Ancient Egypt: Mummification

Mummification is the most well-known burial custom of the ancient Egyptians. Egyptologist, Ashley Cooke, the religious ritual that transformed the dead into a scared object

Coffin Lid of PadiamunNational Museums Liverpool

Mummified bodies have long fascinated people and our knowledge of mummification continues to grow. It was a secret time-consuming process only really available to those who could have afforded it, such as families of priests and high officials. 

For many families the funeral ceremony was less elaborate. Bodies were buried quickly in the dry desert sand, sometimes wrapped in textile or matting, with a just a few burial goods such as beads. Most people were not buried within the brightly painted coffins that you can see in the World Museum.

People were mummified because they wanted to be reborn into a new transfigured existence. They found hope in the myth of Osiris. Osiris was a king on earth in mythical times and was murdered by his brother Seth who cut his body apart. Osiris’s dismembered body was gathered together, wrapped in bandages, and he was reborn again through the magic of his wife Isis. This myth gave the Egyptians hope that they too could triumph over death.

Coffin Fragment of TanetaaNational Museums Liverpool

Egyptians found the decomposition of the corpse horrifying. They created spells to prevent the body from rotting, and developed a physical means of preserving the body for eternity. 

Canopic Jar of AhmoseNational Museums Liverpool

Mummification techniques varied over 3,000 years. A common way of protecting the body from the process of decay was to remove sources of moisture. Sometimes the liver, intestines, stomach, and lungs were removed from the body and placed inside a set of special jars that we call 'canopic jars'.

These jars have heads in the shape of the Four Sons of Horus. Baboon-headed Hapy protected the lungs; jackal-headed Duamutef protected the stomach; hawk-headed Qebehsenuef protected the intestines; and human-headed Imsety protected the liver. On some jars is a protective spell to compel the god to protect the organs for eternity, transforming the key organs into the Four Sons of Horus.

Heart ScarabNational Museums Liverpool

The heart being mostly (dry) muscle was left inside the body. Ancient Egyptians believed that the heart was the centre of all learning, thoughts, memory, love and emotion. It remembers what you’ve done in your life and was an internal organ required for a person to enter the Afterlife.

Gaining entry into the Afterlife depended on how the deceased had behaved during their lifetime. This was determined on the day of judgement by the gods examining the deceased’s heart. A person’s biggest fear was that their heart would speak out against them during the final judgement. Scarabs were placed close to the heart, inscribed with a magical spell that silenced the heart and guaranteed entry into the Afterlife.

Coffin Lid of Padiamun-nebnesuttauwyNational Museums Liverpool

The very process of cleansing the body with natron and anointing the body with sacred oils and ointments, and then wrapping the body with layers of linen is very similar to the way statues of the gods in cult temples were cared for.

Mummification was a ritual that transformed the dead into a scared object, that the ancient Egyptians called a Sah – a ‘noble one’.

Mummified CrocodileNational Museums Liverpool

The ancient Egyptians also mummified all sorts of animals, from cats and dogs to birds and even crocodiles. A common misunderstanding is that these mummified animals were originally pets. Instead these animals were sacrificed to keep the gods happy.

The ancient Egyptians believed animals could speak to the gods and could carry messages to them. Over 1,000 years, millions of animals were specially bred in temples for sacrifice. They were mummified by priests and sold to pilgrims that visited temple sites who could offer the animal to the gods as gifts to bring health, good luck and protection. 

Mummified CatNational Museums Liverpool

Mummified cats are the most popular animal mummy you'll find in the museum, and that's because cats were associated with a wide range of gods.  They were given as gifts to goddesses who were associated with cats and lions, such as Bastet, Sekhmet and Pakhet (‘the scratcher’!). 

Animal mummies were little wrapped gifts for the gods, and in return the Egyptians wanted the gods to answer their prayers, to help them in their own life on earth.  We've been investigating our collection of animal mummies using medical technology, and this adult size cat mummy is actually much larger than the little kitten inside. Like most cats specifically bred in temples for sacrifice, it hadn't reached more than 12 months old.

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