How did the ancient Egyptians mummify bodies and why did they do it with the pharaohs?

There mummification it's the process natural or artificial through which the decomposition of a corpse is slowed down or completely stopped. Natural mummies may originate in extremely cold or extremely arid environments, while in certain cultural or religious contexts the artificial practice is known as “embalming“. This term comes from the fact that in the trial they were used balms And perfumes. During ancient times, the true masters of this art were ancient Egyptianswho practiced it for reasons related to their beliefs regardingBeyond the grave (Duatin the Egyptian language) and above all towards the corpses of the gods pharaohs. But why was mummification practiced in Ancient Egypt? The Egyptians believed that part of thesoul of the deceased continued to live on earth after death (il kain the Egyptian language) and for this reason it was necessary keep at least partly the body, to allow the ka to return there and born again.

In Egypt the practice of embalming, which could also last 70 daysspread during the period ofOld Kingdom (2700-2200 BC), initially as a prerogative of the class of rulers and gods priests, but over time it became a habit for anyone who could afford it. According to some scholars, the maximum level of refinement of mummification techniques was reached between 1500 and the 1000 BC The phases of the embalming process are not entirely clear, because the sources that tell us about them are following of millennia to the time of the pharaohs and date back to the 5th century BC (Herodotus) and to the 1st century BC (Embalming papyrus).

The phases of mummification in Ancient Egypt

Let's see the phases of an embalming of a high-ranking person as described by Herodotus in his Storiesone of the most detailed sources on the topic.


The body of the deceased was entrusted by the family to gods professional embalmerswhich took him to the “Place of purification” (Ibw, in the Egyptian language). Here the body came carefully washedto then be moved to the “House of beauty” (For Nefer). In this place the process began evisceration real. First of all the embalmers removed the brain. Herodotus speaks of metal hooks used to remove most of the organ through the nostrils, piercing the ethmoid bone. Afterwards, with gods wooden sticks we tried to scrape off what was left by doing it drain away always through the nostrils. Instead of the brain the embalmers inserted into the skull ointments and balms of plant origin.

Metal hooks used for brain removal. Credit: Wellcome Images

After removing the brain, a cut along the side of the deceased. From here, the embalmers removed theintestinei lungsThe liver and it stomach. These organs, unlike the brain, were not thrown away, but put aside and dried in natronor the sodium carbonate decahydrate, which has the quality of absorbing liquids. Once driedthe organs were placed inside four canopic jars who would be buried with the deceased. Each of these had a lid decorated with the head of a different deity four sons of Horuswho were the protectors of these organs: Hamsetfrom the head Humanwatched over the liver, Kebehseneffrom the head of falconon the intestine, Hapifrom the head of baboonon the lungs, and finally Duamutefwith the head of jackal, on the stomach. The Heart remained inside the body because to enter the Duat it would have been weighed against the feather from the goddess of justice Maat.

After emptying the abdominal and thoracic cavities, they came wash with palm wine and then filled with ointments and balms based on herbs And myrrh. In this way the dual purpose of removing bad odors and filling the cavities, which otherwise would have become deformed, was achieved.

Set of canopic jars from the 10th century BC. C. on display at the National Museum of Natural History, Washington DC Credit: Daderot


After emptying the body of organs and filling it with ointments and balms, this was what it was supposed to be dried. For this reason, the body was left immersed in natron for 40 days. During this time, the substance contributed to dehydrate the tissues, eliminating the last liquids remaining inside the body, which could have caused its decay. Furthermore, due to dehydration, the tissues they stiffened Well yes they darkenedgiving future mummies the look we know.

At the end of 40 days, the body was removed from the natron e washed again with the help of vegetable oils and resins. After this phase, the cut on the side came reopened to remove the “padding” of herbs from the inside (since the tissues had stiffened, this was no longer necessary) and to allow the abdominal and thoracic cavities to be washed again with resins and oils. Substances applied both inside and outside the body would have antibacterial capabilitiesprotecting tissues from decomposition.

The mummy of Pharaoh Seti I (1294/1290–1279 BC) is one of the best preserved.

Funeral ritual: bandaging and burial

At the end of this long process, the embalmed body was wrapped in linen bandages in the course of a ritual during which the priests burned incense and they acted prayers and invocations to the deities. The layers of bandages were glued together with the help of natural glues and resins. Small children were also placed between the bandages amulets protective. Once the body was ready, it was returned to the family, who proceeded with the burial based on their financial resources. The richest could get it sarcophagi And funerary masks sumptuous.

During the thousand-year history of Egypt, funerary rituals changed several times, conditioned both by religious traditions and by social and economic habits. For example, for families who did not have the financial means to afford the entire ritual described above, they were content with parts of it, such as evisceration or dehydration.

Funeral procession from the Book of the Dead, 13th century. to. C.