'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

16 September 2010

Death In Egypt

Death and Mummification in Egypt
It is apparent that the ancient Egyptians suffered from many of the same diseases that we are familiar with today. Like today death could come from illness, accident, animal attack, war and murder. They appear to have had a good, highly developed system of medication and surgery, which was available to all. Although the life expectancy averaged around 40 the 'ideal' lifespan was said to be 110 with notable figures like Ramsis II living into his 90's and Pepi II lived to the age of 100.
From a great 1966 Polish film Faraon (Pharaoh).
The Ancient Egyptians belief in an afterlife was paramount in the conduct of the daily life and the religious ritual of the nation. Death was but a temporary interruption, and eternal life could be ensured by piety, preservation of the body, sacred statuary and the use of funerary incantations, symbolic items and offerings. The 'book of the dead' which had been the collected holy words inscribed on the walls of a tomb were also written on a papyrus and buried with the mummy and could be used to assist the deceased with prayers and directions as he navigated his way through the trials and judgement of the underworld. Not only was it an obligation to prepare oneself for the afterlife, but the descendants also had a responsibility to ensure their success in eternity as was shown in such inscriptions of a son for his father. 
By his eldest son, the chief priest and scribe, Ptah: 'I came that I might do this for him, when he was buried in the beautiful west, according to that which he spake about, while he was upon his two feet.' (from the 4thh Dynasty)
It is often assumed that the natural desiccation of a body left in the hot drying sands suggested the process of mummification, however new discoveries in the Sahara challenge this idea. A five thousand year old mummy of a boy has been discovered (a thousand years older than Egyptian mummies) and although most evidence has been covered by the sands, other influences on Egyptian culture have been found. During a climatic change the monsoons moved north and rain fell in the North African area and a wide civilisation flourished there. Signs of art of men with animal heads like the Anubis mask used for the priests in mummification also have been found. These habits appear to have pre-dated and possibly filtered to the Nile Valley as Egyptian culture began to arise. Whatever the origins, mummification became the norm of the wealthy and those who could scrape together the money or the favours necessary. This observation of the body remaining after death may have even led to the belief that the person (soul - ka) also lived on after death. Mummification was performed by the Chief Embalmer dressed in the role of Anubis,  the God’s Seal Bearer, a Lector Priest who read spells, the Paraschites who removed the internal organs and minor priests for bandaging and other duties. In all it took seventy days which was also the period the Decans ( or groups of stars which controlled the calendar) travelled the underworld. The body was washed with water containing natron (a drying agent) and then taken to the Wabet or place of Embalming.  An incision was made in the side of the body and the lungs, stomach, intestines and liver were removed and the space filled with a temporary stuffing. A hole was made through the nostril and the brain was mashed and drained out through the nose. The face was then coated with resin. The liver was left as it was considered unimportant and the heart was also left in place as it was essential for the weighing of one's life against Ma'at at the last judgement (left). By about the 16th day the body was placed in a bath of dry natron (Sodium Carbonate, Sodium Bicarbonate with some Sodium Sulphate and Sodium Chloride) and the internal cavity was also packed with natron. After 40 days all moisture had been removed, and the body was now safe from decay. In some periods the mummies were also covered with hot resin for further protection against decay and linen packing used to give a lifelike appearance, or in the case of Ramsis II the nose was packed with peppercorns to maintain the shape. The same process was done for the organs which were even individually wrapped in linen and placed either in Canopic jars, back in the body, or between the legs of the mummy. 
After desiccation the body was taken to Per Nefer (the house of Beauty). Perfumes and oils were used to soften the skin. The body was re-stuffedwith linen soaked in resin, lichen, onions, mud or sawdust, the incision was covered  with wax, or a metal (gold) plate decorated with magical symbols. Occasionally make-up was applied or gold leaf, men were painted red and women yellow with henna rubbed onto the hands and feet. A false penis or nipples were also added on occasions to enable the dead to enjoy sex in the afterlife. It took at least fifteen days of prayer and ritual to wrap the body. The body was then completely wrapped from head to toe with many layers of linen and the final being a single large sheet of linen which was secured by linen bands. A mask made from cartonnage, or gold and precious stones in the case of royal burials was sometimes placed over the head and shoulders of the mummy.Resin was then poured over the mummy as well as perfumes and unguents and the mummy was then placed in the coffin. After death Anubis weighs the dead persons heart against the feather of Ma'at. If the heart is heavy with evil deeds Ammit devours the heart, condemning the deceased to eternal oblivion, but if the heart is light with righteousness he is presented by Horus to Osiris to join the afterlife. The tomb was packed with real or models of clothes, wigs, make-up, perfumes, tools, food and wine, in fact everything required to continue life. What items and how much, of course, depended on the wealth of the deceased. On occasions the items were merely represented in the wall paintings. Also included was the boat for transport trough the waters of the underworld. The last ritual was the "opening the mouth," which enabled the dead to recite the magic spells to enable them to live invisibly forever among their descendants on earth. A ka-statue of the deceased was present to hold the person's spirit. Images usually depicted the person as youthful and perfect as he hoped to be in the afterlife. Also included in the tomb were shabtis or answerers; small statues to act as servants and do any tasks required of the deceased.

The word Mummy comes from the Persian word mummeia which means 'pitch' or 'asphalt,' a naturally occurring crude oil that oozed to the surface. Mummeia was a prized medicine in Europe, but was in limited supply. So they took resin from mummies and sold it as mummeia. Eventually the entire body was ground up as medicine so the term grew to mean the whole wrapped corpse.

The Book Of the Dead was a collection of spells and instructions to help as a guide through the underworld. It enabled the dead to find their way and overcome obstacles with passwords and clues; enabled them to be identified and answer questions so that they could arrive at the Fields of Reeds. Questions posed for the deceased related to whether they had embraced life enough to be able to live again? did they develop enough character to continue their personality?  was the heart truly open spiritually?  how many seeds of eternity had they planted in life?  had the invested sufficient effort in surpassing physical limits?  had they made sufficient effort in gaining possessions for their eternal soul?  had the made truth reality in life?
In one papyrus of a royal woman, the so called 'negative confessions' list in reply to various forms of address:- "I have not committed sins: I have not robbed: I have not stolen: I have not acted with violence: I have not killed humans: I have not stolen offerings: I have not caused destruction: I have not plundered the divine property of the temple: I have not committed falsehood: I have not plundered grain: I have not cursed: I have not transgressed: I have not slaughtered the divine cattle of the temple: I have not done evil: I have not plundered cultivated land: I have not acted in lust:  I have not cursed anyone: I have not been angry without just cause: I have not slept with the husband of any woman: I have not polluted myself: I have not acted with terror against any man: I have not plundered: I have not acted with anger: I have not turned a deaf ear to the words of righteousness and truth: I have not stirred up strife: I have not caused anyone to weep: I have not fornicated: I have not eaten my heart: I have not exaggerated: I have not judged anyone hastily: I have not cut the hair and skin of divine animals: I have not raised my voice in speech: I have not committed a sin and have not done wrong: I have not cursed royalty: I have not spoiled running water: I have not acted with arrogance: I have not cursed divinity: I have not acted with false pride: I have not acted scornfully: I have not increased my wealth except by means of my own possessions: I have not scorned the principle of my city."
Many of the above have more symbolic meaning than is apparent and also it could be noted that it is a more detailed list of denial of what was later forbidden in the Ten Commandments.

Herodotus on Mummification 
"...As regards mourning and funerals, when a distinguished man dies all the women of the household plaster their heads and faces with mud, then, leaving the body indoors, perambulate the town with the dead man's female relatives, their dresses fastened with a girdle, and beat their bared breasts. The men too, for their part, follow the same procedure, wearing a girdle and beating themselves like the women. The ceremony over, they take the body to be mummified. Mummification is a distinct profession. The embalmers, when a body is brought to them, produce specimen models in wood, painted to resemble nature, and graded in quality; the best and most expensive kind is said to represent a being whose name I shrink from mentioning in this connection; the next best is somewhat inferior and cheaper while the third sort is cheapest of all. After pointing out these differences in quality, they ask which of the three is required, and the kinsmen of the dead man, having agreed upon a price, go away and leave the embalmers to their work. The most perfect process is as follows: as much as possible of the brain is extracted through the nostrils with an iron hook, and what the hook cannot reach is rinsed out with drugs; next the flank is laid open with a flint knife and the whole contents of the abdomen removed; the cavity is then thoroughly cleansed and washed out, first with palm wine and again with an infusion of pounded spices. After that it is filled with pure bruised myrrh, cassia, and every other aromatic substance with the exception of frankincense, and sewn up again, after which the body ;s placed in natrum, covered entirely over, for seventy days - never longer. When this period, which must not be exceeded, is over, the body is washed and then wrapped from head to foot in linen cut into strips and smeared on the under side with gum, which is commonly used by the Egyptians instead of glue. In this condition the body is given back to the family, who have a wooden case made, shaped like the human figure, into which it is put. The case is then sealed up and stored in a sepulchral chamber, upright against the wall. When, for reasons of expense, the second quality is called for, the treatment is different: no incision is made and the intestines are not removed, but oil of cedar is injected with a syringe into the body through the anus which is afterwards stopped up to prevent the liquid from escaping. The body is then pickled in natrum for the prescribed number of days, on the last of which the oil is drained o£ The effect of it is so powerful that as it leaves the body it brings with it the stomach and intestines in a liquid state, and as the flesh, too, is dissolved by the natrum, nothing of the body is left but the bones and skin. After this treatment it is returned to the family without further fuss. The third method, used for embalming the bodies of the poor, is simply to clear out the intestines with a purge and keep the body seventy days in natrum. It is then given back to the family to be taken away. When the wife of a distinguished man dies, or any woman who happens to be beautiful or well known, her body is not given to the embalmers immediately, but only after the lapse of three or four days. This is a precautionary measure to prevent the embalmers from violating the corpse, a thing which is said actually to have happened in the case of a woman who had just died. The culprit was given away by one of his fellow workmen. If anyone, either an Egyptian or a foreigner, is found drowned in the river or killed by a crocodile, there is the strongest obligation upon the people of the nearest town to have the body embalmed in the most elaborate manner and buried in a consecrated burial-place; no one is allowed to touch it except the priests of the Nile - not even relatives or friends; the priests alone prepare it for burial with their own hands and place it in the tomb, as if it were something more sacred than the body of a man."

We shall meet the Ferryman

From the Pyramid Texts of Egypt's Pepi I (around 2300 BC)
The king addresses the Ferryman Aken
"O Boatman of the boatless just, Ferryman of the Field of Rushes! Pepi is just before heaven and earth, Pepi is just before this isle of earth, To which he has swum, to which he has come, Which is between the thighs of Nut! He is that pygmy of the dances of god, Bringer of joy before his great throne! This is what you heard in the houses, What you overheard in the streets On the day Pepi was called to life, To hear what had been ordained. Lo, the two on the great god's throne Who summon Pepi to life, eternal, They are Well-being and Health! Ferry this Pepi to the Field, The great god's beautiful throne, That he may do what is done with the revered: He commends them to the ka's, He assigns them to the bird-catch; Pepi is such a one: He will assign Pepi to the ka's, He will assign Pepi to the bird-catch."

 In Greek and Roman mythology the river Styx was the boundary between life and the underworld. Charon the ferryman would guide the dead for payment of a coin. This became used in many burial rituals by either placing a coin on the tongue or eyes to pay for the ride. The opposite bank was guarded by the vicious three-headed dog Cerabus. The underworld was ruled by Hades (right), who was also known by the Roman name (Pluto). He was the son of Cronus and Rhea and brother to Zeus (Jupiter) and Poseidon (Neptune). His wife was Persephone (Proserpina), the daughter of Demeter (Ceres). The dead were judged by Minos, Rhadamanthus and Aeacus. Hades came to mean the underworld itself and not just the god who presided there.

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