Final Paper, COMPSTD 2367.04, SP 2015,
George H. Uhrman, Jr., DVM, 04/24/2015
Ancient Egyptian Funerary Technology;
Embracing Death through Cultural Beliefs, Rituals, and Mummification.
Pic1 (8). The Weighing of the Heart ritual, shown in the Book of the Dead of Sesostris.
I believe our respect and reverence for life itself brings us, as Homo sapiens, to respect and revere death; not as an aspect of life, but rather, as its own entity, a new journey, an uncharted travel to a place no one has ventured before. Moreover, Egyptians embraced death even though no one had personal experience with it and developed their unique funerary services, or technology. Ancient Egyptian Funerary Technology emphasized two mandates; first, an adherence to cultural beliefs and rituals laid out in The Book of The Dead, and second, mummification as a means of body preservation. The Egyptian Civilization believed it was necessary to have rituals and spells to access the Afterlife and a functional body for the soul to inhabit and navigate the Kingdom of the Dead (1).
Across Mother Earth we have found many cultures and ethnicities celebrate varying funerary practices with respect to their clan. We can look to early Greek narratives for insight into funerary practices, as they are the only “earliest” recorded narratives, ca. 2200 BCE (Before Common Era) — 135 CE (Common Era), to have survived, for many reasons. They speak to the role of myth in the classical world; famous Greek heroes such as Gilgamesh, Herakles, and Theseus tackle “Classical Greek issues”, such as death and dying. The Greek Myths helped everyday Greeks understand the questions surrounding their lives; death, the most allusive of all ideologies.
As with the early Greeks, most individuals of this time period saw death as an individual experience. With the advent of Christianity, arose the concept of an apocalypse; an all-consuming, world-wide event capable of destroying all of humanity. Even with this idea of Apocalypse, many cultures and ethnicities stood by their “individual death experience” and continue to follow “traditional” funerary practices; “traditional” for their people. This narrative will address one such “early” funerary practice or “technology”, which is depicted in the Egyptian “Book of the Dead” (1), (3); a cryptic collection of tailored, individual instructions for prominent, “Royal” Egyptians to succeed in the afterlife, an afterlife travel guide if-you-will.
The “Book of the Dead” was not a mass-produced collective of funerary technology; but rather, a catalog of hymns, epithets and magical spells tailored exclusively to protect the owner, and his family, and magically assure their continued existence in the afterlife and unencumbered journey in the Underworld. These hymns, epithets, and magical spells were recited by a priest at the embalming of the body. Outside being written on papyrus scroll, these funerary directives, or texts, could also be found inscribed on the inner surfaces of coffins or tomb walls (2). The “Book of the Dead”, most often written in hieroglyphic script and illustrated with vignettes, was placed in the coffin or burial tomb.
Pic2 (9). An authentic “Book of the Dead”, on display at the British Museum, Nov. 2010.
Each individual “Book of the Dead”, contained spells, some to be spoken by a priest during the embalming or mummification of the body of the deceased; others to ensure their safety, and yet others allowing the deceased to engage in the world around him. Egyptians looked to Osiris, the mythological Egyptian god of death, for guidance when they were selecting hymns and magical spells to customize their personal “Book of the Dead”. The Osiris Myth contained hundreds of ritualistic magical spells, epitaphs, hymns and litanies that an individual could choose from. In addition, paintings and illustrations were often personal enhancements placed in “their book” to gain favor with the guardians of the gate to the Afterlife as well as Osiris (1).
Egyptian funerary technology of the time would have placed great emphasis on the process of mummification. By definition, mummification as a process, is a series of physical and chemical applications, in addition to, ritualistic magical spells, epitaphs, hymns and litanies recited by an Egyptian priest at the time the body is embalmed; all of which is designed to minimize or arrest tissue decomposition (1), (3), and (5).
Anthropologists and historical scholars alike credit the Egyptians with the origination and refinement of the funerary technology known as mummification; despite other discoveries of mummification from other cultures around the world, i.e. Peru, Guanche mummies in England, and the Canary Islands (5). To understand why mummification originated with the Egyptians and the process and refinement as a technology we first must examine Egyptian Cosmogonies.
Cosmogonies are narratives, or stories about how everything in existence came into being; also referred to as creation myths (1). To early cultures in the Mesopotamian region of northern Africa, creation myths provided a foundation for religion, cultural morays, and in many respects an ancient “Mediterranean Family Tree”, if you will. These cosmogonies established religious directives for the polytheist societies of the time; crafting a fundamental means to worship many gods in a way that offered answers to philosophic questions, such as, “Is there an after-life?” Egyptians believed that death offered so much more than the act of dying; provided, the individual be of high social status, they have accumulated wealth, and that they believe they can influence and actively participate in their final outcome. Egyptians understood death as something to be managed and in turn life could be restored. Guided by their dedication and worship to the god of death, Osiris, ancient Egyptians turned to The Osiris Myth to choose from a litany of thousands of magical spells, hymns, and epitaphs to create an individualized, custom Pyramid Text, Coffin Text, or Book of the Dead (1). The Osiris Myth also validated how Egyptians understood the necessity for cultural rituals and mummification of the body.
Of parallel, if not paramount, importance to Egyptian funerary practice was the preservation of the body to the best of their capabilities; a procedural technique called embalming. But through the translation of Egyptian funerary texts and narratives by Greek and Roman authors we now know that embalming of the body was more than a series of physical and chemical applications, i.e. mummification, designed to minimize or arrest the decomposition of tissue. Rather, embalming was the mutual employment of traditional tissue preservation practices plus ritualistic magical spells and religious hymns and litanies recited by an Egyptian priest (1) (3). Through the many spells, epitaphs and hymns of The Osiris Myth, Egyptians came to understand that the soul and the body must be kept fully functional in order to navigate the kingdom of death. The religious rituals applied to the soul and the mortuary practice of mummification preserved the body.
Mummification began with the descendant lying face up on a flat stone in the mortuary. Mortuaries were typically built in catacombs or subterranean crypts were cool and often arid air conditions were present, facilitating desiccation, or water loss of the body tissues. Removal of tissue water content is essential to successful mummification. Next, the abdominal viscera and organs are removed, washed and desiccated; then individually wrapped in small packages for return to the abdominal cavity at the final stage of preparation, wrapping of the body in linen. Next, the brain is liquefied and removed from the skull using a special implement and one of many possible entrance/exit sites created in the floor of the calvarium. At this point the abdominal cavity is washed thoroughly and dried; the body is then flexed into a fetal or sitting position and lowered into a concentrated salt bath, in a large jar, with the head exposed (5). The degree of desiccation and the relative time frame to complete this is directly proportional to the ratio of skin surface area to the underlying body volume. The desiccation process is complete when the epidermis of the skin easily abrades. At this point the body is removed from the salt bath, rinsed and dried thoroughly with meticulous detail paid to replacing any finger nails or toe nails that have unintentionally fallen loose and coating the abdominal cavity with a mixture of oils and fragrances. Next, the small packages of abdominal organs are placed in the abdominal cavity and the wound is traditionally closed with a plate of wax (1). Finally, the body is coated in a mixture of oil and fragrance, wrapped twice with long tapes of linen and then covered with a mixture of oil, fragrances and resins. This final wrapping ensures the maintenance of tissue desiccation and to prevent insects from desecrating the body (4) (5).
In conclusion, Ancient Egyptian Funerary Technology centered on two mandates; one, an adherence to cultural beliefs and rituals as laid out in The Book of the Dead, and two, mummification as a means of body preservation. When we consider technology as a construct our attention tends to turn to the more modern technological advancements we surround ourselves with each day. Despite their seductive allure, today’s technologies may be purely for profit; but, a closer look at some of man’s ancient technologies often uncovers a collaboration between religious ideals and rituals, mythological themes, human necessity, and early applied science. Egypt’s funerary technology is one such early civilization technology that is a complimentary blend of mythology and early applied science. Our insights into Ӧtzi (7), the Iceman mummy discovered in the Alps, demonstrated that technology does not have to be modern, it just has to be an advanced practice of that time. From the Iceman’s clothing, flint, wood used in his equipment, and his copper axe, scientists were able to get a glimpse into the Iceman’s technology at that time. But what is not readily apparent in the technology are his religious ideals and rituals; not to mention, the full human necessity inherent in his life. We will never know about Ӧtzi’s beliefs surrounding death; we can only speculate on how he lived. Fortunately, through ancient narratives and concrete evidence found in pyramids, we have more information on how a whole civilization, the Egyptians, faced death with reverence.
1) Lopez-Ruiz, Carolina. Gods, Heroes, and Monsters. New York, NY. Oxford University Press, 2014. p. 23 – 27, p. 445 – 451. Print
2) Lichtheim, Miriam (1975). Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol 1. London, England: Universitym of California Press.
3) ASSMANN, JAN, and DAVID LORTON. Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2005. Print.
4) Mummies. Lynnerup, Niels. American Journal of Physical Anthropology vol. 134 issue S45 2007. p. 162 – 190.
5) Dawson, Warren R. “Contributions to the History of Mummification.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 20.6 (1927): 832–854. Print.
6) Dunn, Jimmy (22 August 2011). “An Overview of Mummification in Ancient Egypt”. Retrieved 9, November 2013.
7) “Ӧtzi–the Iceman homepage.” South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology | Part. IVA, 2013. <http://www.iceman.it/en/node/226>
8) Pic1. Detail from the book of the dead of Sesostris, 15th century b.c. (Vienna, Austria]).
9) Pic2. Robertson, Graema. The Guardian 2010. In Pictures: the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead at the British Museum.