Although for many people mummies and mummification evoke a sense of the macabre – evoking images of a grotesque, mummification was a widespread practice in many ancient societies.
In the ancient world, mummification was a common and honored practice that was practiced religiously by qualified experts and was imbued with deep religious significance. It was a way of honoring the deceased or expressing an important religious belief, especially a belief in the afterlife.
Many societies have the habit of mummifying their deceased. However, the ancient Egyptians are the best known.
What is mummification?
The act of mummification, which consists of deliberately drying or embalming the flesh, preserves the body after death. This often included drying a deceased person’s body and freeze-drying the flesh and organs using chemicals or natural preservatives like resin.
The term “natural” mummification refers to the formation of mummies by unintentional or accidental causes. This can happen if a deceased person is subjected to extremely low temperatures, dry conditions, or any other environmental element that slows the decomposition process.
The oldest known mummy in North America was discovered during a natural mummification process at Spirit Cave near Fallon, Nevada.
Why preserve the body?
The ancient Egyptians valued life and believed in the idea of immortality. This caused them to start planning their deaths in advance. They believed that even after death life would continue and they would still need physical bodies. Therefore, the main purpose of mummification was to preserve bodies as close to their natural state as possible, which was crucial for the preservation of life.
The mummified body, in the eyes of the Egyptians, contained the soul or spirit of the person. It was believed that the spirit might not enter the afterlife if the body was destroyed, leaving it lost. Also, for this reason, the preparation of the tomb was an important ceremony in Egyptian culture.
The process also includes storing personal effects including furniture, clothing, food and jewelry long before an individual dies.
The mummification process
Mummies have been the antagonists of horror-related media ever since Western societies learned of mummies. It is true that corpses that have been stripped of their fluids and wrapped in sheets can look extremely scary. The current procedure, however, involves much more than just wrapping the corpses.
Mummification originated in ancient Egypt around 3500 BCE and is used today. This procedure involved first inserting a metal rod into the skull through the nasal passage. The brain tissue was then liquefied and emptied through the nose after further adjustment of the stem. After removal of the remaining organs, the hollow body was washed with a concoction of herbs and palm wine.
After that, the body was immersed in natural salt, or natron, and dried for 40 days. The body was then wrapped in many layers of linen after the flesh had dried, and between each layer the priests put on amulets to aid the deceased in the afterlife.
The mummified body was then placed in a coffin and covered in resin to provide protection against moisture before being buried in a grave. Different decoration styles, tomb designs, and mummification techniques were used depending on the social class of the recently deceased.
The first civilization to practice mummification
Although many people associate this whole practice with the ancient Egyptians, the Chinchorro peoples, who lived in what is now the valley of Chile, contain the oldest traces of mummification. This valley is located in the Atacama Desert, in the far north of the country.
The Chinchorro practiced an egalitarian form of preservation of the deceased, unlike the Egyptians who mummified according to social position. According to a CNN report, the Chinchorro people began mummifying their dead around 7,000 years ago, about two millennia before the discovery of the first Egyptian mummies.
Even more surprising is the fact that although they practiced mummification 2,000 years earlier than the Egyptians, their techniques were more advanced.
During the early phases of the Chinchorro civilization, which existed between 7,050 and 4,500 years ago, mummies were covered in black manganese.
The fourth century, when Rome ruled Egypt, saw a slow decline in Egyptian mummification. According to a LiveScience report, “mummification eventually came to a halt with the rise of Christianity.”
Mummification is now a forgotten art, with a few rare exceptions. According to reports, the majority of societies view it as odd or antiquated, a holdover from the past.
Yet the practice still finds echoes in contemporary funeral homes, where the preservation of the deceased plays a big part in honoring their loved ones.
Strange fact: mummies used as medicine
Over time, the belief that mummies can cure disease led people to consume something that tasted awful for centuries. Since the 12th century, Europeans consumed Egyptian mummies as medicine for their miraculous medicinal properties.
Mumia, a medicine made from mummified bodies sold in apothecary shops and consumed for generations by rich and poor alike, was made from the remains of mummies brought back to Europe from Egyptian tombs.
By the 16th century, Europe had reached the peak of mummies consumption. Corpses of mummies have been found on drugstore shelves, either shattered into pieces or ground to powder.
In a time before antibiotics, doctors prescribed crushed skulls, bones and flesh to treat everything from headaches to inflammation to the pandemic.
In the 18th century, there were more complaints than applause, fewer doctors’ prescriptions and fewer pharmacists wearing them. Since the Egyptian authorities reportedly limited their extraction, it was believed that finding authentic mummies was becoming increasingly difficult.
The use of Mumia has not really diminished as cannibalism has raised concerns among people; instead, it was discontinued because pharmacists and doctors doubted Mumia’s potential as a medicine.