1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mummy

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MUMMY (from the Persian mumiai, pitch or asphalt), a dead body, as preserved by the ancient Egyptian method of embalming. The preservative climate of Upper Egypt and the belief of the Egyptians in life after death must be the causes which led them to take unusual care for preserving the bodies of their dead. In prehistoric times in Egypt the dead were laid in the graves on mats in the crouching position common in the burials of primitive peoples, and were supplied with jars of food, flint instruments, &c. Perhaps the attempt was already made to preserve the bodies by drying or otherwise. In a few instances, such bodies, probably more than five thousand years old, have been found with skin and hair well preserved though dried and shrunken; usually everything but the bones has decayed. With the advent of the Dynasties the bodies of some of the principal people are found lying extended at full length. By the time of the VIth Dynasty it was usual to lay the corpse on its left side in the attitude of sleep, and a wooden coffin was often provided upon which were inscribed magic formulae that had already been employed for ages in ritual. In the Middle Kingdom necropolis of Beni Hasan, Garstang found many intact interments in coffins, and in one case the body was well preserved. Several were accompanied by boxes divided into four compartments and inscribed with the names of the four deities who represented the internal organs of the body. This indicates that the custom of taking out these organs and wrapping them separately was already in vogue in the most lavish form of burial. But the parcels, examined by an expert, contained no trace of organic remains, proving how much the Egyptians depended on magic imitations and make-believe. It was not until the New Kingdom that the processes of embalming reached a high degree of elaboration. Later still, in the last millennium B.C., it seems that even the bodies of the poor were pickled. The embalmers were accustomed to keep the corpse in all for seventy days before burial (cf. Gen. I. 3; Herod. ii. 86), to be soaked, wrapped in linen bandages, and put in the coffin. This is confirmed by the monuments as far back as the age of Rameses II. (c. 1300 B.C.) and may be conjectured to have been established still earlier.

The Egyptians did not stop at the mummification of the human body; sacred animals, birds, reptiles, fishes, and even insects were treated in a similar way, and the meat offerings deposited with the wealthy dead were likewise “preserved.” Vast cemeteries of animals which belonged to the revered species have been discovered; more especially may be mentioned that of the cats at Bubastis, the remains of which, charred by some great fire, until recently filled numberless chambers of crude brick in the ruins at Zagazig. In the hawk cemeteries birds were pickled and buried in long bundles, forming sometimes an assortment that is not without incongruities from the naturalist's point of view. From a few of these bundles may be extracted not only numbers of raptorial birds, large and small, including owls, but also the hawk-like cuckoo, the shrike, and even the swallow. The larger animals were represented in mummies by the head and a selection of the bones. Bones of bulls and male calves, especially crania, were collected and formed into huge ox-like mummies.

What the Egyptians really thought of mummification can only be partially guessed. Custom, changing in some degree from century to century, governed their practice, and no doubt was regulated by the priests. At first the luxury of mummification was reserved for the king, who was identified with Osiris and was buried with an abundance of ritual and magic words. But the king required his courtiers, and his courtiers in turn needed their servants in permanent attendance. Partly in consequence of this, the deification of the king, with all its concomitants, was gradually extended through the ranks of the noble and wealthy until it came within the reach of the humblest, and even animals shared the honour of deification after death. Finally, in a papyrus of the Roman age, the word “god” is practically defined as “buried,” i.e. with due rites. Beliefs regarding the gods and life after death were self-contradictory and variable, but none interfered with the custom of preserving the body. It was always the prayer that the soul (bai) should be able to revisit the corpse (khat), and some inscriptions show an expectation of the body itself being revivified, “the mouth speaking,” "the legs walking,” and everything conforming with its previous terrestrial life. At the same time the ko (“life,” “activity,” and almost “ghost,”) which clung to the neighbourhood of the tomb and enjoyed the ghosts of offerings in ghostly fashion, had some of the independent enterprise which the bai possessed in abundance. The mummified corpse as a divine thing—not the mere khat—was called the sahu (an old word meaning “noble”) or ikh, which in the latter period meant a spirit or demon. As the corpse was found generally to disappear and decay in spite of preservative magic, especially in the early ages, various substitutes were resorted to; statues and statuettes were thought efficacious, but, apart from their costliness, even these were subject to decay or destruction by violence, and in the absence of anything more substantial the Egyptians doubtless reflected that magic words alone in the last resort made everything right.

Under the Old Kingdom the attendance on and services for a dead magnate—the sacrifices and libations at his tomb—were left, together with endowments, to a staff of priests, called “servants of the ko(/ka),” whose offices were hereditary. This system led to disputes and neglect, and was so unworkable that we find in the texts of the Middle Kingdom the whole responsibility put upon one well-endcwed “ko-servant,” who passed on his office to a single heir. How these things were managed during the New Kingdom we do not know. In the last thousand years B.C. the life of the Egyptians consisted largely in every kind of religious and superstitious observances. Papyri of the Ptolemaic age or somewhat earlier afford much information about the people of the necropolis. In this age the choachytae, as the Greeks called them (“libation priests,” or “shrine-openers” in Egyptian), belonged to an inferior grade of the priesthood, equivalent to the pastophori of the deities, and were organized in gilds for the different cemeteries. A single choachyte would have an interest, not always the sole interest, in a large number of mummies, and these interests could be disposed of by will or contract, bought and sold. The taricheutae, or embalmers, had no permanent interest in the mummies they prepared.

Thanks to the great care expended on the preservation of the royal dead, although the mummies of all the other kings have disappeared, a wonderful series of the Theban kings and queens of the New Kingdom from the XVIIth Dynasty to the XXIst Dynasty has come down to us. It comprises some of the most notable figures in Egyptian history—Ahmosi (Amasis) I., who freed Egypt from the Hyksos, Tethmosis I. and III., the conquerors of Syria and makers of the empire, Amenophis III., the great builder, whose likeness is preserved in the colossi of Memnon, probably also his son, Amenophis IV. (Akhenaton), the heretic king, and Seti (Sethos) I. and his son Rameses II. The mummy of Seti I. is in the finest possible preservation, but others, after being brutally plundered, were rewrapped by the piety of later generations.

In Lower Egypt practically all the mummies have perished; but in Upper Egypt, as they were put out of reach of the inundation, the cemeteries, in spite of rifling and burning, yield immense numbers of preserved bodies and skeletons; attention has from time to time been directed to the scientific examination of these in order to ascertain race, cause of death, traces of accident or disease, and the surgical or medical processes which they had undergone during life, &c. This department of research has been greatly developed by Dr Elliott Smith in Cairo. He has examined not only the more recently found of the royal mummies, but also multitudes of skeletons, &c., which have been brought from the official excavations of the government and from other work. His researches, in particular instances, prove their high importance for the history of disease, for characterization of the races inhabiting Egypt, and in other ways. The cemeteries just south of the First Cataract on a first examination reveal a prehistoric race of Egyptian type, a group of male negro mercenaries, a group of male prisoners executed by hanging during the New Kingdom, while from a necropolis of Christian foreigners of about the 6th century comes the first instance of gout in an ancient body from Egypt. Among the prehistoric people are many female skeletons with a fractured right ulna sustained in warding off blows, and some of these women had died while still wearing splints. Circumcision is traceable on all the male bodies which are in a state to show its effects. The royal mummies furnish evidence of age at death as well as of health and physical character. A series of forty-four mummies of priests and priestesses of the XXIst Dynasty furnished the material for an important monograph. Earlier, the processes of mummification produced a skeleton merely clothed in a dry and shrunken skin. At this time, however, the flesh was replaced by a stuffing of sawdust, sand, or other lasting material, introduced with great skill through a few incisions and apertures, so that the natural forms were completely restored. The heart was left in place, but the liver, lungs, stomach and intestines were pickled and wrapped separately and then restored to the body cavity. Later, the form was reproduced by elaborate external wrappings of the different parts of the body before the final swathing; later still, in the Ptolemaic age, by coarse padding with plenty of linen and pitch. The XXIst Dynasty marks the highest level of the art. The Christians of the early centuries, looking for corporeal resurrection, avoided the incisions, extraction of organs, &c., practised by their pagan forefathers, and buried the body entire after pickling it in salt. Their stricter leaders, however, objected to a custom which so easily led to the worship of relics and the continuance of pagan observances; and with the advent of Islam embalming fell into disuse.

Outside Egypt mummification was practised amongst the ancient Peruvians, who took advantage of the desiccating atmosphere and salt soil of their caves for preserving the dead in good condition without any embalming process. Among the Guanches of the Canary Islands, however, the Egyptian methods of emptying the body and padding he skin were closely paralleled.

A word may be added about the use of mummy in medicine. The name, as has been pointed out above, is derived from the Persian mumiai, meaning pitch or asphalt, which substance occurs frequently in the prescriptions of the Greek and Roman medical writers. Medieval physicians in the East conceived the happy idea that the highest virtue would exist in that which had been already employed by the Egyptian priests in preserving the human body. Thus the bituminous and fatty matters found about the mummies and their wrappings were employed as a sovereign remedy, particularly for wounds and contusions, and a brisk trade began in these “exudations” of mummies. This led further to the medicinal use of fragments of the mummies themselves; and, finally, the starting-point was lost sight of, so that the dried or prepared flesh of criminals became one of the standard forms of mummy in the pharmacopoeia. It was not till the 18th century that the importance of mummy in all its forms waned, and in some of the least progressive quarters of central Europe it survived even to the middle of the 19th.

See T. J. Pettigrew, A History of Egyptian Mummies (London, 1834); G. Elliott Smith, A Contribution to the Study of Mummification in Egypt (Cairo, 1906); The Archaeological Survey of Nubia Bulletins (Cairo, 1908 seq.); Dr Lortet and M. C. Gaillard, La Faune momifiée de l'ancienne Egypte (Lyons, 1905); A. Wiedemann, “Mumie als Heilmittel,” in Zeitschrift des Vereins für rheinische und westfälische Volkskunde (1906). (F. Ll. G.)