Egyptian Mummies: A Story of the Colonial Abuse of History
Mummies are probably among the most 'Egyptian' things to exist in our history books in spite of the fact that mummification is neither unique to ancient Egypt nor is it always man-made. The main reason behind the popularisation of mummification as a part of ancient Egyptian culture, apart from the academic fascination with the extraordinary methods employed in the process to mummify a dead body by ancient Egyptians, is the endless number of stories that exist about them. Very unsurprisingly, most of them are distorted and sometimes outright lies regarding the culture. Most, if not all of these, are rooted in absolute ignorance about history and sometimes, they exist due to a veiled effort to profit off of an exotic ancient African civilisation.
As a believer in science and as a passionate reader of history, the process of mummification is rather interesting to me. The Egyptians were, however, not the first to mummify their dead. At least 2,000 years before them, the Chinchorro people of Southern American descent were already practising mummification. Of course, the methods employed vary from civilisation to civilisation. In addition, based on how well the bodies were preserved and other factors, it can be inferred that the procedure changed with time. Unfortunately, climate change has not been kind to mummies. The rising humidity levels have contributed to the spread of flesh-eating microbes, which are detrimental to the preservation of mummies. This makes studying them all the more difficult. Apart from this, the procedure employed for the poor was less extensive compared to that employed for the Pharaohs. Unfortunately, there are no proper accounts of how the mummification was done in ancient Egypt left behind by the Egyptians.
The only two ancient texts that lay out the mummification techniques are the accounts of Diodorus and Herodotus from when they travelled to Egypt. The famous Book of the Dead, which has made appearances in various cult classics, does not extensively talk about the methods employed. Instead, it provides various spells and rituals that could potentially help the dead enter the afterlife. In 1994, two scientists used the ancient Egyptian mummification methods on a victim of heart attack successfully, in order to get a greater depth of understanding of the procedure.
The process of mummification is very elaborate. It began with removing the internal organs, with the exception of the heart. The ancient Egyptian religion propagated a belief that the dead were judged by their heart on entering the underworld, before proceeding on to the afterlife. They would thus use an amulet, commonly referred to as the heart scarab, to protect it. The overall mummification process took about 40 days. The Egyptians did not limit this practice to humans - they mummified various animals like cats, ibises, hawks, crocodiles, rats and lizards, primarily for religious reasons.
The practice of mummification in Egypt died out between the 4th and 7th century AD, which is around the time when many of the Egyptians converted to Christianity. It has been estimated that over a period of about 3,000 years over 70 million mummies were made in Egypt. The Egyptian civilisation existed for much longer than this. It is believed that anthropogenic mummification was introduced into practice around 2,600 BC, that is, during the Fourth or Fifth Dynasties. There are older mummies available but these have been preserved naturally, especially owing to the fact that Egypt has zero measurable rainfall.
Egyptian mummies have always fascinated people. While today we are aware of the psyche behind the process and the procedure involved in mummifying the remains of humans, the same cannot be said about those who came much before us and after the decline of ancient Egypt. Scholars of the 18th century were interested in knowing what lay under the wrappings of a mummy. Soon 'Mummy Unwrapping Parties' were popularised by those who could afford them, in their private homes. Later, such unwrapping ceremonies would also be organised in public theatres. Many of these people, who conducted these events, had no knowledge of medical sciences. It was simply a source of entertainment, a way to feed the public’s fascination with mummies and of course, as a symbol of wealth.
'Mummy dust' makes appearances throughout history in the most absurd places and manners. King Charles II believed that mummy dust could potentially contribute to his greatness and so, he was known to rub it onto his skin. King Francis I of France had a similar belief - he thought that it would make him stronger and so he took a pinch of mummy every day with rhubarb. An abstract published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine journal of 1927 puts forward the idea that between the 12th and the 17th centuries, medicines were prepared from powdered mummies. In fact, 'mummy medicine' was actually very popular around this time and an unrecorded number of mummies were disentombed and burned to prepare the medication. People at the time believed that bitumen had medicinal properties and it was thought that mummification involved embalming the body with bitumen. However, this was actually very uncommon - most mummies were embalmed with resins.
The most commonly encountered occurrence of the Egyptian mummy in popular culture is the undead mummy. Going by Egyptian mythology, this is a rather weird concept. Their religious beliefs encouraged the idea that living beings move on to the after-life after death. A walking mummy in that context is simply absurd. How then was this trope born?
The mummy genre has its origins in the 19th century. This was when Egypt was first colonised by France and then by Victorian Britain. The colonial romanticisation of the East resulted in most of these early stories, which presented mummies as mostly female and more often than not, the love interest of the protagonist. This is one of the numerous examples of sexualised orientalism born during the age of colonialism. Some of the greatest writers of the age delved into this new genre: The Jewel of the Seven Stars by Bram Stoker and Sir Arthur Canon Doyle’s The Ring of Thoth are two such examples. In H D Everett’s Iras: A Mystery, the protagonist ends up marrying a mummy, which turns into a beautiful woman. In 1845, Edgar Allan Poe wrote Some Words with a Mummy. This piece was a satire unlike most of the stories about mummies written at the time.
The 1892 novel Lot No. 249, written by Sir. Doyle is believed to be the first to portray a mummy as a dangerous creature. It was only in the 1930's that the 'monster mummy' started making frequent appearances. The 'romantic mummy' would make a comeback only in the late 20th century with Anne Rice’s 1989 novel, The Mummy, or Ramses the Damned. This novel, unlike most of the 19th century ones, involved a sexual relationship between a male mummy (instead of a female) and a female archaeologist.
Romanticised and dangerous undead mummies would increasingly dominate books and screens from this point on, in the form of novellas, TV series, video games and so on and so forth. The Goosebumps series by R L Stine has quite a few of them as monsters. Marvel Comics has its own mummies like N’Kantu. In the very popular Ben 10 franchise, Thep Khufans is a race of alien mummies. The lead character Ben Tennyson has ten alien forms, one of which is Snare-oh, previously named Benmummy, which is a Thep Khufan. In video games, mummies make notable appearances as hostile creatures thriving in deserts in Terraria and as an immortal creature named Kan-Ra in Killer Instinct, among others. In several editions of Dungeons and Dragons, mummies have found a place in the form of Bog Mummies, Hunefers, Mummy Lords, etc. Various films also have Egyptian mummies as characters like Ahkmenrah from the Night at the Museum and Murray the Mummy from Hotel Transylvania. Almost nothing in any of these depictions has any similarity with the ancient Egyptian ideas or understanding of mummies and they are simply a result of colonial fascination with oriental culture.
While walking undead mummies are a creation of the West and have no Egyptian origins, modern science has been trying to make this a reality, at least in a way. DNA capable of being analysed was found in mummies dating back to 2,012 BC by scientists who wish to clone mummies. A group of researchers recreated the voice of a 3,000-year-old mummy of an ancient Egyptian priest, Nesyamun using 3-D printing and body-scanning technology, effectively bringing him to life in 2020. Of course, none of these actually have the effect that the various stories perpetuate - a monster or a lover.
A common plot in many Egyptian mummy-centric stories of today involves the 'Mummy’s Curse' or the 'Pharaoh’s Curse'. Now the question is, did ancient Egyptians believe in such a curse? The people of ancient Egypt were very particular about protecting tombs and mummies. Many of the pharaohs were entombed in a spot in the famous Valley of the Kings. According to the ancient Egyptian myths, Meretseger, a goddess who took the form of a cobra, protects the Valley of the Kings by blinding or poisoning tomb robbers. There were various punishments put in place to prevent tomb robbery in ancient times. Tomb raiders, who were caught, had the soles of their feet beaten before being publicly impaled on a sharp wooden stick.
Various deaths have been attributed to the Pharaoh’s Curse in the more recent past. The most famous among them is possibly the so-called Curse of Tutankhamun, which is popularly believed to have claimed over six lives in the years following the discovery of the tomb of the boy king in 1922. One of the victims is Lord Carnarvon, the sponsor of the expedition, who died six weeks after the historic event due to supposed blood poisoning. However, Howard Carter, the seemingly prime target of the supposed curses because of the fact that he was responsible for the discovery, died only in 1939, almost 17 years after the opening of the tomb. Only six of the 23 people present during the opening died in a decade following the discovery. With statistics like these, many refuse to believe that a curse was involved in the deaths.
Many people have tried to explain these deaths. It is commonly believed to be biological in nature. Egyptian tombs have various items intended to help on the dead’s journey to the afterlife, alongside the sarcophagus. This includes food. It is possible that pathogens thrive in such sealed tombs. Investigations into this matter revealed that some tombs have mould-like Aspergillus niger and Aspergillus flavus, and bacteria like Pseudomonas and Staphylococcus. These are capable of causing various lung ailments. However, most scientists agree that these are not very dangerous. F DeWolfe Miller, Emeritus Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, agrees with this. He has been quoted as saying that he knows of no archaeologist or tourist who has suffered the adverse effects of tomb toxins.
Howard Carter believed that taking the conditions of Upper Egypt of the 1920's into consideration, Lord Carnarvon was probably safer inside the tomb, a statement that many scientists agree with. In this context, Miller was quoted saying, “The idea that an underground tomb, after 3,000 years, would have some kind of bizarre microorganism in it that's going to kill somebody six weeks later and make it look exactly like [blood poisoning] is very hard to believe”. The cause of the deaths is thus still up for debate.
The belief in the curses as being the cause has been around for a while now but did they exist back during the ancient times? Late egyptologist Dominic Montserrat was quoted by The Independent at the conclusion of extensive research into the matter as follows: “My research has not only confirmed that there is, of course, no ancient Egyptian origin of the mummy's curse concept, but, more importantly, it also reveals that it didn't originate in the 1923 press publicity about the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb either”. The mummy’s curse concept is also not a contribution of Hollywood. In fact, it dates back to the 1800's. One of the earliest examples of this is Louisa May Alcott’s Lost in a Pyramid or The Mummy’s Curse.
Not all egyptologists agree with this though. Salima Ikram, who is an Egyptologist at the American University of Cairo believes that a form of curses did in fact exist in ancient Egyptian times as a primitive security system against the desecration of the tomb or any form of tomb robbery. According to Ikram, some of the mastaba (early Egyptian non-pyramidal tomb) walls located at Saqqara and Giza have curses inscribed on them. She has been quoted saying, “They tend to threaten desecrators with divine retribution by the council of the gods or a death by crocodiles, or lions, or scorpions, or snakes”.
Due to the expansive availability of various stories regarding the ancient Egyptians, it is difficult to know what among these is actually historically accurate. These stories have had the impact of this ancient civilisation is widely viewed as a land of extremely religious people who practised magic, making it difficult for many, including Elon Musk, to believe that these people built the magnificent pyramids, among other similar astonishing accomplishments. Of course, this is not the first time that Westerners have questioned the capabilities of the people of ancient Asian, South American or African civilisations. Quite frankly, much of what we know today through stories are solely a result of the colonial world’s unhealthy fascination with the exotic cultures and are not rooted in real history. The idea of undead mummies causing devastation or the fact that there are people who are actively seeking to hunt down specific mummies and disentomb them (archaeologists), would probably scandalise the ancient Egyptians. At the end of the day, 'disturbing' the dead in any culture is considered disrespectful. However, people have made exceptions for the ancient Egyptians in the name of gaining knowledge, preparing medicines and sometimes, for the riches enclosed within the walls of the tombs, for a very long time now.
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