Among things strange and wrapped in mystery is the mummy. A mummy is a
corpse, but unlike a skeleton or a fossil, a mummy still retains some of
the soft tissue it had when it was alive ― most often skin, but sometimes
organs and muscles. This tissue preservation can happen by accident, or
through human intervention, but either way, it only occurs when bacteria
and fungi are unable to grow and promote decay.
The absence of water is important since bacteria can't grow without it. Mummies can be dried in the sun, with fire or smoke or with chemicals. Since most bacteria can't live in sub-freezing conditions, permafrost can also produce a mummy. An oxygen-free environment, such as a peat bog, will cause mummification because the microorganisms can't live without air. Yet another way to create a mummy is to bury it in soil that contains chemicals that kill bacteria.
The Egyptians became master mummy makers. One of the oldest known Egyptian mummies dates back to around 3500 B.C.E. and is believed to have been created from the arid desert winds and hot blazing sand rather than at the hand of some ancient embalmer. The first intentional mummies occur around 3000 B.C.E. as the culture's beliefs concerning eternal life became more sophisticated. By 1550, any Egyptian who could afford it was mummified. They believed that a person's Ka, or vital force, and Ba, the personality, left the body at death, but they could be lured back if a convincing recreation of the body was offered. This reunification was your ticket to the nether world.
A thorough mummy job took seventy days. The first forty were spent drying out the corpse. The organs were removed except the heart, believed to be the source of thought, was left inside the body. The body was then rinsed with wine and packed with salt. To make sure the Ka and Ba could find the body, an elaborate restoration process was necessary. The skin was massaged, rouge and paint applied, the body was stuffed, padded and perfumed and amulets were placed at various places to appease different gods. Finally, the mummy was coated in warm resin and wrapped in layer upon layer of linen.
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Wendy Brinker is an artist and writer in Columbia, SC.
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