Mummy of Ukhhotep, Middle Kingdom

Egypt, Mummy of Ukhhotep, Middle Kingdom, ca. 1981-1802 B.C. Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Come tomorrow evening, droves of miniature monsters will haunt our neighborhoods, jack-o-lantern-shaped candy bowls in tow. Amongst the groups of trick-or-treaters, though, one spooky creature will likely be absent: the mummy, which, despite being the star of many a horror film, never seems to be a Halloween costume favorite.

My guess as to why the mummy costume has never attained the cult status of, for example, the ghost is a purely pragmatic one. Dressing up as a mummy is a difficult task; cutting eyeholes into a white sheet is pretty straightforward. This is a fact that my own failed childhood attempt at dressing up as a mummy—which ended in my mother watching the rolls of gauze bandages she had dutifully wrapped around me immediately unravel—confirms.

An Egyptologist, however, might answer this question differently. For though the mummy of horror cinema is unrestful and vengeful, rising from the tomb to wreak havoc upon the living, in reality mummification was nothing more than a sophisticated burial ritual, meant to help lead the deceased to a peaceful afterlife.

Pierre Petit, Egyptian mummy, c. 1880

Pierre Petit, Egyptian mummy, c. 1880. Muséum national d’histoire naturelle. Image and original data provided by Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, N.Y.;

In Ancient Egypt it was believed that in order to rise again and become eternal, the nonphysical elements of a person needed to be protected and nourished. As such, bodies were preserved to help usher the elements of the soul and the body’s life-force, or ka, into the afterlife.

In the Predynastic period, the dead were buried in the desert sands, where moisture was naturally removed, helping bodies stay preserved. Throughout the history of dynastic Egypt, however, nature was aided with a series of mummification rituals that have left mummies intact thousands of years after they were created. The most well-known mummification style and practice is that of the New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 B.C.), and particularly the Eighteenth Dynasty, an era that included the reign of the famous boy king Tutankhamun.

Mummification took seventy days, and began with the removal of the brain through the nostril. This shudder-evoking process speaks to the perceived unimportance of the brain in Ancient Egypt and, in turn, to one of few gaps in this society’s relatively advanced understanding of the human body.

After the brain was removed, the internal organs followed. The liver, lungs, intestines, and stomach were removed from the left side of the body, and later dried and placed in Canopic jars. The left side was believed to be the holy side of the body, thanks to the presence of the heart. According to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the heart was weighed by the gods to determine who deserved to enter the afterlife. Those who had committed bad deeds had a heavy heart, while those who lived justly had hearts lighter than the weight of the Feather of Truth (Ma’at), the measure against which all hearts were weighed. After the internal organs were removed, the body was then dried using Natron, a naturally-occurring salt mixture.

Oils and unguents were rubbed into the body after the 40-day drying process was complete, and it was only at this stage that the iconic wrappings were draped around the mummy’s body. Amulets were included inside the layers of cloth to help protect the deceased. A priest, dressed as the jackal-headed god Anubis (the god associated with mummification) would utter spells and incantations – giving the mummy an extra, spiritual layer of protection. In the case of a royal or higher-class person, an ornate mask with the deceased’s features would then be placed over the face. Canopic jars, as well as other objects belonging to the deceased, would be placed in their tomb with their coffin.

Canopic jar, 1075-656 B.C., Egypt

Canopic jar, 1075-656 B.C., Egypt. Image and data from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The technical and scientific acumen of the Ancient Egyptians has led their mummies to remain astonishingly well intact. And indeed, many bodies are so expertly preserved that they can be used to understand the health, diet, and other habits of those living millennia ago. The hollow, gaunt, and discolored faces of the mummies may not be anyone’s idea of pretty. But for all they have taught us, and continue to teach us, on this Halloween it is important to remember that they are things to be marveled at, not feared.

Hannah Stamler

Images in this post come from The Metropolitan Museum of ArtRéunion des Musées Nationaux, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Find more by searching the Artstor Digital Library for terms such as mummycanopic jarbook of the dead, and take a look at our curated image group Ancient Art: Near East and Egypt, as well as several of our AP® Art History Resources within the Artstor Digital Library’s Global Folders.

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