Scarab Heart.

1. First the brain was removed. The ancient Egyptians believed that consciousness and thought resided in the heart, so the brain was considered unimportant. The easiest way to achieve its removal was to insert a hook up through a nostril and into the brain, and, by using the hook as a whisk, turning the brain to a pulp that was then allowed to drain out through the nasal cavity. Hot resin was poured into the skull cavity to burn away any remaining brain tissue. The cavity was then packed with resin-soaked bandage.

Mourner. Could be Isis mourning Osiris. Rare example of Egyptian terracotta sculpture.

Mourner, could be Isis mourning Osiris. Rare example of Egyptian terracotta sculpture.

2. A sharp obsidian blade was used to make a cut along the left side of the abdomen and the liver, stomach and intestines were removed. A second cut was made up through the diaphragm into the chest cavity to remove the lungs. As the priest who made these cuts acted as an embodiment of Set hacking apart his brother’s corpse (see The Osiris Myth), it was only fitting that he be chased out of the embalming chamber by his fellow priests.

3. The organs were now separated and set aside to dry out before being transferred into their final resting place in the deceased’s four canopic jars or chests. The heart was left in situ in the body, so that it would be able to recall the magical spells it had learned to reanimate its owner. If for any reason the heart was missing, then it needed to be replaced—normally by depositing a heart scarab into the chest cavity towards the end of the embalmment period.

4. The abdomen and chest cavities were cleaned, washed out with alcohol, and then packed with a temporary stuffing before the body was covered in natron, a naturally occuring compound of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate and sodium chloride, and left on a sloping slab to dessicate for approximately forty days. The natron salts not only drew out moisture, they also helped to prevent decay.

5. At the end of this period any temporary packing was removed, the body was washed and then re-packed with resin-soaked bandage—or sawdust, or even more natron—and sewn up again. As the body was required to be complete, it’s at this point that any missing body parts were replaced—magically, just as Isis replaced Osiris’s missing body part with one she had constructed magically. Certain cosmetic (but equally magical) adjustments may also have been made at this time: the eyes were pushed back into their sockets and replaced by small stones painted as eyes, the tongue was covered in gold leaf, women’s bodies were painted yellow; men’s were painted red, and make-up and wigs were added.

Anubis mask. Late period. Clay. H 49 cm. IN 1585. Roemer-Pelizaeus Museum, Hildesheim - photo by Einsamer Schütze

Anubis mask - photo by Einsamer Schütze
License: CC BY-SA 2.5

6. Now the bandaging began, led by a priest dressed as Anubis, Lord of the Mummy Wrappings. Roughly a thousand square metres of linen were needed to wrap the corpse. First the head was bound, then the toes and fingers, feet and hands, and legs and arms. The legs were then bound together from the ankle to the hip, and the arms bound to the torso. Finally the body was wrapped again from head to foot, with amulets and charms inserted into the bandages, which were then sealed with hot resin. A funerary mask was fitted over the deceased’s face. Throughout the bandaging the priests recited prayers to ensure the body’s preservation.

7. To complete the process, it was essential that the deceased’s mouth was opened. The ceremony of Opening allowed the soul—the pa—to escape the body, and restored the person’s senses and bodily functions. It started with a procession to the tomb, with mourners wailing and throwing sand over their heads. Then came the act of Opening, where the sem-priests would recite spells exhorting the god Horus to open the mouth while touching it with a ritual tool similar to an adze. This ceremony was followed by a ritual meal, and then the tomb was swept clean and sealed, with any rubbish taken away to be buried elsewhere. Only now, seventy days after death, was the soul free to embark on its journey to the afterlife and Osiris’s Field of Reeds.