Mummification was above all else an act of purification for the Egyptians. Water from the Nile – not merely a great waterway, but a massive vessel of holy water – rinsed away the palm wine used to clean the body. The alcoholic content of the wine killed bacteria responsible for decomposition, and thus the ancients speak to us.
It is vital to remember the religious aspect of mummification, for the process can at times be rather gruesome. Perhaps only something of supreme importance, like preparation for the afterlife, could help lighten the burden of this laborious process. After purification, the internal organs were removed and placed in canopic jars. Each jar acted not only as a repository, but also as a focus for the benevolent attention of the gods, as each removed organ had its own jar and protector. For the liver, Imsety, with the head of a human; for the lungs, the baboon-headed Hapy; for the intestines, Qebehsenuef, bearing the head of a falcon; for the stomach, Duamutef, sporting a jackal’s head. These four gods were the sons of Horus. The heart was left intact, as it was the center of intelligence. Over the years, canopic jars became more symbolic, and embalmers inserted the desiccated organs, washed, dried, and wrapped in linen, into the body to help maintain its shape. The four jars remained as accompaniments to burial, though, to protect the organs into eternity.
The removal of the brain, an inescapable step in the mummification process, is not for the squeamish. The embalmer used a long, hooked rod. Slender enough to fit through the nasal cavity, he pierced the brain, secured it to the rod, and began a “whisking” motion to break down the membranes. Portions of the brain would be removed when the embalmer removed the rod. Evacuation of the remnants called for pouring wine through the nose, further liquefying the brain; turning the body on its side allowed the rest of the contents to pour out through the nose. The modern day reader wonders how much of the wine used for embalming actually went to those who had to carry out this grisly task.
Wrapping the body called for aromatic oils to sweeten the corpse. Painting the body red preceded the application of cosmetics – rouged lips and cheeks. Glass eyes prevented the eyelids from sinking into their sockets. Exquisite linen enclosed the body as embalmers moved from the head to the feet before wrapping fingers, toes, breasts, genitals, arms, and legs.
Enmeshed in the layers of linen were amulets, protective plates of various sizes, chief among which were the scarabs. Embalmers placed the beetle-shaped scarabs over the heart after inscribing them with sacred prayers, meant to protect the soul of the dead. Other significant amulets were the Isis knot (protecting the body), and the Plummet (helping maintain balance). Pectoral amulets are familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Cecil B. DeMille film. The chanting of a priest of Anubis accompanied the embalming, warding off malevolent omens and easing the way into a happy afterlife.
The ritual followed a regular schedule: fifteen days on cleaning and purifying; forty days on drying; and another fifteen days on adorning and wrapping the body. Enclosing a copy of the, “Book of the Dead,” in the wrapped hands of the dead. The body is now what is recognizable today as a mummy. Lowered into a coffin, or sometimes several coffins, one inside the other, the funeral begins with the, “Opening of the Mouth,” ceremony. A high priest touches a ceremonial tool to the sensory organs (eyes, ears, nose, mouth), so that he will have use of these senses in the afterlife. Speech is the most important because one must answer to the gods for the conduct of one’s life – if that person was good enough in life to survive the demons present in the Hall of Judgment.
Mummification complete, the funeral over, the mummy case is transported across the Nile to the west bank – the land of the dead. Placed in the sarcophagus, the tomb is ready to receive the royal remains.