When it comes to ancient Egypt and its long lasting and influential civilization, plenty of its unique characteristics can seem peculiar and otherworldly. Sure, it is no secret that ancient Egypt was home to some odd beliefs and quirky traditions. But to them, all of it held deep meaning and religious significance.
One of the oldest and strangest of these traditions is certainly the mummification process. Embalming the dead in order to provide artificial mummification is not a novelty in human history, but the mummification process was certainly perfected in ancient Egypt where this practice survived for thousands of years. But how did they do it? And most importantly, why?
The Origins and Nature of the Mummification Process
Over the years, the classic depiction of a linen-wrapped mummy became an iconic symbol of the ancient Egyptians. But the actual word “ mummy” has nothing to do with it! There is quite a rocky history to that simple word. The English version was borrowed from the Latin word mumia. This in turn was borrowed from Arabic in the middle ages, from the word mūmiya ( مومياء), which stems from the Persian word mūm, meaning “wax.”
This term was meant to signify an embalmed corpse and eventually found its way into English, where by the 1600s the word was used for naturally preserved desiccated human bodies. As such the modern day word mummy does not refer exclusively to those mummified bodies of ancient Egypt. “Mummy” can refer to any type of ancient and modern mummified body that was preserved either through natural processes or artificial ones. But, of course, not all mummies are so captivating and enigmatic as the ones found in ancient Egypt.
The Gebelein Predynastic Mummies
Perhaps the oldest discovered mummies of ancient Egypt are known as the Gebelein predynastic mummies. These six bodies were naturally mummified, thanks to the arid landscapes they were found in. The hot sands and dry air helped to keep these bodies relatively well preserved, keeping in mind that they are dated to roughly Gebelein 3400 BC!
is located on the River Nile , some 40 kilometers south of Thebes, a crucial Egyptian city. Found in shallow graves with sparse grave goods, these six mummies come from the earliest stages of the ancient Egyptian civilization, the so-called predynastic period. As such they provide an important glimpse into the development of their funerary customs and the development of mummification as well.
This is due to the fact that three of these bodies were covered with different materials: reed mats, animal skins, and palm fibers. This was perhaps an early attempt to help with the mummification processes. While most bodies of the predynastic era were buried naked, some were wrapped or covered with such fabrics, which could have gradually evolved into a more complex form of embalming and mummification.
Death and the Afterlife for the Ancient Egyptians
As a civilization evolves, so do the most important of its aspects. And, of course, death can be as important for a civilization as life itself. For the ancient Egyptians, death and the afterlife were one of the cornerstones of all their beliefs. As time progressed so did these funerary rites, until the time they became established with a series of patterns and traditions that continued on for a long time after.