by Nigel Fletcher-Jones
all images from How I Became a Mummy (AUC Press)
In last month’s column, I described the ways in which museum curators and archaeologists are bringing together a number of scientific techniques in order to delve deeper, and more meaningfully, into the real lives of individuals who were mummified in ancient Egypt.
While many specialists feel increasingly uncomfortable about the public display of mummies, in the context of the growing worldwide interest in Egyptology, we recognize that the display of mummies will remain, well, a fact of life.
I often argue that the future of Egyptology in the public imagination remains ultimately secure as, by the age of four or five, so many children around the world have been introduced to some of the distinctive characteristics of ancient Egypt, particularly pyramids, hieroglyphs, and mummies. For a percentage of those children fascination with all things Egyptian will remain with them for life, and the mummy will remain part of that fascination.
So, how might we influence the ways in which those children view mummies—not as museum curiosities or the stuff of horror movies, but as their former selves: living, breathing, thinking, communicating individuals within a particular ancient social context?
A unique way to approach the question is to tell the human story from the perspective of the mummy, and that is exactly what Leena Pekkalainen—a writer, blogger, and artist—has done in her new children’s book, How I Became a Mummy (principally for those aged 9 – 12).
Mr. Mummific is a character that Leena created while studying Egyptology at Manchester University and whose adventures she has developed in her blog www.ancientegypt101.com. (I first met Mr. Mummific in a photo where he was sitting watching TV next to an AUC Press book, Amarna Sunrise, by Egyptologist Aidan Dodson.)
Mr. Mummific is certainly a mummy with attitude, and opinions about almost everything! His views on mummification, for example, are quite clear: “Now, we all know mummies are wonderful. If anyone disagrees, I would ask: who are the visitor magnets of any museum, hmm? Yes, quite right. Us. The mummies.”
If you were to ask him about himself he would say, “I was a pharaoh, and still am. I only use my nickname these days, as there are too many pharaohs in the afterlife for us to take each other seriously. If there is a meeting of the kings, and everyone uses all their formal names, it takes forever and a day to address each other.”
Unfortunately, as pharaoh, Mr. M rather enjoyed the good life, especially honey: honeyed wine, honey cakes, plain old honey, and he ended with very bad tooth problems. So much so, that one morning he woke up to find himself dead, which was a bit of a shock, but, at least the toothache had gone.
Too late, as he watches the palace servants struggle getting his well-rounded body onto a stretcher, that, “Maybe a little less honey cake and fine wine might have been a good thing.”
Understandably a little confused, Mr. M is fortunate to be met as his ghost is floating about on the ceiling by his dead eldest son, who turns out to be an extremely helpful guide.
Within an hour the two of them are floating along behind the procession of priests and mourners to the She-Netjer (the Hall of the Gods), the tent where the bodies of royalty were washed after their death, before the mummification process began.
Only the embalmers were allowed in the tent, and, according to Mr. Mummific, there is rather a lot of bad language involved before his ample earthly form is lying on the stone slab where it is to be washed with wine and Nile water, while the lector priest reads out the appropriate spells.
Soon, Mr. M’s body is ready to be carried to the Per-Nefer (the Good House), a mud brick building in the Valley of the Kings, where sharp knives and tools were already prepared for the next step…
Then, one of the embalmers is stooping down to cut an incision low on the left side of the body with a black, obsidian blade, much to the amusement of a large group of royal ghosts who had joined Mr. M and his son for the ‘entertainment’.
The new spectators grew particularly excited as another embalmer starts to pull out intestines. When asked what they are doing, Mr. M’s son replies, “Hmm? Oh, they’re betting on your intestines, about their length. Great fun, just look!” (According to a ghostly measurer they were fourteen royal cubits and two palms, or about seven-and-a-half meters long!)
Continuing, Mr Mummific relates, “In quick succession, another embalmer removed my liver, and stomach, and lungs. There was some betting about whether my heart would be removed inadvertently, but most mummies seemed to believe that the embalmers would be careful and not yank it out. They were correct.”
“One of the embalmers took a metal hook that was slightly curved at one end. He placed it inside my left nostril, and then with a brisk movement shoved it in. I heard bone crack. But I watched in horror as the embalmer rotated the metal hook inside my head with great gusto… I must say that I do not understand why modern people appreciate the brain. Seriously, just have a look at it in the bowl—it looks like something that came out of a nose! (Oh wait, it did come out of a nose!)… the heart is the center of consciousness and thinking, and you should teach this at your schools (is it true that you have brain surgeons? If so, why?).”
The process continues—in some rather undignified ways, according to Mr. M—until the embalmers opens large sacks and starts throwing salt under his body, and wiping his body once more with spiced wine, using linen rags, before inserting linen pouches of salt inside, and, finally covering the body.
Mr. Mummific finds that he is rather bored for the next forty days, as his body dries out, but keeps himself busy visiting the palace, and doing the occasional bit of haunting.
By now, it won’t be much of a surprise to you to know that Mr Mummific has much more to say on the subject of the wrapping process, the funeral procession, his coffins and sarcophagus, and the burial ceremonies, but you will have to read the book to find out about those!