Tuesday, July 27, 2010
The Ancient Dead
The word “mummy” comes from the Arabic word mummia, which means bitumen. Bitumen is a naturally-occurring tarlike substance that the Arabs mistakenly thought was used for mummification due to the dark color of the mummies. Only later, in the New Kingdom, was bitumen used in the process.
Mummies primarily dwell in Egypt, where they hide in the Great Pyramids, tombs, mastabas (mud-brick tombs), and forgotten temples. However, mummies are by no means limited to Egypt alone. They can be found all over the world (although one may be hard-pressed to find a living Mummy in any place other than Egypt).
The Mummy appears as a shambling, desiccated corpse wrapped in soiled linen bandages. Underneath the bandages, the rest of the body is extremely well preserved, but is entirely dried out. The eyes are red, and glow in the dark. Usually, the Mummy has some kind of amulet hanging from its neck, as this may be the source of the creature’s power.
Much of the time, the Mummy lies at rest within its tomb. However, when an intruder invades the tomb or disturbs the creature’s eternal rest, the Mummy awakens in a rage, seeking out and attempting to destroy the intruder.
Once the Mummy is reanimated, it possesses a host of supernatural powers at its disposal. The Mummy possesses supernatural strength and endurance, far greater than it possessed in life. The Mummy is nearly indestructible, as bullets have no effect on it. Most blades are unable to penetrate the Mummy’s desiccated flesh, stemming from the supernatural power reanimating the creature’s body. Any abilities that the Mummy possessed in life (like magic) are usually retained in death.
Many of the Mummy’s abilities depend on who the Mummy was in life. For example, the Mummy of a pharaoh or high priest may be able to assume the form of a swarm of scarab beetles or become a thick cloud of desert sand. The Mummy might even be able to summon plagues of biblical proportions, or even command lesser mummies or other forms of the undead. Lesser mummies are extremely strong and relentless, little more than single-minded killers.
But for all the Mummy’s powers, perhaps the most feared of the Mummy’s abilities is the Mummy’s Curse. When an intruder steals from the tomb or even sets foot inside of it, the Mummy may choose to curse the individual, depending on the severity of the would-be thief’s crime and how angry the Mummy happens to be at the moment. The Mummy is bound by sacred law to consummate the curse, at which point it will relentlessly pursue the individual until they lay dead at the Mummy’s desiccated hands. If the Mummy is unable to pursue the individual for some reason or another, the thief will sicken and waste away. He will die, and rise from the dead as an undead servant of the Mummy.
Despite the Mummy’s strength and immunity to pain, the creature is not without its respective weaknesses. While it cannot feel pain, the Mummy can be destroyed by a blast from a powerful firearm (like a shotgun). However, the Mummy’s major weakness is fire, a common weakness among the undead. Since mummies tend to be dry and coated with various oils and resins, the revenant tends to burn extremely well. Thus, fire is the only way to destroy the Mummy forever.
The Mummy has existed for thousands of years. Most of them never had cause to reanimate, but every once in a great while, one of these shambling undead arose from the tomb to take its revenge on those who would dare the wrath of Osiris and desecrate the Mummy’s tomb. To understand this undead creature, one must first understand how mummies were made and what could possibly cause the creature to reanimate.
When the Egyptian religion was first being developed, the people realized that they needed a way to preserve their kings so that they would be recognizable to both the people and their gods eternally. Therefore, the process of mummification was developed over a period of centuries, and was finally perfected. The creation of a Mummy is a very complicated process, carefully developed through the centuries and involving mystic rituals that are still not completely understood today. Embalming is believed to have actually originated in Egypt, probably before 4,000 B.C. Although there are at least three different methods of mummification, only the most important and elaborate will be discussed here.
Several different tools and materials were needed for mummification. Among these tools were bronze knives, hooks, and a blade of obsidian (a naturally-occurring volcanic glass). The materials needed included myrrh, cassia, frankincense, and the resins of the pine, fir, and cedar trees. Others included an assortment of oils, from juniper, cedar, lettuce, and castor, but the key ingredient in mummification in natron.
Known in Egyptian as netjry, or “divine salt,” natron is a naturally-occurring salt compound composed of sodium chloride, sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, and sodium sulphate (basically table salt and baking soda) that occurs in dried lakebeds in the Nile’s western delta, today known as the Wadi Natrun. Used while dry, natron is a powerful desiccating agent, absorbing bodily fluids as well as dissolving fat. It was used to completely dehydrate the body so that it could be mummified.
Now, as for the actual process, it is very complex and time-consuming. First, a long bronze hook or rod was pushed into the nose, breaking through the ethmoid bone and into the cranial cavity. The brain was then stirred with the hook, and using the hooked end, the brain was removed through the nostrils, one piece at a time. They then discarded the brain (they believed that an individual thought with his heart and not with his brain). Next, using an obsidian blade, an incision was made in the lower abdomen (usually the left flank), through which the liver, the intestines, the lungs, and the stomach were removed. These were the parts of the body that decayed the quickest after a person’s death, so their removal was imperative. The slitter (the embalmer who made the incision) ran away quickly, all the while being pelted with stones and cursed at by the other embalmers. They viewed this as a sacrilegious assault upon the body. After the vital organs were removed, only the heart was left untouched.
The vital organs were then separately embalmed and placed in four sacred canopic jars. The incision was then thoroughly cleaned and washed out, first with palm wine and then a mixture of ground spices. The incision was then filled with myrrh, cinnamon, cassia, and all other manner of aromatic substances (with the exception of frankincense), and small linen bags filled with natron were inserted into the body. Then the body was placed on a slanted embalming table, covered in natron with a channel carved into the bottom of the table (through which bodily fluids would drain into a ceramic jar). Afterwards, the entire body was covered in a thick layer of dry natron, from head to toe. Other than regularly replacing the natron (which lost its desiccating properties until dry), the corpse was left alone for forty days to allow the body to become completely dehydrated.
After this period, the desiccated corpse was removed from the natron, and the body was then washed in spiced palm wine, while various oils were rubbed into the dried skin of the corpse to restore some degree of flexibility to the limbs and to deodorize the body as well (resin was also used for this purpose). The cranial cavity was then filled with melted resin. The stuffing was removed from the flank incision and was replaced with bundles of linen and resin to give a more lifelike appearance (this was also done to the face). The abdominal incision was then stitched up, thus completing the basic process of mummification.
Next, the corpse had to be wrapped. First, it was placed inside a linen shroud. Then, hundreds of yards of linen bandages were used for one Mummy. The embalmers painted warm resin onto the bandages to help them stick to the desiccated skin of the Mummy. First, the arms and fingers were carefully wrapped. Then they wrapped the legs and the toes. Then, they wrapped the rest of the body. Every layer, the Mummy would be painted from head to toe in warm resin, and then wrapping would start again. As many as twenty layers of linen bandages could be used on one Mummy. Protective amulets (many made of precious metals and semi-precious stones) were slipped in between the wrappings to protect the body from any mishaps. The Mummy was then adorned with some of its favorite jewelry from life. After the body was bandaged, it was placed inside its coffin, and molten resin was poured over the body. The Mummy, at last, was completed.
As part of the accompanying funeral, the priests performed several mystic rituals, but the most important of these rituals was the Opening of the Mouth ritual. This ritual was meant to reopen the mummy’s eyes, mouth, and ears so that the Mummy would be able to eat, drink, speak, and enjoy its afterlife. With an adze, the priest touched the mouth, hands, and feet of the Mummy, as well as those of the tomb’s statues, wall paintings, and models. This was done so that the Mummy’s spirit could enter and restore life to the deceased individual, and so that the aforementioned inanimate objects could be animated and act on the Mummy’s behalf. After much grieving and lengthy ceremony, the Mummy was then buried. All in all, the entire mummification process took seventy days. The first forty were used to mummify the corpse, and religious rituals occupied the last thirty days.
The Concept of Reanimation
Typically, mummies do not reanimate. However, there are exceptions. The Egyptians believed that a man (or woman) was composed of several different types of souls. Respectively, there were at least nine different aspects of the soul, but only a few have been identified. These aspects of the soul were known as the ba (the personality), the ka (lifeforce), and both were known collectively as the akh. Other aspects included the shuyet (shadow) and the ren (name). An attempt shall be made for an explanation.
The ba is but one part of the soul, the aspect of an individual that made that person unique, a personality of sorts. It is the part of the soul that is able to detach itself from the body and roam independently by means of astral travel. It was primarily released after death, but it could also be released under circumstances while the individual was sleeping (which was seen by the Egyptians as a state akin to death). Although this aspect was supposedly incorporeal, it was apparently able to eat, drink, and speak, as well as move. Despite this, the ba had to return the body every night, or otherwise the Mummy would be unable to survive into the afterlife.
The ka is the lifeforce, a sort of spiritual double or doppelganger. It gives each individual their nature, temperament, and character. The ka is created at birth, living through the individual’s life and beyond their death. It is the energy that animates a living person, and perhaps it is also the force that is capable of reanimating the desiccated flesh of the Mummy as well. It continued to exist only as long as it was provided with the necessary care and sustenance. The ka was given daily offerings, and it was the one which partakes of the food and drink offerings buried with the Mummy.
However, there was the belief that the ka was able to leave the body and wander about, especially if it was not sufficiently provided for. The ancient Egyptians feared that the ka would rise from the grave in a corporeal form as one of the Undead (known to the Egyptians as the kamarupa), clad in its burial clothes, and wander about at night in search of its own food, in the form of human blood, decaying animal flesh, brackish water, or even faeces. Nobody was safe from this walking corpse.
In order for the dead to achieve true immortality, the ka and the ba had to be reunited in the afterlife. Collectively, these two aspects were known as the akh. This was the eternally unchanging and enduring spirit of the deceased, dwelling in the Underworld for eternity. It was seen as an eternal, living being of light, closely associated with both the stars and the gods (with whom it shared some characteristics, but was not truly divine itself). However, not everyone could become an akh. Those that had not lived their lives according to maat (the concept of cosmic order, truth, and justice, personified as a goddess, and the principle at the very heart of ancient Egyptian religion and morality) would either be annihilated or would not pass into the afterlife. These individuals were especially at risk of joining the ranks of the undead.
To become an akh, one had to die first, and completing the process symbolized a successful resurrection and rebirth, transforming from a mortal into an immortal. The akh of the pharaohs (considered to be living gods in their own right) shared the divine power of the gods, and were therefore more divine than their subjects, and thus were far less likely to rise from the grave (although it could still happen).
The ren, or name, of an individual was extremely important, in both this life and the next. A name provided an individual with an identity, and without a name, the individual would utterly cease to exist. To the Egyptians, this was the worst possible fate that they could imagine, and therefore went to extremes to safeguard their names. If one’s name were erased on purpose, the family of the deceased feared for their eternal existence. It was considered to be an effective means of ridding oneself of society’s undesirables forever. In Egyptian magic, knowing an individual’s true name gave one power over that individual. This obsession was common all over the world, and it is still a concern in some cultures today.
The shuyet, or shadow, was said to be a powerful and quick entity in ancient funerary texts, and is due the protection that it deserves. Shadows were thought to be an extension of the soul, and were also associated with the sun. The shadow’s solar associations were linked to the rebirth of an individual: the sun produced a shadow, an image of that person’s soul. When the sun set, the shadow disappeared. The shadow was then resurrected at dawn the next day, and therefore the sun helped the Egyptians to prepare for eternity in the afterlife, no matter what form the individual took.
As for actual reanimation, it is possible. The Egyptians actually expected the Mummy to reanimate and kill intruders. However, reanimation only occurs under certain circumstances, and requires a great deal of supernatural power. A curse, if potent enough, might have such power. To protect the tomb’s occupant (usually a pharaoh or a high priest), priests would inscribe protective spells or curses into the walls, possessions, and the sarcophagus to protect the Mummy from thieves and intruders, with dire consequences for those who dared to ignore them. A curse with sufficient power may force the Mummy’s ka back into the body, causing the desiccated corpse to reanimate. The Mummy is imbued with enough intelligence to know its purpose: drive away or kill all who dared to disturb the Mummy’s tomb. Only the ka was needed for this, as the other aspects would cause the Mummy to become self-aware and prevent it from achieving its purpose. Thus, the other aspects weren’t necessary. The end result was a shambling corpse of supernatural strength and completely relentless in its ordained task.
Brier, Bob. Ancient Egyptian Magic. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. Copyright ©1980 by Bob Brier.
Brier, Bob. Egyptian Mummies: Unraveling the Secrets of an Ancient Art. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. Copyright ©1994 by Bob Brier.
Ikram, Salima. Death and Burial in Ancient Egypt. Great Britain: Pearson Education Limited. Copyright ©2003 by Pearson Education Limited and Salima Ikram.
Redford, Donald B. The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright ©2002 by Oxford University Press, Inc.