1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Embalming

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EMBALMING (Gr. βάλσαμον, balsam; Ger. Einbalsamiren; Fr. embaumement), the art of preparing dead bodies, chiefly by the use of medicaments, in order to preserve them from putrefaction and the attacks of insects. The ancient Egyptians carried the art to great perfection, and embalmed not only human beings, but cats, crocodiles, ichneumons, and other sacred animals. It was at one time suggested that the origin of embalming in Egypt was to be traced to a want of fuel for the purpose of cremation, to the inadvisability or at some times impossibility of burial in a soil annually disturbed by the inundation of the Nile, and to the necessity, for sanitary reasons, of preventing the decomposition of the bodies of the dead when placed in open sepulchres. As, however, the corpses of the embalmed must have constituted but a small proportion of the aggregate mass of animal matter daily to be disposed of, the above explanation would in any case be far from satisfactory; and there is no doubt (see Mummy) that embalming originated in the idea of preserving the body for a future life. According to W. H. Prescott, it was a belief in a resurrection of the body that led the ancient Peruvians to preserve the air-dried corpses of their dead with so much solicitude (see Conquest of Peru, bk. i. chap. iii.). And J. C. Prichard (Egyptian Mythology, p. 200) properly compared the Egyptian practice with the views which rendered “the Greeks and Romans so anxious to perform the usual rites of sepulture to their departed warriors, namely, ... that these solemnities expedited the journey of the soul to the appointed region, where it was to receive judgment for its former deeds, and to have its future doom fixed accordingly.” It has been supposed by some that the discovery of the preservation of bodies interred in saline soils may have been the immediate origin of embalming in Egypt. In that country certain classes of the community were specially appointed for the practice of the art. Joseph, we are told in Gen. l. 2, “commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father.”

Herodotus (ii. 86) gives an account of three of the methods of embalming followed by the Egyptians. The most expensive of these, which cost a talent of silver (£243: 15s.), was as follows. The brains were in part removed through the nostrils by means of a bent iron implement, and in part by the injection of drugs. The intestines having been drawn out through an incision in the left side, the abdomen was cleansed with palm-wine, and filled with myrrh, cassia and other materials, and the opening was sewed up. This done, the body was steeped seventy days in a solution of litron or natron.[1] Diodorus (i. 91) relates that the cutter (παρασχίστης) appointed to make the incision in the flank for the removal of the intestines, as soon as he had performed his office, was pursued with stones and curses by those about him, it being held by the Egyptians a detestable thing to commit any violence or inflict a wound on the body. After the steeping, the body was washed, and handed over to the swathers, a peculiar class of the lowest order of priests, called by Plutarch cholchytae, by whom it was bandaged in gummed cloth; it was then ready for the coffin. Mummies thus prepared were considered to represent Osiris. In another method of embalming, costing twenty-two minae (about £90), the abdomen was injected with “cedar-tree pitch” (κεδρία), which, as it would seem from Pliny (Nat. Hist. xvi. 21), was the liquid distillate of the pitch-pine. This is stated by Herodotus to have had a corrosive and solvent action on the viscera. After injection the body was steeped a certain number of days in natron; the contents of the abdomen were allowed to escape; and the process was then complete. The preparation of the bodies of the poorest consisted simply in placing them in natron for seventy days, after a previous rinsing of the abdomen with “syrmaea.” The material principally used in the costlier modes of embalming appears to have been asphalt; wax was more rarely employed. In some cases embalming seems to have been effected by immersing the body in a bath of molten bitumen. Tanning also was resorted to. Occasionally the viscera, after treatment, were in part or wholly replaced in the body, together with wax figures of the four genii of Amenti. More commonly they were embalmed in a mixture of sand and asphalt, and buried in vases, or canopi, placed near the mummy, the abdomen being filled with chips and sawdust of cedar and a small quantity of natron. In one jar were placed the stomach and large intestine; in another, the small intestines; in a third, the lungs and heart; in a fourth, the gall-bladder and liver. Porphyry (De abstinentia, iv. 10) mentions a custom of enclosing the intestines in a box and consigning them to the Nile, after a prayer uttered by one of the embalmers, but his statement is regarded by Sir J. G. Wilkinson as unworthy of belief. The body of Nero’s wife Poppaea, contrary to the usage of the Romans, was not burnt, but as customary among other nations with the bodies of potentates, was honoured with embalmment (see Tacitus, Ann. xvi. 6). The body of Alexander the Great is said to have been embalmed with honey (Statius, Silv. iii. 2. 117), and the same material was used to preserve the corpse of Agesipolis I. during its conveyance to Sparta for burial. Herodotus states (iii. 24) that the Ethiopians, in embalming, dried the body, rubbed it with gypsum (or chalk), and, having painted it, placed it in a block of some transparent substance. The Guanches, the aborigines of the Canaries, employed a mode of embalming similar to that of the Egyptians, filling the hollow caused by the removal of the viscera with salt and an absorbent vegetable powder (see Bory de Saint Vincent, Essais sur les Îles Fortunées, 1803, p. 495). Embalming was still in vogue among the Egyptians in the time of St Augustine, who says that they termed mummies gabbarae (Serm. 120, cap. 12).

In modern times numerous methods of embalming have been practised. Dr Frederick Ruysch of Amsterdam (1665–1717) is said to have utilized alcohol for this purpose. By William Hunter essential oils, alcohol, cinnabar, camphor, saltpetre and pitch or rosin were employed, and the final desiccation of the body was effected by means of roasted gypsum placed in its coffin. J. P. Boudet (1778–1849) embalmed with tan, salt, asphalt and Peruvian bark, camphor, cinnamon and other aromatics and corrosive sublimate. The last-mentioned drug, chloride and sulphate of zinc, acetate and sulphate of alumina, and creasote and carbolic acid have all been recommended by various modern embalmers.

See Mummy; Louis Penicher, Traité des embaumements (Paris, 1669); S. Blancard, Anatomia reformata, et de balsamatione nova methodus (Lugd. Bat., 1695); Thomas Greenhill, The Art of Embalming (London, 1705); J. N. Marjolin, Manuel d’anatomie (Paris, 1810); Pettigrew, History of Mummies (London, 1834); Gannal, Traité d’embaumements (Paris, 1838; 2nd ed., 1841); Magnus, Das Einbalsamiren der Leichen (Brunsw., 1839); Sucquet, Embaumement (Paris, 1872); Lessley, Embalming (Toledo, Ohio, 1884); Myers, Textbook of Embalming (Springfield, Ohio, 1900); Rawlinson, Herodotus, vol. ii. p. 141; G. Elliot Smith, A Contribution to the Study of Mummification in Egypt (Cairo, 1906).

  1. Neutral carbonate of sodium, Na2CO3, found at the natron lakes in the Libyan desert, and at El Hegs, in Upper Egypt.