Something a little different, a bit of ancient history …. this was first published way back in 1994 in ‘Udolpho’ the magazine of the (now sadly defunct) Gothic Society.
Fade in –Long shot: The Egyptian desert showing by moonlight the rocky range just north of the Valley of the Kings, and, cut into the living rock at the base of the mountain, the columns of the temple of Queen Hatshepsut. There is no sign of human life excepting in the desert, a few hundred yards nearer the camera than the columns of the temple, a ray of light from the window of a plaster hut.
Thus begins the 1932 Universal Picture The Mummy, a tale of living inhumation, reincarnation, warped passion and other multifarious horrors.
Equally many and varied have been the terrifying tales of vengeful mummies, both filmed and written since that date. Indeed even prior to 1932, as early as 1901, a mummy came to life (and decayed) in The Haunted Curiosity Shop, a film directed by British magician Walter R. Booth.
These walking dead were given their semblance of life either by secret spells written on ancient papyrus, by the need to fulfil a terrible curse or sometimes by the burning or drinking of the dreaded Tana Leaves ( a kind of ancient Egyptian pick-me-up for that ‘mourning after’ feeling).
However, we are not so much concerned here with the methods for reanimating the ancient dead, (fascinating though they may be) but rather with how and why those venerable corpses were preserved to begin with.
The reasons for mummification are found in ancient Egyptian religious practices. They believed that the soul of a dead person would return to reoccupy its former carcass. It was necessary, therefore, that the soul should be able to recognize its own body since only by this means could the deceased hope for any kind of existence in the afterlife.
The craft of mummification gradually evolved over many generations. Before about 1500 B.C. mummification was crude and experimental; it reached its most elaborate form in the period from the eighteenth to the twenty-first dynasties (roughly 1500-1000 B.C.) after which it went into a gradual decline. Much of our knowledge of the embalming methods practiced during this period has come down to us, thanks to the efforts of the Greek historian Herodotus, who recorded the Egyptians’ techniques during the fifth century B.C.
The first step in the mummification process was the removal of the brain. Herodotus tells us how it was done: ‘They (the embalmers) drew out the brain through the nostrils with an iron hook, taking part of it out this way and the rest by pouring in drugs’. Scientific examination of a mummy’s skull commonly reveals a hole in the small bones forming the root of the nose, through which the brain substance was extracted. The theory being that after breaking into the brain pan, the hook was moved in a series of lacerating sweeps to liquefy the brain, allowing it to flow out through the nose when the body was placed in a face-down position. Sometimes the procedure was bungled (or perhaps the embalmers were over-zealous) and the nose was severely mutilated – this accounts for the damaged face of Tausert, priestess of Amun in the twenty-second dynasty.
The other main method for removing the brain, was to decapitate the corpse and simply spoon out the tissue through the natural hole in the base of the skull.
The brain, even in its liquid state, was never preserved. It was considered to be an unimportant organ – the Egyptians believing the heart to be the seat of the soul.
The eyes, being the only other organ liable to putrefy rapidly, were also removed at this stage. However, occasionally, they were left in place and have subsequently been found, shrunk to the back of the sockets. In these cases it has sometimes been possible to re-hydrate them to their former size, resulting in a grayish cornea showing between half-open lids. It is interesting to note that this phenomenon was used, to great effect, by the makers of Universal’s classic motion picture.
Shot A21 – Close up mummy; Camera holds this close-up for several feet while nothing happens. Then the eyelids begin to twitch, very slowly, then while the rest of the face remains frozen in its contorted attitude, we suddenly see a gleam of light in the right eye as the twitching eyelid opens a narrow crack.
Of course we should remember that Im-ho-tep (the mummy of the movie) was buried alive, but it must be equally eerie to see the eyes of a three thousand year old corpse ‘twitch and gleam’ in such a way, even as the result of a scientific experiment in the clinical surroundings of a laboratory.
But we digress.
Having emptied the head, the next step was the removal of the organs of the abdomen and chest.
In ancient Egypt there were two types of embalmers: Parischistes and Taricheutes – cutters and salters. Using a sharpened piece of Ethiopian flint,the Parischistes would make a cut, approximately six inches long, on the left side of the abdomen, either vertically from ribs to pelvis or horizontally just above the groin. This incision was big enough for the embalmer to insert his hand and draw out the viscera; intestines, stomach, liver and spleen. The bladder was generally left in place, as were the kidneys which lie flat against the back of the abdomen. The embalmer would then cut through the diaphragm and by this route (and by inserting his entire arm into the corpse) he was able to reach the throat, cut the trachea and oesophagus and pull the lungs out through the abdomen. As previously stated, the heart, as the core of a person’s character, was always left untouched.
The next stage was washing the internal cavities with water and palm wine. The internal organs themselves were preserved by being soaked in molten resin, wrapped in linen and placed in Canopic jars, each of which carried a depiction of the head of one of the four sons of Horus (guardian of the entrails). These jars were then buried with, or sometimes within the body.
The female reproductive organs were always removed, a linen tampon being placed inside the vagina and the external genitalia covered in a resinous paste. A male’s penis and testicles were almost always left untouched. If they were removed, as happened in the case of Seti I and Rameses II, they were preserved inside a statue of the god Osiris. Having dealt with the internal organs, we now come to the preservation of the body itself. For that we need what has become, perhaps, the most famous substance in all mummification, and once again, at the point where Im-ho-tep has the heroine (Helen Grosvenor) in his evil clutches, Universal Pictures provides the answer:
Shot L42 Two Shot – Im-ho-tep and Helen; She scrambles up off the slab as Im-ho-tep rises. She turns and sees the steaming cauldron. She screams ……’ The bath of Natron. You shall not plunge my body into that……’
So, what was Natron, and how was it used ?
What it was is easy, and for such a supposedly mysterious substance, somewhat disappointing. It was simply a mixture of Sodium Carbonate and Sodium Bicarbonate, which could be found in deposits along the shores of lakes around Cairo and Alexandria.
However, the question of how it was used, in solid or liquid form, has been the subject of much expert discussion. Some theorized that the bodies were weighted and placed in huge vats of liquid natron. But this would have resulted in a certain amount of disintegration and care would have been needed to ensure that bits and pieces from different bodies were not mixed up – lack of care was often cited as the reason why mummies were occasionally found with a missing leg – or even three arms.
The problem was finally resolved by an experiment comparing the preservation of pigeons in both solid and liquid natron. The pigeon treated in solution rapidly became a foul-smelling mess from which all the flesh had dissolved, while the bird treated with dry natron was recognizable and well preserved, albeit somewhat shrunken. It now seems certain that the Egyptians packed the body, inside and out, with dry natron which they then left to do its work for five or six weeks. After that time, the now dehydrated corpse was washed and dried with linen towels.
The final step to complete the process was the stuffing and bandaging of the body.
The embalmers usually started by pouring hot resin into the brain cavity. The body was then packed with lichen, sawdust or wads of cloth impregnated with the same resin. Even onions were sometimes placed in the abdomen. Onions were also placed, for greater realism, in the eye-sockets, as happened in the case of Rameses IV.
What resulted from this entire procedure was a rigid dry corpse which then had to be softened up for bandaging. This was achieved by massaging the body with sweet smelling oil or grease. Some of the unguents utilized here were cedar oil, oil of
turpentine, cumin oil, along with other incenses and certain minerals. Molten resin was then poured into the body to fill any gaps left in the stuffing. The abdominal incision was occasionally stitched up, but more often simply sealed with hot wax. The mouth and nose were then filled with cloth and the body was given a coat of paint, red for men and saffron for women. Later refinements included making the corpse look less emaciated, by packing mud, sand or sawdust between the cheeks and gums, and also between the muscles and skin of the neck, thighs, buttocks and arms. However, most of these cosmetic improvements are not found until the twenty-first dynasty.
Most corpses then had their arms crossed over their chest, the hands touching the shoulders. Sometimes though, the arms were laid out along the body, the hands touching the thighs in women and covering the genitals in men.
The bandaging of the corpse was a complicated and careful procedure which could take anything up to fourteen days to complete. The bandages were made of linen impregnated with a resin called ‘Mumm’ – hence ‘mummification’ – hence ‘mummy’.
It is clear from archaeological evidence that the wrapping of the body was carried out in stages – in one instance, two mice, which had burrowed into the bandages, were trapped when the next layer was added, their skeletons were only discovered when the body was unwrapped – three thousand years later.
If the body was that of a Pharaoh or some other high-ranking dignitary, ornate gold funerary masks were sometimes placed over the head and shoulders; other lesser worthies were given a head covering of cardboard called a cartonnage. In later times portraits painted on wood covered the face.
The amount of time and money needed to complete the process described above meant that the full treatment was something only the rich could afford. The lower classes had to risk their chances of eternal life by undergoing a more simplified method of preservation. First of all, copious quantities of cedar oil were injected into the bowel via the anus, this was then plugged and the body placed in natron for a number of days. Upon removal, the anus was unplugged and the , by now liquefied, contents of the abdomen were allowed to flow out through it; the corpse was then bandaged and buried.
The very poorest people had to make do with a simple purge and natron treatment.
However slim the chances of the poor, the craftsmanship employed in embalming some of the Pharaohs has resulted in remarkable preservation for thousands of years. For example, Rameses II (1298-35 B.C.) died aged ninety-six, having reigned for sixty-five years, married two hundred women and fathered ninety-six sons and sixty daughters. Yet his body is in such a good state of preservation, that today, if you go to Cairo museum, it is still possible to identify the blackheads on his face.
Queen Hatshepsut, who proclaimed herself Pharaoh, dressed as a man and had herself portrayed with a beard, still has a full head of long brown hair falling about her shoulders more than three thousand years after her death.
However, if the Pharaoh died violently, the best efforts of the embalmers often went for nothing. Whether Sequenere died in battle or was assassinated remains unknown – what is obvious to all, are the wounds that killed him. There are axe cuts to the forehead, eye-socket and cheek, and a javelin thrust extending from below the left ear to the top of the spine. Sequenere’s body had started to decompose prior to embalming and his brain was left in situ. Thousands of years later, the smell still exuding from his mummy is extremely unpleasant.
Equally, poor technique could result in poor preservation. Too much mud was injected under the face of Henattaui and instead of producing a lifelike effect, her skin has now split and detached from her skull.
Even after successful embalming and burial, corpses could suffer at the hands of grave-robbers. Such a fate awaited both Rameses VI, whose head is mutilated by knife cuts and Amenophis, who lost his right hand and both feet. Far better preserved were a bunch of Delphiniums buried with him which, three thousand years later, still retained their scent.
One final preserved mystery came to light when the mummy of the princess Makare was discovered. She was a priestess and therefore a virgin, yet there was what appeared to be the mummy of an infant sharing her coffin. Had she succumbed to fleshly temptation and been condemned and buried with her child for her sacrilege? No – when an x-ray was taken in the late sixties, the baby turned out to be a baboon. Makare had been buried with her pet to keep her company on her journey through the afterlife.
The embalming of animals was a common practice in ancient Egypt, countless thousands being buried in huge graveyards. Not just baboons but bulls, rams, dogs, ibises crocodiles and, of course, cats. The latter was natural enough since the Egyptians considered the cat a sacred animal; but times and beliefs change, and in 1859 when a cat graveyard was discovered, three hundred thousand mummified felines were disinterred and shipped to Britain for use as fertilizer.
How the mighty are fallen ……..(I speak as a Cat owner)
And so, when all is said and done, we today are left with one last question. With all the skills of the embalmers and good intentions of the priests, would it really be possible to reawaken one of these ancient rulers from his or her eternal slumbers? The only answer to that is another question….
Has anyone ever really tried?
But just in case you ever have the opportunity and are tempted, you would do well to bear in mind the fate which eventually befell Im-ho-tep (who, by the way really existed)……..
Shot L67 (part) – Close shot Im-ho-tep; The mummy has desiccated, as mummies do when not properly embalmed after they are exposed to the air. The leg bones are seen, the head has separated from the trunk and is little more than a skull. One arm has come off. We see some bones, some dark skin…… The robe mercifully covers most of the remains… … Fade out.