The Truth and Lies about Mummies

© Copyright Universal Pictures
© Copyright Universal Pictures

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. 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, like the idea that the pyramids were designed by extra-terrestrials.

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’s through them that most of us are introduced to the notion of mummies. Freund’s The Mummy tells the story of a 4,000-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. 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 dead rising again. It implies that, when a person dies, his or her soul waits in order to eventually re-inhabit the body. Reincarnation, on the other hand, involves the soul being reborn in a new body. 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’s also inconsistent.

What then is the reality of Egyptian mummies? Thankfully, continuous archaeological finds help us answer this question with more and more precision. According to Ancient Egypt, a website managed by the Trustees of the British Museum, the earliest cases of Egyptian mummification occurred when the “Ancient Egyptians buried their dead in small pits in the desert. The heat and dryness of the sand dehydrated the bodies quickly”, thus preserving them. The creation of these mummies was natural. Dr. James M. Deem, author of How to Make a Mummy Talk and Bodies from the Bog, also refers to these bodies as “accidental mummies” because their making was unintentional at first.

However, the Ancient Egyptians, who believed in resurrection and consequently in the importance of preserving the bodies of the dead, were pleased with the unforeseen results of their burial method and quickly turned it into a tradition. To protect the deceased from wild desert creatures such as spiders and lizards, the Ancient Egyptians began to put their dead in coffins, but they soon realized that without “the hot dry sand of the desert”, the corpses decayed. It was only centuries later, around 2600 B.C., that the Ancient Egyptians developed complex and methodical techniques such as embalming the dead and wrapping them in strips of linen.

Like any other cultural element, the mummification process evolved over the years, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. In his Web article How Mummies Work, Tom Harris explains that the best-preserved mummies, such as the mummy of Pharaoh Tutankhamen, date between 1570 and 1075 B.C. Archaeologists believe that during this period, the mummification technique had remained more or less the same. The ritual took seventy days and was conducted by special priests. They first removed the deceased’s internal organs, such as the brain, the liver, and the lungs, and put them in canopic jars. However, they left the heart, believing it to contain the deceased’s intelligence. The priests then poured salt over and inside the corpse in order to remove moisture. They gently washed the salt off and wrapped the body in linen, placing amulets among some strips and writing prayers on others. Once completed, the mummy was brought to the entrance of its tomb, where priests carried out particular religious rites. The mummy was then brought to the burial chamber and placed in the sarcophagus with the canopic jars containing the internal organs.

© Copyright Universal Pictures
© Copyright Universal Pictures

In his webpage An Egyptian Mummification, Richard Deurer explains that, according to the Ancient Egyptian faith, there are “six important aspects that ma[ke] up a human being: the physical body, the shadow, the name, the ka (spirit), the ba (personality), and the akh (immortality).” When a person is born, every aspect except the akh bonds with him or her. The ahk is conjured after death through prayers and funeral rituals. Immortal and immutable, it’s destined to join the gods and prevent a person from suffering a second, eternal death. According to Mant cults, the ahk takes the shape of a “human-headed bird” and must fly to the underworld and back. After this, it must return to the person’s physical body, but, in order to find said body, it must be able to recognize it. It’s for this reason that preserving the deceased’s body is so important to Ancient Egyptians. Through mummification, they ensure their deceased “a successful rebirth into the afterlife”.

However, their perception of the afterlife was divided. Some believed in a physical resurrection that took place in the same realm of existence as the living. This explains why, when a pharaoh died, so many riches were often enclosed with him, why pets, servants, and spouses were sometimes killed, mummified, and placed with the pharaoh’s corpse. On the other hand, some Ancient Egyptians believed that the afterlife took place on another realm of existence, that the ahk had to find its way back to the physical body to capture its essence, not to reside in it. The deceased’s corpse still needed to be preserved as best as possible because the other birth aspects (the shadow, the name, the ka, and the ba) could not exist without the physical body. The existence of different beliefs regarding the afterlife proves that the men and women of Ancient Egypt were not just a foolish, superstitious lot, but that they were capable of questioning the universe surrounding them.

We harbour many misconceptions about the Ancient Egyptian culture. Our fantasies of decaying monsters carrying out age-old curses have little to do with the reality of Egyptian mummifications. However, with each new archeological discovery, we come closer to understanding the Ancient Egyptian culture. The recent developments in X-ray technology have allowed us to study the mummies without damaging them, and the subsequent discoveries have taught us much about the diseases from which the Egyptians suffered and about the medicine they used to counter them. This knowledge, coupled with the size of the mummies’ bones, has given us an idea of the average lifespan of a pharaoh and has thus helped us better understand the history and the politics of Ancient Egypt. The monster movies were right about one thing: now dead for thousands of years, the mummies still speak to us today.

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Editor in Chief / Movie Critic: When he started this site, Dimitri never thought he'd be writing blurbs about himself in the third person. In his other life, he works as a writer, translator, and editor for various publications in print and online. His motto is, "Have pen, will travel."