In the beginning was water and darkness. A mound of earth rose from the water. From that mound grew a lotus flower. Then Re, the Sun, rose from the island. Re generated two more gods, who coupled to produce Sky goddess Nut and Earth goddess Geb. They, too, mated, producing four children, including Osiris, Isis, and Set. Sometime after, humanity was born.
So begins the creation myth of ancient Egypt, a dry desert land bisected by Earths longest river, the Nile (stretching 4,000 miles). From time immemorial the Nile annually flooded its banks, covering the dry red sands with rich black soil. Nomadic hunter-gatherers gradually settled along the rivers banks, and gradually discovered agriculture. Over time the peoples of proto-Egypt grew more organized. Administrators were needed to store surplus grains against years of poor harvest. About 3100 B.C.E. the kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt united in a single kingdom.
Walk Like an Egyptian
Among the gods, Osiris, Lord of Order, proved a gifted administrator, and Re gave him provenance over humanity. This enraged his jealous brother Seth, lord of Chaos. Seth murdered Osiris, cutting him into many pieces and scattering them across Egypt. Seth seized Osiris throne. Osiris, the first dead being, entered the Underworld of the West, land of the setting sun. Meanwhile, Osiris sister-wife, Isis, diligently located all her husbands pieces, then turned to the jackal-headed god Anubis for help in reviving her husband. Anubis assembled and embalmed Osiris body. Isis used her powers to temporarily reunite Osiris soul with his reassembled body, long enough for her to mate with him, producing their son, falcon-headed Horus. Thus Osiris, Lord of Order and the Underworld, became also god of Resurrection and Fertilityand the first mummy.
Isis raised Horus and, when he reached young adulthood, sought to place him on his fathers throne. Seth resisted, and battle was joined for long years. At last supreme god Re turned to Osiris to resolve the dispute. Osiris said it was about time his son was given the throne, and that if he wasnt granted it, Osiris would release the demons of the Underworld. Horus got the throne (and Seth became god of Storms). Horus proved a wise ruler. As the kingdom of Egypt evolved, its rulers, called pharaohs, proclaimed themselves the embodiment of Horus on Earth.
Besides giving Pharaoh divine legitimacy, the central Egyptian myth shows Egyptians concern for the preservation of their honored dead. In a manner similar to that of other mummy-making cultures, Egyptians first buried them naked, curled sideways in the desert sands, facing east toward the sun, along with a few cherished possessions. Like the Chincorro of Peru before them, the Egyptians discovered that their sands preserved bodies wonderfully, doubtless strengthening their survivors belief in an afterlife. Later, the aristocracy were buried in tombs with benchlike slabs for ceilings (later called mastabas, from the Arabic word for bench). But these tombs separated the dead from the surrounding sands, causing them to decay. Through trial and error, the pharaohs retinue labored to discover ways to freeze the process of corruption before putting the royal families in their tombs.
Meanwhile, the royal tombs grew. Third Dynasty Pharaoh Djoser (ca. 2630 B.C.E.) desired a tomb of unprecedented splendor. He turned to his vizier, a man named Imhotep. Imhotep appears to have been the first Renaissance human of whom we have record, being Chief Treasurer, Chief Justice, High Priest, a great administrator, architect, and physician. (Centuries later Imhotep would be worshipped as a god of healing.) Imhotep designed the 200-foot-high Step Pyramid, the first pyramid and the first great stone building. Contrary to popular belief, the pyramids were built not by slaves but by skilled, paid workmen during the months the Nile basin was flooded, in a government public-works program.
By the Egyptian New Kingdom (ca. 15501070 B.C.E.), mummification had evolved into a fine art practiced as a family business by embalmers. The bodys brain (whose importance the Egyptians appear not to have grasped) was extracted by a special hook through the nostrils, then disposed of. The body was cut open with a knife of volcanic stone. The cutter-open then ran from onlookers who ritually threw stones in his direction, symbolizing their disapproval of anything that violated the body. The stomach, intestines, lungs and liver were removed, cured, and placed in four canopic jars bearing the animal heads of various gods. (In later times, after these four parts of the body had been treated to avoid putrefaction, they were returned to the body in packages.) The heart, believed to be the center of consciousness, was left in place. The body cavity was filled with aromatic spices, and with linen to preserve the bodys shape, sewn up, and placed in natrona natural salt with great drying capabilitiesfor 70 days. The body was then wrapped in strips of linen held together by resin. Protective charms and amulets were placed at various points in the wrappings.
Pharaohs likeness was painted on the lid of his coffin. On the procession to the tomb, mourners wailed and tore at themselves. In the burial chamber his coffin was accompanied by the canopic jars, foods, and wines. The walls depicted his favorite activities. In the tomb Pharaohs successor performed the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, seeking to revive the bodys senses. The body was also read passages from a scroll containing the Book of the Dead, which was also left in the tomb.
All of this was designed to help the subject on the journey to the Underworld. The Egyptians believed that the soul was divided into several parts, including the ka and ba. The ka, the bodys spirit duplicate, lived in the tomb, subsisting on the physical food there and on that represented on the walls, and needed to periodically settle back into the body, or, in a pinch, into a figurine of the deceased also present in the tomb. The ba, or personality, often represented by the image of a human-headed bird, also required periodic visits to the body, but was free in daytime to roam the land of the living. The bas most important task, performed at night, was to travel to the land of the dead. Each night Re journeyed through the Underworld on his journey back to sunrise. The ba followed that same path, past many frightening demons that the ba neutralized by saying their names, as provided in the Book of the Dead. At midnight the ba arrived at the Hall of Judgment, encountering forty-two gods presided over by Osiris himself. There the ba recited a negative confession of 42 wrongs not committed by the person of whom the ba was a part. The persons heart was placed on the Scale of Judgment opposite two feathers from Maat, goddess of Truth and Justice (hence the importance of the physical hearts being left intact). If the heart was found weighted down with sin, the heart was tossed to the monster Amut (part crocodile, part lion, part hippopotamus), who devoured it, and the person ceased to exist. (A recent National Geographic says the soul survived in a perpetual coma.) But if the heart proved lighter than the feathers, the ba returned to its tomb and combined with the ka to form an immortal soul, the akh. After that beliefs varied: the akh might ascend to the heavens; or join Re in his daily journey over the body of the Sky goddess Nut and nightly journey through her Underworld womb; or the akh might join with Osiris in the Underworld as he oversaw the cycle of natures birth, death, and rebirth.
Although much of Egypts mythos seems tantalizingly close to the idea of reincarnation, the Egyptians do not appear to have believed that people lived successive lives in new bodies. Their closest approach to reincarnation would have been Horus manifestation through each successive Pharaoh; but the belief in reincarnation proper stems not from Egypt but from ancient India.
Mummification, at first confined to Pharaoh and his immediate family, gradually democratized to include high priests, court notables, nobility, and the middle class, ultimately extending to anyone whose families could afford it. The fifth century B.C.E. historian/gossip, Herodotus, reports that embalmers offered three kinds of mummification, from ritzy to economy class, and customers decided what they could afford. Sometimes sacred animals such as cats, and even stuffed crocodile skins, were mummified.
New Kingdom pharaohs, noting that many of the all-too-visible pyramid tombs had been plundered, chose instead to be entombed in the better-protected cliffs of what is now the Valley of the Kings. Among the several notable New Kingdom pharaohs, the female pharaoh Hatsheput remains undiscovered, but many royal mummies have been found, including: those of Akhenaten, the heretic-king who tried to convert Egypt to a monotheistic belief in the Sun; his wife Nefertiti; their probable son, the boy-king Tutankhamun (of whom more next issue); and Ramses II (reigned ca. 12791212 B.C.E.), known as the Great for his military conquests, his wisdom, and his long rule.
It is from the reign of Ramses the Great that the earliest surviving piece of mummy fiction appears to date. Herodotus wrote down a tale, allegedly stemming from Ramses reign, that is paraphrased by Cowie and Johnson. Says the tale, the 11th of Ramses 198 sons, Khaemwaset, was a great scholar. In his study of ancient manuscripts, Khaemwaset learned of an earlier scholar-prince, Neferkaptah, a priest of Thoth, god of Wisdom, who discovered a scroll, the Book of Thoth, containing the knowledge and power of the gods. Thoth had punished this sacrilege by entombing Neferkaptah and his wife and children with the scroll. Khamwaset searched for and entered this tomb, finding the Book of Thoth within, radiant with light. As he reached for the scroll the mummies of Neferkaptah and his family rose from their coffins, and Neferkaptah chided Khaemwaset for his rashness. Khaemwaset said that we had earned the right to own the Book of Thoth by finding it, and after some tribulations escaped from the tomb with the scroll in hand. Then misfortune piled onto misfortune, and a chastened Khaemwaset returned the scroll to its tomb.
Through an Old, Middle, and New Kingdom with intermediate periods, through periods as an empire and periods of occupation by other cultures, this literate, staggeringly complex Egyptian culture maintained substantial continuity for over 3,000 years. When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 B.C.E. he had himself declared Pharaoh, emphasizing the continuity of Egyptian culture. At his death in 323 he reportedly was mummified (though his mummy has not yet been found). Alexander was succeeded on the Egyptian throne by Ptolemy I, and an ethnic Greek line of pharaohs reigned for 300 years, ending with one of Egypts greatest rulers, Cleopatra VII (who was believed to be the embodiment of Isis) in 30 B.C.E.. Then, Howard Reid writes, The Romans annexed the country but Egyptian influences spread like wildfire to Rome. One Roman nobleman, Gaius Cestius, even built himself a pyramid tomb which still stands in Rome today. Egyptian deities made their way into the Greek and Roman pantheons. The cult of Isis was a strong rival to early Christianity, and inscriptions to Isis have been found as far afield as a Roman site in London.
In 392 CE, Theodosius II, Christian emperor of Rome, ordered Egypt converted to Coptic Christianity and ordered an end to the practice of mummification. From 395 Egypt was administered by Byzantium until its conquest by Arab peoples in 641. Egypts mummies, those who had escaped the looting of their own countrymen, continued to rest in peace for a time.
The Mummy Goes West
Then a 12th century European translator found references in Arabic medical books to a kind of bitumen that was said to have remarkable healing properties and that the Persians called mumiya. He assumed, incorrectly, that this was the same kind of bitumen used in wrapping the ancient Egyptian dead. Soon the Egyptian brand of bitumen became known as mummy, and the embalmed Egyptian dead themselves became known as mummies. Soon mummies were widely sought as a cure-all by Europeans. Mummies were brought over from Egypt by the dozen and ground into powder. Heather Pringle writes that, Just a small dose, it was said, could cure...poisoning, incontinence, migraines, aB.C.E.sses, giddiness, paralysis, fractures, internal ulcers, contusions, concussions, scorpion stings, and vertigo.
This went on for centuries. According to Pringle, Europes wealthy intelligentsia swore by the drug. The French king Francis I, a patron of Leonardo Da Vinci and the very soul of an enlightened monarch, wore a small packet of mummy and powdered rhubarb around his neck to remedy an emergency. The Egyptian government did its best to stop mummy poachers, but when ancient mummies grew hard to come by the poachers embalmed the recently dead and sold them as the ancient article.
If these facts seem as surrealand disturbingas any scenario served up by Hollywood, theres more: mummy, a.k.a. Egyptian brown, was long a popular brand of artists paint. This practice, too, may have begun as early as the 12th century. Pringle writes, The bitumen-like powder made a lovely transparent brown color when added to oil or amber varnish, and it was almost impossible to duplicate without skillful blending of many other pigments. Mummified human muscles reportedly made the finest mummy, and artists loved the silky feel of it: it had a kind of sensual ease. It flows from the brush with delightful freedom and evenness, wrote one nineteenth-century English fan. Thin films spread upon a white ground are extremely lovely and enjoyable by painters who understand and appreciate the refinements of their art. Mummy was also fairly versatile. Artists could apply it as a glaze or daub it lightly on a canvas to capture the buttery tones of shadows or the dark swaths on water in the middle distance. There was only one drawback from the aesthetic point of view. Mummy cracked terribly. Within a few years, a painting glazed with it looked much like a crocodile handbag.
During the French Revolution of the 1790s, in an irony suitable to Tales from the Crypt, revolutionaries broke into the sepulchers of the French kings, made off with their mummified hearts, and, it is said, ground them into paint.
By the late 18th century civilized Europeans had been eating ancient Egyptians for medicineand painting with themfor a long time, but Europe knew almost nothing of the great civilization that preceded it.
In 1798 a swiftly-rising 29-year-old Corsican-born French general named Napoleon Bonaparte persuaded the French government to send him on a mission of conquest to Turkish-ruled Egypt. He fancied himself the heir to Alexander and Caesar, and planned to make Egypt the first stage in an Eastern empire. He caused the deaths of thousands of Egyptians and Turks, but the military campaign proved mostly a disaster; the British sank most of his fleet in the harbor of Alexandria, Alexanders and Cleopatras city.
The Egyptian expedition is remembered not for the needless deaths, but for their cultural side-product. Napoleon, wishing to be seen as a cultural as well as a military hero, brought along artists, historians, scientists in all of the disciplines, even a balloonist. They made an extensive study of the land of the pharaohs, including hundreds of illustrations. The result, the 24-volume Description of Egypt, published from 1808 to 1829, gave birth to the discipline of Egyptology.
On the negative side, a French officer shot the nose off the great lion-human statue, the Sphinx. On the positive side, another French officer made one of the greatest discoveries in the history of archaeology: a commemorative plaque from the 2nd century B.C.E., carved in black basalt stone in the sacred language of hieroglyphs; in demotic, the ancient Egyptian common tongue; and in Greek. This plaque, the Rosetta Stone, deciphered by linguist Jean Francois Champollian in 1822, made possible the reading of Egypts vast written records.
For his part, Napoleon abandoned his army in 1799, returning to France with two mummified heads, one for himself and one for his soon-to-be Empress, Josephine.
The 19th century became the Heroic Age of archaeology, full of outsized tales of courage and folly. Amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the fabled city of Troy in Turkey, but destroyed much of what he meant to save through crude excavation methods. Likewise, pioneer Egyptologists, mostly financed at first by rich private patrons, crawled through narrow passages to cramped caverns, crunching mummy bones under their hands and knees. But they recovered much, too, and some of those treasures, mummies included, wound up in such up-and-coming European museums as the British Museum and the Louvre, where they remain today.
Its Moving. Its Alive!
Egyptomania took hold of Europe and North Americathis remarkable civilization was then thought to have flourished a mere millennium after the Earths creation in 4004 B.C.E.and it has retained its hold on us ever since. Mummies, in particular, stimulated imaginations. Some of them remained so lifelike; what if they, in fact, came back to life?
Perhaps the first modern reference to this fictive possibility lies in that motherlode of the imagination, Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (17971851). In chapter 4 (chapter 5 of the revised 1831 edition), Victor Frankenstein, recoiling in horror from his moving, living creation, observes, Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. (Later in the book, Victor also compares his Monster to a vampire.)
In 1827 Jane Webb (18071858) published a three-volume novel, The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century. The Mummy! deals with a group of English adventurers who discover the remarkably-preserved mummy of the pharaoh Cheops and apply galvanic electricity to him, reviving him. The sinister-looking Cheops escapes in the expeditions hot-air balloon, leading his discoverers on a merry chase to a feminist Great Britain, and the book reportedly partakes more of utopian, and rather light-hearted, social commentary than of horror. Jane Webb, like M. W. Shelley before her, wrote her novel when she was 19. (Webb had been left orphaned and penniless by genteel parents; writing was then one of the few job opportunities available to an Englishwoman of breeding.) She married in 1830, and she and her husband collaborated on a series of successful gardening books!
In 1832 the New York Evening Mirror published Letter from a Revived Mummy, apparently a hoax about galvanic resuscitation. And, prior to his death in 1832, utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham willed his body to an anatomist friend, asking that the bodyhis Auto Iconbe preserved, to save his friends the expense of commissioning a sculpture. Pringle writes that, After a public dissection of his remains...his body was skeletonized and his head mummified with a pair of glass eyes. The result was so grim, however, that his friends swiftly arranged to have a wax head made. This they placed atop his reconstructed skeleton. Then they dressed Bentham in his old topcoat and breeches, arranged him comfortably in a chair with his walking stick and put him on display in a glass case at University College London. As a finishing touch they laid his mummified head between his feet. For decades after, admirers reportedly trundled Bentham to college council meetings, making note of his presence in the minutes. Even today, the curious can still gaze at these bizarre remains in their case at University College, though Benthams mummified head has been discreetly removed. Students had been in the habit of stealing it for pranks.
Edgar Allan Poe (18091849) flirted with mummification in his story Ligeia (1838), in which the narrator, having lost two wives to wasting disease (presumably consumption), has the second wife wrapped in bandages in preparation for the tomb, with unexpected results.
Egyptomania continued to grow in the West. Tuberculosis sufferers traveled to Egypt for the dry air. Many people took grand tours of the Holy Land, starting with a leisurely luxury journey along the Nile. Some amateurs went hunting for mummies and other treasures; more bought them from dealers. When the Egyptian government, in 1835, increased its efforts to prevent the flow of mummies westward, people started buying easier-to-hide hacked-off mummy heads, hands, and feet.
This trade inspired the charming story The Mummys Foot (1840) by French writer Theophile Gautier (18111872). The storys narrator purchases the mummified foot of the Egyptian princess Hermonthis in a curiosity shop, planning to use it as a paperweight. In a dream that night he is visited by the hopping princess, and when he generously gives her her foot back, she takes him to visit her fathers court, full of living mummies. The emphasis is on humor rather than shocks, but the tale remains very readable.
Western tourists werent content to simply bring mummies home for display; mummy unrollings became all the rage, sometimes as public educational events, sometimes at chic invitational parties. Poe made satiric and comedic use of these unwrappings in Some Words with a Mummy (1845). Poes narrator, presumably a scientist, receives an invitation to a late-night unwrapping in a fellow scientists home. The mummywhose name, the writing on his outer coffin reveals, is Allamistakeorests in a series of nested boxes. Poe, a writer of wide interests, clearly did his homework here; the narrator goes into detail about the coffins and the process of unwrapping the body. The investigators find, to their surprise, that the now-naked body has not had its innards removed. They apply a voltaic battery to several of its nerve endings, causing Allamistakeo to come angrily to life. It transpires that they havent returned him to life, but merely awakened him from a state of suspended animation.
Eventually, since a couple of the investigators speak capital ancient Egyptian, they fall into conversation about the comparative worth of ancient and modern customs and inventions, with Allamistakeo demonstrating the superiority of Egyptian ways in almost every respect.
It seems likely that the three named investigators in the story are satiric jabs at actual Egyptomaniacs of the time. Gliddon, at leastGeorge Gliddonwas a charlatanlecturer who used mummies, ancient artifacts, an elaborate painted panorama, and lots of ten-dollar words to prove theories of white supremacy. Poe, who pulled off a few tongue-in-cheek hoaxes in his time, knew a phoney when he saw one, witness this droll description: Mr Gliddon replied at great length, in phonetics; and but for the deficiency of American printing-offices in hieroglyphical type, it would afford me much pleasure to record here, in the original, the whole of his very excellent speech. The real Gliddon would receive his come-uppance in 1850; for a Boston performance he announced that he would unwrap the daughter of an Egyptian priest (the newspapers made the mummy a princess). As Gliddon removed the last wrapping from his princess, what should appear but a substantial penis!
Cowie and Johnson write that Around 1844 archaeology came of age in that it developed a conscience and wholesale plunderinghowever enthusiastic and well-intentionedwas not so readily tolerated.... An importance was attached to context, too. Like a police investigation, the site of a mummy find and its environs are of equal importance as the mummy itself. In 1863 Auguste Mariette founded the first Egyptian Museum at Bulaq. In the 1870s Egyptian authorities discovered that a private family had acquired a vast trove of mummies and related treasures and were selling them off, item by item. Cowie and Johnson write that the authorities found forty royal or noble mummies with their coffins and five thousand nine hundred odd smaller objects. (It is thought that sometime in antiquity, several of these pharaohs and their retinues had been moved from their too-easily found burial sites to a joint site thought to be more secure.) Thus several pharaohs, including Ramses I and Ramses II, entered the modern world.
A pair of widely reported mummy facts actually appear to be mummy folklore. Several histories of paper have stated that during a mid-19th century American East Coast paper shortage, several mills imported Egyptian mummies, turing their wrappings into grocers brown wrapping paper. Supposedly an edition of the Syracuse Standard was published in this unique brown paper. Then, it is said, these ancient rages caused the spread of disease. As Pringle writes, This story has all the classic elements of modern pulp fiction: greed, impiety, and stern retribution for the guilty parties. But pulp fiction it is; subsequent researches have failed to produce any real evidence of mummy paper. And in The Innocents Abroad (1869) Mark Twain passed on the claim that the fuel for Egyptian trains is composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and that sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, D_m those plebians, they dont burn worth a centpass out a king! Not bloody likely; but Twains yarn was soon taken for gospel far and wide.
The first mummy short story in an English magazine was probably My New Years Eve Among the Mummies (1880) by Grant Allen, writing as J. Arbuthnot Wilson. Its neer-do-well British narrator stumbles upon the hidden entrance to a pyramid and advances down a long passage to find a pharaoh and his court dining elegantly. After some initial communication problems, Pharaohs daughter, Hatasou, reveals that they are mummies who, Brigadoon-like, come to life for one day and night every 1,000 years to partake of their mummified food. (After that we go to sleep for another millennium. Unless you are meanwhile burned as fuel on the Cairo Railway, I added mentally.) Like the narrator of The Mummys Foot, the narrator of New Years Eve takes a fancy to Pharaohs daughter, and finds that fancy returned in kind....
The reader will doubtless have noted that so far, our examples of mummy fiction have been more light-hearted than otherwise. That will change next issue.
By 1890 mummy medicine and mummy paint, while still existent, were no longer fashionable, and the wholesale plunder of Egyptian tombs was giving way to more scientific, and comparatively respectful, treatment of our ancient forbears. Mummy fever had, for the moment, settled a bit. Ahead lay two key mummy short stories from a surprising source, a spectacular tomb discovery, a rumored curseand the strange saga of the Mummy in film.
To be continued....
Sources: Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, 1818, in Leonard Wolf, ed., The Essential Frankenstein, 1993; Peter Haining, ed., The Mummy: Stories of the Living Corpse, 1988; Howard Reid, In Search of the Immortals: Mummies, Death and the Afterlife, 2001; Heather Pringle, The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead, 2001; Rosalie F. & Charles F. Baker III, Ancient Egyptians: People of the Pyramids, 2001;Theodore Vrettos, Alexandria: City of the Western Mind, 2001; Paul Johnson, Napoleon: A Penguin Life 2002; Susan D. Cowie & Tom Johnson, The Mummy in Fact, Fiction and Film, 2002; A.R. Williams, Death on the Nile, National Geographic, October 2002; Egypt: Beyond the Pyramids (History Channel documentary); Neferchichis Tomb: All About Mummies; Paulette W. Campbell, In the Mouth of the Crocodile.