In his website Mummy Tombs, Doctor James M. Deem, author of How to Make a Mummy Talk and Bodies from the Bog, states that mummies “are a serious subject that many people misunderstand.” When we think of mummies, we all tend to think of bandage-wrapped Egyptian monsters rising from ancient sarcophaguses and terrorizing overenthusiastic archaeologists. Of course, this colourful image has little to do with the truth.
In reality, the term “mummy” refers to “any dead body (human or animal, from anywhere in the world or possibly beyond) that has been preserved, through artificial or accidental means.” This includes conserved Native American corpses, frozen animal carcasses, and even dinosaur fossils in which the soft tissue and the organs are preserved.
As for the immensely popular mummies of Ancient Egypt, the true reasons for their existence are very different from what television, comic books, and popular culture would have us believe. In fact, our views of Egyptian mummification, involving reincarnation, cursed souls, and monsters rising from the dead have little to do with the religious beliefs and funeral traditions of Ancient Egypt.
An uncanny number of myths and misconceptions surround the topic of Ancient Egypt. The long forgotten culture is so rich and advanced that we often try to explain its amazing accomplishments with supernatural accounts or with science-fiction: sorcerers performed mummifications, the pyramids were designed by extra-terrestrials, etc.
In its website Summum: The Millennium of Reconciliation, Summum, an organization that promotes modern mummification, associates Ancient Egypt’s highly developed technology with that of the mythical city of Atlantis, claiming that the Egyptian culture was “greatly influenced by the Atlantean era”. The organization later states that Egyptian mummification and Christianity are connected: “in the early days of the life of Jesus, he traveled to the lands of India, Tibet, and Egypt where he received schooling in ancient philosophies”; “One thing seems clear: Jesus was mummified.”
The organization also theorizes in its newsletter that extraterrestrials in mummy wrappings came to Earth thousands of years ago and that “with the facility of knowledge, these mummies were given new bodies.” Summum links the alien procedure and mummification with modern science: “they [the Egyptians] vaccinated the old body and cloned the DNA, and produced a divine body that would hold their souls.” Though Summum’s New Age interpretation of Egyptian mummification is certainly much wilder than that of most people, it is, much like our own notion of mummies, a hodgepodge of various beliefs and superstitions from different cultures.
A more common (though just as silly) view of mummies is, of course, that of cursed souls doomed to walk the Earth as dried-up corpses, grunting and moaning as they very slowly attack all who dare disturb their sleep. This image of Egyptian mummies was popularized by comic books and by monster movies such ad Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932) and its numerous sequels and remakes. Most mummy movies feature slow-witted monsters that shamble about and strangle their victims more or less at random.
Nevertheless, these films thrive, and it is through them that most of us are introduced to the notion of mummies. Freund’s The Mummy tells the story of a 4000-year-old Egyptian sorcerer brought back to life in the 1920s by an unsuspecting archaeologist reading from the Scroll of Toth. The sorcerer, named Imhotep, then attempts to reincarnate his lost love in the body of Helen Grosvenor, an innocent woman. This particular mummy myth has recently gained even more popularity because of the enormous success of Stephen Sommer’s remake, The Mummy (1999), and of its sequel, The Mummy Returns (2001).
Though, obviously, few people above the age of eight still give credence to these kinds of monster stories, many of us believe that these tales are based on actual Ancient Egyptian mythology. However, Ancient Egyptians did not believe in sorcery. As was the case with Summum’s interpretation, this take on mummies has little to do with the reality of Egyptian mummification, and is, in fact, a mix of superstitions and religious concepts from various other cultures: the mummy’s zombie-like behaviour is borrowed from Voodoo, and its obsession with a long-lost love is inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Two contradictory notions are incorporated in this myth: resurrection and reincarnation. The two theological concepts are mutually exclusive. Resurrection consists of the rising again of the dead. It implies that when a person dies, his or her soul waits in order to eventually re-inhabit the body. It, of course, does not involve sorcery or human intervention. Reincarnation does not require sorcery or human intervention either. It is the rebirth of the soul in a new body. The latter does not need to be a human body. Also, when reincarnated, the soul has no recollection of previous lives. No religion that believes in resurrection can believe in reincarnation: how can a soul one day return to its body if it keeps getting a new one after death? Not only is this interpretation of Egyptian mummies inaccurate, it is also inconsistent.