The ancient Egyptians believed in life after death. Contradictions, however, existed side
by side in their belief regarding the afterworld. They thought that the dead lived on in
the tomb. At the same time they thought of the dead as having gone to a blessed afterworld
in some far-distant place. Such inconsistency did not disturb the Egyptians: they provided
for both. In no other civilization have such elaborate preparations for the afterlife been
made in the preservation of the dead.
When an Egyptian was born, an invisible corporeal "twin," known as
"ka," was born with him. The ka was something of a protecting genius or guardian
angel, although his most useful functions were not performed during life but in the
afterworld. As long as one was with his ka, he was among the living. When one lost his ka,
he died. The ka did not die, but waited for the deceased in the afterworld where the two
were united to live in happiness forever.
In addition to his body and his ka, an Egyptian had a soul, which flew away at death. The
soul was thought of as a human-headed bird with the face of the deceased. During life the
soul had resided within the body--probably in the belly or in the heart--but after death
it flew freely about the world, taking refuge in the tomb at night, when evil spirits
might be about. But in order to find the right tomb, it was necessary that the soul be
able to recognize the body from which it had come. Hence the body of the deceased was
preserved in the best possible way--it was mummified.
The word "mummy" is not of Egyptian origin, but is derived from the Arabic
mumiyah, which means "body preserved by wax or bitumen." This term was used
because of an Arab misconception of the methods used by the Egyptians in preserving their
The actual process of embalming as practiced in ancient Egypt was governed by definite
religious ritual. A period of seventy days was required for the preparation of the mummy,
and each step in the procedure was co-ordinated with relevant priestly ceremonies.
The embalmers' shop might be a fixed place, as in the case of those connected with the
larger temples. Often, however, it was a movable onersometimes a tent--which could be set
up near the home of the deceased.
Removal of those parts most subject to putrefaction was the initial
step in preparing a corpse for mummification. The embalmers placed the body on a narrow,
table-like stand and proceeded to their task. The brain was removed through the nostrils
by means of various metal probes and hooks. Such a method necessarily reduced the brain to
a fragmentary state, and, as no remains of it are associated with mummies, we may assume
that it was discarded. An incision was then made in the left flank of the body to permit
removal of the viscera, with the exception of the heart, which was left in the body.
The liver, the lungs, the stomach, and the intestines were each placed
in a separate jar, the Canopic Jars (SEE IMAGE), and consigned to the protection of a
Next came the preservation of the body itself. This was accomplished in a manner somewhat
similar to that of drying fish. But instead of common salt, natron, a mixture of sodium
carbonate and sodium bicarbonate, with sodium chloride (common salt) and sodium sulphate
as impurities, was used. (Natron occurs in Egypt in a few places. Water containing natron
in solution comes to the surface and is evaporated, leaving the natron as surface
Small parcels of natron wrapped in linen were placed inside the body. The
outside was covered with loose natron or packages of linen-wrapped natron. The dry
atmosphere of Egypt accelerated the desiccation process. After the body moisture had been
absorbed by the natron, the packs were removed and the corpse was given a sponge bath with
water. The skin was anointed with coniferous resins, and the body cavity was packed with
wads of linen soaked in the same material. The body was then ready to be bound into that
compact bundle we know as a mummy.
Only linen was used in the wrapping. To give a more natural appearance, linen pads were
placed in the hollows caused by the drying. The arms and legs, sometimes even the fingers
and toes, were bandaged separately. Then some twenty or more layers of alternating shrouds
and bandages were wrapped around the entire body. Between every few layers of linen a
coating of resin was applied as a binding agent. The proper wrapping of a mummy required
several hundred square yards of linen. The shrouds were sheets six to nine feet square,
and the bandages--strips torn from other sheets were from two to eight inches wide and
three to twenty feet long. The linen used in wrapping mummies was for the most part not
made especially for shrouds but was old household linen saved for this purpose. Often the
linen is marked with the name of the former owner, faded from repeated washings.
Occasionally bandages bear short religious texts written in ink.
When the wrapping had been completed, the shop was cleaned, and all the embalming
materials that had come in contact with the mummy were placed in jars for storage in the
tomb. This was a fortunate practice, as Egyptian embalmers were none too careful, and any
stray toe or ear which may have become detached or mislaid during the long embalming
process was usually swept up with the spilled salt and scraps of linen and included in the
But the making of a corpse into a mummy was not all that took place during the seventy
days. The artisans who were engaged meanwhile in all the activities essential to proper
burial might number in the hundreds. The construction and decoration of the tomb, if not
already completed by the deceased during his lifetime, presented an enormous task.
Woodworkers were constructing the coffin-or a series of coffins, each to fit within
another--tailored to measure.
Artists were busy decorating these coffins. (The fine painting on the
coffins was rarely done directly on the wood, but rather on a smooth plaster coating of
whiting and glue over linen glued to the wood. The beautiful colors on many cases are
pigments from minerals found in Egypt, often covered with a clear varnish; SEE IMAGE.)
Countless other helpers were engaged in constructing and assembling the numerous articles
to be deposited with the mummy when it was laid to rest in the tomb.
An extremely important task also undertaken during the seventy days of mummification was
the preparation by priests or scribes of magical texts to be placed in the tomb. These
texts, now known as the "Book of the Dead," were written on papyrus rolls
varying in length from a few sheets to many sheets, some rolls approaching a length of one
hundred feet. Often they were exquisitely illustrated in color. The chapters forming the
Book of the Dead contained information necessary to the deceased in overcoming obstacles
on his journey and in gaining admittance to the afterworld.
An elaborate funeral procession of priests,relatives, friends, servants, and professional
mourners accompanied the mummy to the tomb. Attended by priests, the mummy, in its
magnificent coffin, was carried on a great sledge pulled by oxen. The mourners followed
behind the sledge. In the procession, too, were porters bearing gifts to be placed in the
tomb. These mortuary accouterments believed essential for a happy afterlife might be
furniture, weapons, jewelry, food, linens--any or all of those things that had made for
comfort and happiness in the earthly life.
The final ceremony at the tomb was the "opening of the
mouth." Through this ceremony the mummy was thought to regain ability to move, to
talk, and to eat. In order to fulfill his destiny in the afterworld~ it was necessary that
the priests perform this last rite which would restore to him the functions of a living
The mummy was then carried into the tomb and sealed in the outer coffin
or sarcophagus. The Book of the Dead was placed near him, mortuary gifts were piled about,
and priests in the guise of gods made sure no evil spirits lurked in the tomb.
But according to Egyptian belief, interment of the mummy did not
automatically insure entrance into the afterworld. The deceased had first to appear before
a group of forty-two spiritual assessors and convince them that he had led a righteous
life on earth. Then in a final trial before Osiris, king of the nether world, the heart of
the deceased was placed on the Great Scales and balanced against a feather, symbol of
righteous truth. Anubis, the jackal-headed god who presided over embalming, did the
weighing, while Thoth, the ibis-headed scribe of the gods, recorded the result on a
tablet. If the heart of the deceased passed this test, he was admitted into heaven. If
not, his soul was doomed to roam the earth forever.
The Pre-Dynastic Egyptian (before 3000 n.e.) was buried in the sand and
was surrounded with pottery jars containing food. He was placed on his side in a
contracted position, and was occasionally wrapped in reed matting or animal hide. Later,
the dead were placed in crudely made baskets, boxes, or pottery coffins, which were buried
in the sand or deposited in small natural caves at the base of the cliffs in the Nile
Valley. By 3000 b.c. men of importance had small chambers cut for themselves in the rock,
often with a shallow pit or niche to receive the coffin. From these beginnings evolved the
typical Egyptian tomb consisting of two essential parts: the burial chamber and a room in
which offerings to the dead were placed.
Most impressive of all Egyptian tombs are those of the Pyramid Age (2800-2250 n.c.). Those
colossal tombs that are as famous as Egypt herself developed from a less elaborate form
now called "mastaba" (from the Arabic word mastabah, meaning "bench,"
which describes the form of the superstructure of the tomb). The mastaba tombs are low,
rectangular structures of brick and stone built on bedrock. The building houses an
offering chamber, or a series of them, and a secret room containing a statue of the
deceased. A vertical shaft in the superstructure leads down into the bedrock to the tomb
chamber some twenty to eighty feet below. The limestone walls in the offering chambers of
the mastaba tombs are covered with sculptured scenes done in low relief. They were
originally painted, and some of the color still remains. It is from these skilfully
executed scenes depicting contemporary Egyptian life that we derive much of our knowledge
of the period. The mastaba tombs are for the most part those of nobles, the pharaohs
preferring the more monumental pyramids. The great pyramids at Giza, tombs of the Fourth
Dynasty kings, are by far the most imposing of the pyramid tombs.
The Egyptians were mummifying their dead even in the days of the pyramids. Indeed, there
are mummies that antedate the pyramids. These ancient mummies are wrapped in the
contracted position characteristic of Pre-Dynastic burials, whereas the mummy of the
Pyramid Age lies full length on its back, enclosed in a box-type coffin decorated to
resemble a house. In the early days of mummification only the kings were definitely
conceded the opportunity to attain an exalted afterlife. Religious texts to aid the dead
kings in gaining entrance into heaven were carved on the stone walls of the mortuary
chambers of some of the pyramids. These are now known as the "Pyramid Texts." It
is on the walls of the pyramids of the Fifth and Sixth Dynasty kings at Sakkarah --smaller
and less imposing pyramids than those at Giza --that these oldest collections of Egyptian
religious texts are found. Although nobles of the Pyramid Age were also accorded sumptuous
burial, no texts are found in their tombs.
By the time of the Middle Kingdom (2100-1780 b.c.), after the period of the mastabas and
pyramids, tombs and their accessory chambers were usually hewn out of solid rock in the
sides of the hills along the Nile. Occasionally, however, tombs were enclosed by or built
under mortuary buildings erected on the plain. These buildings served as chapels or
offering chambers. The mummy of the Middle Kingdom was placed on its left side in a
rectangular wooden coffin on which was painted religious texts. These Coffin Texts were
excerpts from the older Pyramid Texts, with the addition of new thoughts and symbols. Some
mummies had a cartonnage mask over the upper portion of the body. These cartonnage
coverings--layers of linen or papyrus soaked in plaster--were shaped in human form and
painted. Sometimes the entire mummy was enclosed in such a covering, a practice which
quickly led to the making of coffins themselves in mummy form.
With the Eighteenth Dynasty (1546-1319 B.c.) the mummiform type of
coffin had come into general use. The ritual texts for the deceased which had originated
in the ancient Pyramid Texts had developed into the elaborate Book of the Dead, which was
written on a papyrus roll and enclosed in the tomb with the mummy. Sections from this
book, with exquisite illustrations in color, were painted on the coffins.
A person of rank or wealth (and these went hand in hand), would have a
series of two or three coffins, each case fitting inside the other, with the inner one the
most elaborate. Often the outer coffin would be carved from stone in mummy form, or would
consist of a huge stone sarcophagus. It was late in this period, when liberalization of
religious concepts extended the privilege of an afterlife to those in less fortunate
circumstances than kings and nobles, that beards appeared on mummy cases. The beard,
heretofore worn only by divinities and kings, indicated presumption on the part of the
deceased that he would be accepted into their immortal presence.
During the time of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Dynasties the rock-cut tombs reached
their zenith in the famous Tombs of the Kings in the valleys at Thebes. These tombs
consist of corridors, chambers, and halls descending into the solid rock of the hillsides
a distance of several hundred feet. The walls are covered with religious texts and scenes,
and with inscriptions and pictures portraying every phase in the life of the deceased, all
Mummification practices, too, varied with the passing centuries. The use of the Canopic
Jars as repositories was discontinued during the Twenty-first Dynasty (1085-945 B.c.), and
the viscera were henceforth wrapped in packages and replaced in the body or bound with it.
Hollows in the desiccated body were cleverly filled out by placing pads of linen
underneath the skin. From this period on, the art of making good mummies went into a
gradual decline, even though mummification continued to be practiced for another fifteen
hundred years. Less attention came to be paid to the condition of the body itself, and
more to the external appearance of the wrappings.
In Roman times (after 30 B.c.) a garish type of coffin came into use. Showy cartonnage
coverings were formed and painted in fanciful likeness of the deceased. At the same time,
coffin-makers were building coffins of simple board boxes. On the cover there might be a
life-sized plaster face modeled after that of the dead. Sometimes a painted portrait of
the deceased was placed inside the coffin over the face of the mummy.
Quite naturally, wealth was always a dominant actor in the mummification and burial
accorded an individual. Although actual Egyptian records of the cost of mummi~cation are
lacking, Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian who traveled in Egypt, touches on burial
costs in his writings. According to Diodorus, at the time he journeyed in Egypt (60-57
b.c.) there were three grades of burial. One was expensive, costing sixty-six pounds of
silver (one talent), another cost a third as much (twenty minas), and the lowest grade of
burial cost much less.
Tombs for the common people had no chambers. The coffins were placed in walled recesses in
the side of a rock or in shallow holes gouged out of the rocky plain. Mummies of the poor
were placed in common repositories, either with or without coffins. The bodies of those
with no money at all were given a perfunctory ceremonial cleansing, were sometimes covered
with a cloth, and were buried in the sand.
The Egyptians believed that a god incarnate assumed the form of an
animal. Nearly every deity was associated in their minds with a certain bird or beast. So
it is not surprising that we find near the sites of ancient cities large cemeteries
devoted to the burial of animals. Usually only one kind of animal was buried in a given
cemetery. Adjacent to each such cemetery was a temple devoted to the cult of the god
identified with the specific kind of animal buried at that place. The animals were
mummified, but not always too carefully. Chief stress was laid on the bandaging, the
object having been that the package should clearly indicate the kind of animal enclosed.
Often these animal mummies were placed in theriomorphic coffins. There are mummies of
jackals, cats, ibises, snakes, lizards, gazelles, hawks, bulls, sheep, baboons,
crocodiles--in fact, almost every conceivable kind of animal known to Egypt. At some
places animal tombs such as those of the Apis bulls at Memphis are found. The tombs of the
Apis bulls, which date from the Eighteenth Dynasty and later, consist of subterranean
passages and vaults hewn in the rock an aggregate length of some twelve hundred feet. Many
bulls were placed in huge stone sarcophagi.
The ambition of every Egyptian was to have a well mummified body and a
perpetually cared-for tomb. The children of the deceased were charged with the maintenance
of this home on earth and the observation of all attendant ceremonies. In the case of a
favored government official a portion of the state revenue might be assigned as an
endowment for the care of the tomb. As the number of deceased ancestors and officials
multiplied, however, and the consequent cost of tomb maintenance became excessive, the
tendency was to neglect those of the remote past and to concentrate attention on those of
the more recently deceased. Thus the living inhabitant of ancient Egypt, with all the
faith he placed in the preservation of his own mummy, was constantly faced with the
anomaly of neglected and despoiled tombs--for tomb robbers were at work even during the
days of mummification. We have Egyptian papyri recording the robbery of royal tombs and
the capture and punishment of the despoilers. An archaeologist rarely finds a tomb that
has not been plundered.
Revised: November 12, 2009.
Copyright © 1997 by Anthony C. DiPaolo, M.S. / Osiris Web Design.