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Ancient Egyptian mummy underwent ritual healing for the afterlife

Ancient Egyptian mummy underwent ritual healing for the afterlife

An analysis on a 1,700-year-old Egyptian mummy has revealed two plaques placed over her body – one on her sternum, the other on her abdomen. Researchers believe the plaques were intended as a type of ritual healing following the embalming process, in order to be healthy and strong in the afterlife.

The mummy is of a woman aged between 30 and 50, who lived in the 3 rd or 4 th century AD when Egypt was under Roman rule. By this time, traditional customs such as mummification had started to die out; but not for this lady, who was obviously adamant that she would be prepared appropriately for the afterlife.

Researchers have been careful to leave the wrappings in place but hi-tech scans have revealed many details about her. Images show that embalmers had removed her inner organs, including her heart, but had left her brain in place. Spices and lichen had been placed over her head and body, and two thin plaques, similar to cartonnage (a plastered material used to make funerary masks), were placed on her skin above her sternum and abdomen.

A facial reconstruction of the mummy done by forensic artist Victoria Lywood. Photo source .

The positioning of the plaques is perplexing as they were placed over areas that had not been cut open – previous findings have revealed plaques placed over areas of incision. However, researchers believe the plaque on the sternum may have acted as a type of replacement for the heart, while the plaque on the abdomen may have been placed there as a type of ritual healing for the incision made in the woman’s perineum to remove her inner organs, or as a replacement for the organs removed from her abdomen. The researchers believe that this may have been done to give her a more “favourable afterlife”.

The absence of the heart is also a point of mystery for Egyptologists and scholars. It is well known that the heart played an important role in ancient Egyptian religion. The ancient Egyptians believed that, after death, one’s heart and good deeds would be weighed against the measure of truth. If their heart weighed the same or less they could obtain eternal life, but if it weighed more they were destroyed.

Studies of Egyptian mummies have revealed that most of the time the heart is left in place, but on some occasions it is removed. "We don't really know what's happening to the hearts that are removed," said Andrew Wade, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. “During some time periods, the hearts may have been put in canopic jars, a type of jar used to hold internal organs, though tissue analysis is needed to confirm this idea,” Wade said.

It is believed that the mummy’s final resting place was near Luxor. However, being a victim of antiquity dealers who purchased her in the 19 th century, it is hard to say for certain. She is now housed at the Redpath Museum at McGill University in Montreal.

Featured image: This 1,700-year-old mummy which is now kept at the Redpath Museum at McGill University in Montreal. Credit: Photo courtesy Nicolas Morin

    Ready for the Afterlife: The Mummification Process in Ancient Egypt

    When it comes to ancient Egypt and its long lasting and influential civilization, plenty of its unique characteristics can seem peculiar and otherworldly. Sure, it is no secret that ancient Egypt was home to some odd beliefs and quirky traditions. But to them, all of it held deep meaning and religious significance.

    One of the oldest and strangest of these traditions is certainly the mummification process. Embalming the dead in order to provide artificial mummification is not a novelty in human history, but the mummification process was certainly perfected in ancient Egypt where this practice survived for thousands of years. But how did they do it? And most importantly, why?

    The Origins and Nature of the Mummification Process

    Over the years, the classic depiction of a linen-wrapped mummy became an iconic symbol of the ancient Egyptians. But the actual word “ mummy” has nothing to do with it! There is quite a rocky history to that simple word. The English version was borrowed from the Latin word mumia. This in turn was borrowed from Arabic in the middle ages, from the word mūmiya ( مومياء), which stems from the Persian word mūm, meaning “wax.”

    This term was meant to signify an embalmed corpse and eventually found its way into English, where by the 1600s the word was used for naturally preserved desiccated human bodies. As such the modern day word mummy does not refer exclusively to those mummified bodies of ancient Egypt. “Mummy” can refer to any type of ancient and modern mummified body that was preserved either through natural processes or artificial ones. But, of course, not all mummies are so captivating and enigmatic as the ones found in ancient Egypt.

    The Gebelein Predynastic Mummies

    Perhaps the oldest discovered mummies of ancient Egypt are known as the Gebelein predynastic mummies. These six bodies were naturally mummified, thanks to the arid landscapes they were found in. The hot sands and dry air helped to keep these bodies relatively well preserved, keeping in mind that they are dated to roughly Gebelein 3400 BC!

    is located on the River Nile , some 40 kilometers south of Thebes, a crucial Egyptian city. Found in shallow graves with sparse grave goods, these six mummies come from the earliest stages of the ancient Egyptian civilization, the so-called predynastic period. As such they provide an important glimpse into the development of their funerary customs and the development of mummification as well.

    This is due to the fact that three of these bodies were covered with different materials: reed mats, animal skins, and palm fibers. This was perhaps an early attempt to help with the mummification processes. While most bodies of the predynastic era were buried naked, some were wrapped or covered with such fabrics, which could have gradually evolved into a more complex form of embalming and mummification.

    Death and the Afterlife for the Ancient Egyptians

    As a civilization evolves, so do the most important of its aspects. And, of course, death can be as important for a civilization as life itself. For the ancient Egyptians, death and the afterlife were one of the cornerstones of all their beliefs. As time progressed so did these funerary rites, until the time they became established with a series of patterns and traditions that continued on for a long time after.


    The mummification process took seventy days. Special priests worked as embalmers, treating and wrapping the body. Beyond knowing the correct rituals and prayers to be performed at various stages, the priests also needed a detailed knowledge of human anatomy. The first step in the process was the removal of all internal parts that might decay rapidly. The brain was removed by carefully inserting special hooked instruments up through the nostrils in order to pull out bits of brain tissue. It was a delicate operation, one which could easily disfigure the face. The embalmers then removed the organs of the abdomen and chest through a cut usually made on the left side of the abdomen. They left only the heart in place, believing it to be the center of a person's being and intelligence. The other organs were preserved separately, with the stomach, liver, lungs, and intestines placed in special boxes or jars today called canopic jars. These were buried with the mummy. In later mummies, the organs were treated, wrapped, and replaced within the body. Even so, unused canopic jars continued to be part of the burial ritual.

    The embalmers next removed all moisture from the body. This they did by covering the body with natron, a type of salt which has great drying properties, and by placing additional natron packets inside the body. When the body had dried out completely, embalmers removed the internal packets and lightly washed the natron off the body. The result was a very dried-out but recognizable human form. To make the mummy seem even more life-like, sunken areas of the body were filled out with linen and other materials and false eyes were added.

    Next the wrapping began. Each mummy needed hundreds of yards of linen. The priests carefully wound the long strips of linen around the body, sometimes even wrapping each finger and toe separately before wrapping the entire hand or foot. In order to protect the dead from mishap, amulets were placed among the wrappings and prayers and magical words written on some of the linen strips. Often the priests placed a mask of the person's face between the layers of head bandages. At several stages the form was coated with warm resin and the wrapping resumed once again. At last the priests wrapped the final cloth or shroud in place and secured it with linen strips. The mummy was complete.
    The priests preparing the mummy were not the only ones busy during this time. Although the tomb preparation usually had begun long before the person's actual death, now there was a deadline, and craftsmen, workers, and artists worked quickly. There was much to be placed in the tomb that a person would need in the Afterlife. Furniture and statuettes were readied wall paintings of religious or daily scenes were prepared and lists of food or prayers finished. Through a magical process, these models, pictures, and lists would become the real thing when needed in the Afterlife. Everything was now ready for the funeral.

    As part of the funeral, priests performed special religious rites at the tomb's entrance. The most important part of the ceremony was called the "Opening of the Mouth". A priest touched various parts of the mummy with a special instrument to "open" those parts of the body to the senses enjoyed in life and needed in the Afterlife. By touching the instrument to the mouth, the dead person could now speak and eat. He was now ready for his journey to the Afterlife. The mummy was placed in his coffin, or coffins, in the burial chamber and the entrance sealed up.

    Such elaborate burial practices might suggest that the Egyptians were preoccupied with thoughts of death. On the contrary, they began early to make plans for their death because of their great love of life. They could think of no life better than the present, and they wanted to be sure it would continue after death.

    But why preserve the body? The Egyptians believed that the mummified body was the home for this soul or spirit. If the body was destroyed, the spirit might be lost. The idea of "spirit" was complex involving really three spirits: the ka, ba, and akh. The ka, a "double" of the person, would remain in the tomb and needed the offerings and objects there. The ba, or "soul", was free to fly out of the tomb and return to it. And it was the akh, perhaps translated as "spirit", which had to travel through the Underworld to the Final Judgment and entrance to the Afterlife. To the Egyptian, all three were essential.

    A Good Death

    Megan Rosenbloom, director of the Death Salon.

    Today we think of bitumen as asphalt, the black, sticky substance that coats our roads. It’s a naturally occurring hydrocarbon that has been used in construction in the Middle East since ancient times. (The book of Genesis lists it as one of the materials used in the Tower of Babel.) The ancients also used bitumen to protect tree trunks and roots from insects and to treat an array of human ailments. It is viscous when heated but hardens when dried, making it useful for stabilizing broken bones and creating poultices for rashes. In his 1st-century text Natural History, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder recommends ingesting bitumen with wine to cure chronic coughs and dysentery or to combine it with vinegar to dissolve and remove clotted blood. Other uses included the treatment of cataracts, toothaches, and skin diseases.

    Natural bitumen was abundant in the ancient Middle East, where it formed in geological basins from the remains of tiny plants and animals. It had a variety of consistencies, from semiliquid (known today as pissasphalt) to semisolid (bitumen). In his 1st-century pharmacopoeia, Materia Medica, the Greek physician Dioscorides wrote that bitumen from the Dead Sea was the best for medicine. Later scientists would learn that bitumen also has antimicrobial and biocidal properties and that the bitumen from the Dead Sea contains sulfur, also a biocidal agent.

    While different cultures had their own names for bitumen—it was esir in Sumeria and sayali in Iraq—the 10th-century Persian physician Rhazes made the earliest known use of the word mumia for the substance, after mum, which means wax, referring to its stickiness. By the 11th century the Persian physician Avicenna used the word mumia to refer specifically to medicinal bitumen. We now call the embalmed ancient Egyptian dead “mummies” because when Europeans first saw the black stuff coating these ancient remains, they assumed it to be this valuable bitumen, or mumia. The word mumia became double in meaning, referring both to the bitumen that flowed from nature and to the dark substance found on these ancient Egyptians (which may or may not have actually been bitumen).

    The Glorious Ancient Egyptian Masks of Death

    Below I made a little video showcasing different ancient Egyptian death masks, set to music, so you can feast your eyes before we get into the details.

    So now let’s talk about why the ancient Egyptians used funerary masks in the first place.

    Ancient Egyptian Masks – General Wendjebauendjed

    The most obvious reason is to protect the head and face of the mummy. The ancient Egyptians believed in preserving the physical body after death because it was part of the afterlife experience as well.

    The other reason was to strengthen the chance of acceptance into the afterlife by projecting an image of themselves that is appealing to the gatekeepers of the afterlife – the gods that would judge and determine their fates.

    For those who could afford it, they had elaborate masks that would resemble an idealized version of themselves – perhaps in their youth – but with divine features such as the gilded skin and blue hair.

    Ancient Egyptian Masks – Mask of a Woman – Roman Period, Abydos – British Musem

    The gods, specifically the sun-god Ra, were thought to have skin made of gold and hair made of lapis lazuli.

    That wasn’t just for show – it was because they believed that to be endowed with divine status, one would have easier access into the afterlife and become accepted by the gods themselves.

    It helped their cause of resurrection in everlasting life in Aaru, the Field of Reeds.

    Those who could not afford gold leaf and precious minerals, but still could afford a mask, would have theirs made of wood or other less-costly materials, such as plaster or hardened mummy shrouds, yet with idealized features such as large eyes, red skin tones for men and yellow skin tones for women, and other embellishments.

    Ancient Egyptian Masks – Mask of a Woman – Roman Period – British Museum

    But before the mask was adorned, the body of the deceased was washed, emptied of all internal organs except the heart, dried and wrapped during the very long mummy-preparation rituals.

    The masks would sometimes also have symbols that helped the deceased in the afterlife, such as a winged scarab, the goddesses Nekhbet and Wadjet on the forehead of a pharaoh’s mask, and inscriptions from the Book of the Dead or other funerary texts.

    Mummy masks evolved over time – at first they were made by hardening the outer layer of the mummy shroud, and then they were produced separately using molds, and then finally they were made with precious metals beaten into shape.

    Egyptian Gods

    The Egyptian religion was polytheistic. The word netjer (god) described a much wider range of beings than the deities of monotheistic religions, including demons. The Egyptian religion was based on the principle of heka (magic) personified in the god Heka, who had always existed and participated in the act of creation of the gods and the world. He was the god of magic and medicine but also he was the power of magic enabling the gods to function and the power for humans to communicate with the gods. Egyptians believe that at first, there had been nothing but Nu (dark water of chaos). Out of Nu rose a hill, known as Benben, where the god Atum stood in the presence of Heka. Atum feeling lonely mated with his own shadow, spitting out Shu, the god of air, and vomited Tefnut, the goddess of moisture. They left their father and set off to create the world. After being long gone, Atum started to worry, so he removed his eye (later known as the Eye of RA, Udjat eye or the All-seeing eye) and sent it to search for them. Shu and Tefnut returned to Benben with Atum’s eye. Atum was so happy that he shed tears of joy, which gave birth to a man and a woman.

    Because they had nowhere to live, Shu and Tefnut mated and gave birth to Geb (earth) and Nut (sky). Net and Geb fell in love, but Atum found this unacceptable, so he pushed Nut high up into the heaven. Geb and Nut could see each other but could not touch. Nut was already pregnant by Geb and gave birth to Isis, Set, Nephthys, Osiris and Horus, the five earliest gods. These gods gave birth to the rest of the other gods. Also, it was believed that Nut give birth to the sun every day. A sun which would die every time at sunset.

    Each god had his own role, power and protection and some sort of myth that explained the background of that particular god. One of the most important gods were Amun, Mut and Knons (Khonsu). Amun was a local god at first but after uniting Upper and Lower Egypt, Amun, Mut and Khons from Upper Egypt replaced Ptah, Sekhment and Khonsu of Lower Egypt. Amun became the supreme creator god or the Sun god (symbolized by the sun), Mut was his wife, goddess of the sun’s rays, and their son Khons, the god of healing and destroyer of evil spirits.

    Osiris (a god of the underworld and the dead), has an interesting myth added to him. Namely he was tricked and killed by his brother Seth (the god of evil). Isis (this is the Greek name, the Egyptian name is Aset or Eset, which meant goddess of different things, all from the goddess of mothers, the goddess of women and fertility, to nature or protector of the throne) brought Osiris back to life but he was incomplete because a fish ate part of him, so he could not rule on earth anymore. That is the reason why he was sent to rule the Underworld. His son Horus (the god of the sky, whose one eye was the sun, and the other was the moon) fought with Seth for eight years and after defeating him, restored harmony to the land.
    Other gods in Egypt are Anubis (god of mummification), Aten (form of the god Ra), Seshat (goddess of writing and measurements), Tawaret (god protector of pregnant woman), Sobek (Nile god), Thoth (god of writing and knowledge) and many others.

    Ancient Egyptian mummy underwent ritual healing for the afterlife - History

    T he ancient Egyptians believed that, after death, the body was the home of the individual's spirit as he or she journeyed through the after-life. If the body was destroyed through decomposition, there was danger that the spirit would also be destroyed. Preserving the body in as close to its life-like condition would assure the preservation of the individual's spiritual essence. "Mummification," the process of preserving the integrity of an individual through embalming the body of the deceased, was the ancient Egyptian answer to the problem.

    A wall panel from an Egytian tomb
    depicts the god of mummification at work.
    It is believed that the process of mummification was developed at least 2,500 years before the birth of Christ. The process included four phases: the removal of the internal organs, the use of a salt compound to dry the hollow body, filling the dried body with a stuffing to restore its original shape and finally, tightly wrapping the body with strips of linen. Although expensive, the process of mummification was not restricted to the Egyptian Pharaohs. All of the social classes employed the ritual, with the level of elaborateness of the mummification serving as a symbol of a family's status.

    The Greek historian Herodotus described the ancient Egyptian methods of mummification around the year 450 BC. Although over two thousand years have past since Herodotus wrote his observations, his description of the relationship between the ancient embalmers and the grieving relatives of the deceased bears an uncanny resemblance to today's interplay between a funeral director and a grieving family selecting an appropriate coffin or other method of internment.

    Three levels of mummification

    "The embalmers, when a corpse is brought to them, show the relatives wooden models of dead bodies, as accurate as a painting. They say that the most perfect of these images belongs to a god whose name I consider it sacrilege to mention in this connection. They also show a second, slightly inferior to the first and less expensive, and a third as well, the cheapest of the lot. After the demonstration, they ask the relatives in which style they want the corpse prepared. The latter agree on a price and go off home, but the embalmers stay in their workshops and use the following method for the most expensive style."

    "First, they remove the brain through the nostrils with a curved iron implement, getting some of it out like this and the rest by pouring in solvents. Then they cut open the side of the corpse with a sharp Ethiopian stone, remove the intestines, and wash out the belly, cleaning it with palm wine and again with pounded aromatics. They fill up the body with pure crushed myrrh, cassia and other herbs (except frankincense) and sow it up again. After this, they pickle the body in natrum, [salt] hiding it away for seventy days, the longest time possible. After the seventy days, they wash the body and wrap it up completely in cut bandages of linen muslin, smearing it with gum which the Egyptians use instead of glue. The relatives then get the body back and make a man-sized wooden image, into which they insert the mummy and then store it away in a burial chamber, standing it upright against the wall."

    "That is the most expensive way. The method for those wanting the middle way, to escape great expense, is as follows. They pack syringes with cedar-oil and fill the stomach of the corpse with the oil, not cutting it open and taking out the intestines, but inserting the oil through the anus and stopping it flowing out. Then they soak the body in spices for the prescribed number of days, on the last of which they remove from the belly the cedar-oil which they put in before. This has such strength that it brings out with it all the dissolved stomach and intestines. The natrum dissolves the flesh and only the skin and bones are left. When this is over, they return the body, their job completed."

    "The third method of embalming is the one used by the poorer classes. They just wash out the inside with a solvent, then pickle it for seventy days and return it to the relatives."

    Ancient Egyptian mummy underwent ritual healing for the afterlife - History

    The entire civilization of Ancient Egypt was based on religion, and their beliefs were important to them. Their belief in the rebirth after death became their driving force behind their funeral practices.

    The Egyptians believed that death was simply a temporary interruption, rather than complete cessation, of life, and that eternal life could be ensured by means like piety to the gods, preservation of the physical form through Mummification, and the provision of statuary and other funerary equipment. Each human consisted of the physical body, the 'ka', the 'ba', and the 'akh'. The Name and Shadow were also living entities. To enjoy the afterlife, all these elements had to be sustained and protected from harm.

    Egyptians had an elaborate and complex belief in the afterlife.

    This scene depicts what occurs after a person has died, according to the ancient Egyptians.

    Beginning with the upper left-hand corner, the deceased appears before a panel of 14 judges to make an accounting for his deeds during life. The ankh, the key of life, appears in the hands of some of the judges.

    Next, below, the jackal god Anubis who represents the underworld and mummification leads the deceased before the scale. In his hand, Anubis holds the ankh.

    Anubis then weighs the heart of the deceased (left tray) against the feather of Ma'at, goddess of truth and justice (right tray). In some drawings, the full goddess Ma'at, not just her feather, is shown seated on the tray. Note that Ma'at's head, crowned by the feather, also appears atop the fulcrum of the scale. If the heart of the deceased outweighs the feather, then the deceased has a heart which has been made heavy with evil deeds. In that event, Ammit the god with the crocodile head and hippopotamous legs will devour the heart, condemning the deceased to oblivion for eternity. But if the feather outweighs the heart, then the deceased has led a righteous life and may be presented before Osiris to join the afterlife. Thoth, the ibis-headed god of wisdom stands at the ready to record the outcome.

    The deceased is then led to Osiris by Horus, the god with the falcon head. Note the ankh in Horus' hand. Horus represents the personification of the Pharaoh during life, and his father Osiris represents the personification of the Pharaoh after death.

    Osiris, lord of the underworld, sits on his throne, represented as a mummy. On his head is the white crown of Lower Egypt (the north). He holds the symbols of Egyptian kingship in his hands: the shepherd's crook to symbolize his role as shepherd of mankind, and the flail, to represent his ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. Behind him stand his wife Isis and her sister Nephthys. Isis is the one in red, and Nephthys is the one in green. Together, Osiris, Isis, and Nephthys welcome the deceased to the underworld.

    The tomb-owner would continue after death the occupations of this life and so everything required was packed in the tomb along with the body. Writing materials were often supplied along with clothing, wigs, hairdressing supplies and assorted tools, depending on the occupation of the deceased.

    Often model tools rather than full size ones would be placed in the tomb models were cheaper and took up less space and in the after-life would be magically transformed into the real thing.

    Things might include a headrest, glass vessels which may have contained perfume and a slate palette for grinding make-up.

    Food was provided for the deceased and should the expected regular offerings of the descendants cease, food depicted on the walls of the tomb would be magically transformed to supply the needs of the dead.

    Images on tombs might include a triangular shaped piece of bread (part of the food offerings from a tomb). Other images might represent food items which the tomb owner would have eaten in his lifetime and hoped to eat in the after-life.

    Life was dominated by Ma'at, or the concept of justice and order. Egyptians believed there were different levels of goodness and evil. Egyptians believed that part of the personality, called the Ka, remained in the tomb. Thus elaborate and complex burial practices developed.

    The removed internal organs were separately treated and, during much of Egyptian history, placed in jars of clay or stone. These so-called Canopic Jars were closed with stoppers fashioned in the shape of four heads -- human, baboon, falcon, and jackal - representing the four protective spirits called the Four Sons of Horus.

    The heart was removed to be weighed against a feather representing Ma'at to determine moral righteousness. The brain was sucked out of the cranial cavity and thrown away because the Egyptian's thought it was useless. Personal belongings were usually placed in the tomb to make the Ka more at home and to assist the dead in their journey into the afterlife.

    Text was read from the 'Book of the Dead' and the ritual of "opening the mouth" was performed before the tomb was sealed.

    After judgement, the dead either went to a life not unlike that on earth or were cast to the 'Eater of the dead' - (Seth).

    In addition to the decorations on the tomb walls, in some periods, models for the use of the spirit were included in the funerary arrangements. A model boat was transportation on the waters of eternity. Likewise, models of granaries, butcher shops, and kitchens would guarantee the continued well-being of the deceased in the life after death.

    Papyrus with Funeral Arrangements

    Much of what we know about art and life in ancient Egypt has been preserved in the tombs that were prepared for the protection of the dead. The Egyptians believed that the next life had to be provided for in every detail and, as a result, tombs were decorated with depictions of the deceased at his funerary meal, activities of the estate and countryside, and the abundant offerings necessary to sustain the spirit.

    Many surviving Egyptian works of art were created to be placed in the tombs of officials and their families. Through the ritual of "opening the mouth," a statue of the deceased (known as a "ka statue") was thought to become a living repository of a person's spirit. Wall paintings, reliefs, and models depict pleasurable pastimes and occupations of daily life. Always these images have deeper meanings of magical protection, sustenance, and rebirth. The mummy was surrounded with magic spells, amulets, and representations of protective deities.

    Coffin of a Middle Kingdom official

    At the near end of the coffin a goddess stands, her arms raised protectively. The hieroglyphic inscriptions are magical requests for offerings and protection. Small magical amulets made of semiprecious stones or faience were placed within the linen wrappings of the mummy. Many of them were hieroglyphic signs.

    For Egyptians, the cycles of human life, rebirth, and afterlife mirrored the reproductive cycles that surrounded them in the natural world. After death, the Egyptians looked forward to continuing their daily lives as an invisible spirit among their descendents on Earth in Egypt, enjoying all the pleasures of life with none of its pain or hardships. This vision is vividly depicted in the sculptures, reliefs, and wall paintings of Egyptian tombs, with the deceased portrayed in the way he or she wished to remain forever, accompanied by images of family and servants. These forms of art not only reflect the Egyptians' love of life but by their very presence made the afterlife a reality.

    This is a tomb painting from the tomb of a man named Menna.

    The Egyptians believed that the pleasures of life could be made permanent through scenes like this one of Menna hunting in the Nile marshes. In this painting Menna, the largest figure, is shown twice. He is spear fishing on the right and flinging throwing sticks at birds on the left. His wife, the second-largest figure, and his daughter and son are with him. By their gestures they assist him and express their affection. The son on the left is drawing attention with a pointed finger to the two little predators (a cat and an ichneumon) that are about to steal the birds' eggs. Pointed fingers were a magical gesture for averting evil in ancient Egypt, and the attack on the nest may well be a reminder of the vulnerability of life. Overall, scenes of life in the marshes, which were depicted in many New Kingdom tombs, also had a deeper meaning. The Nile marshes growing out of the fertile mud of the river and the abundant wildlife supported by that environment symbolized rejuvenation and eternal life.

    The figures in Menna's family are ordered within two horizontal rows, or registers, and face toward the center in nearly identical groups that fit within a triangular shape.

    The mummy was placed in a brightly painted wooden coffin. The elaborate decoration on Nes-mut-aat-neru's coffin fits her status as a member of the aristocracy. A central band contains symbols of rebirth flanked by panels featuring images of god and goddesses. Look for the central panel that shows the winged scarab beetle hovering protectively over the mummy (probably meant to represent the mummy of the Nes-mut-aat-neru herself).

    The large white pillar painted on the back of the coffin forms a "backbone." This provides symbolic support for the mummy and displays an inscription detailing Nes-mut-aat-neru's ancestry

    Next the mummy and coffin were placed in another wooden coffin. Like the first coffin, it is in the shape of the mummy but more simply decorated. The inside of the base is painted with a full-length figure of a goddess.

    The lid again shows Nes-mut-aat-neru's face, wig and elaborate collar. Here too the scarab beetle with outstretched wings hovers over the mummy. Below the scarab look for a small scene showing the deceased Nes-mut-aat-neru worshipping a god, and a two-column inscription.

    Finally the mummy and coffins were placed in a rectangular outermost coffin made primarily out of sycamore wood. The posts of the coffin are inscribed with religious texts. On the top of the coffin sits an alert jackal, probably a reference to Anubis, the jackal-headed god who was the patron of embalmers and protector of cemeteries.

    These two wooden boxes filled with mud shawabti figures were found with Nes-mut-aat-neru's elaborate nested coffins. Shawabti figures were molded in the shape of a mummified person, and were designed to do any work that the gods asked the deceased's spirit to do in the afterworld.

    Stone Coffin - Sarcophagus

    Masks were a very important aspect of Ancient Egyptian burials. In common with the anthropoid coffin they provided the dead with a face in the afterlife. In addition they also enabled the spirit to recognise the body.

    Types of Jewelry

    Ancient Egyptians loved to adorn their bodies with jewelry. Due to the hot, arid climate, most clothing was simple and lightweight, so jewelry allowed the ancient Egyptians the means to display their wealth and status as well as protect themselves from evil spirits.

    Jewelry was worn not only for adornment and protection, but for legal authentication. Each man would have a signet ring which bore his family emblem. Emblems were usually animals such as a griffin, a hawk, a lion, a scorpion, and so forth. The rings were ornately engraved so that each man's ring was unique to him.

    © Tim Evanson - Signet Ring of Amenhotep II

    Rather than signing official documents, they were sealed by use of the man's ring. Women didn't wear or own signet rings. Wealthy individuals had stones and/or engravings on their signet rings but a poor man had a simple ring, made usually of copper or bronze.

    Other types of ancient Egyptian jewelry include:

    • Ankle bracelets
    • Armbands
    • Bracelets
    • Brooches
    • Collar pieces
    • Crowns
    • Diadems
    • Earrings
    • Girdles
    • Necklaces
    • Pectorals
    • Rings

    Armbands were usually worn around the upper arm, one or more bracelets were worn on the forearm. Collar pieces varied in size from a simple, chain-like adornment to a wide, lavishly ornamented collar that extended across the shoulders. Some of the collar pieces were very heavy and needed a counterweight in the back in order to keep them in place.

    Girdles were chains or mesh items that were worn around the waist or lower waist and frequently were adorned with stones. Necklaces and rings could be as simple or as elaborate as their owner wished and as costly as the owner could afford. A pectoral was similar to a large pendant and was worn on a chain around the neck.

    Crowns were more elaborate than diadems earrings could be simple studs or longer, dangling adornments that could be worn in one or both ears although body piercing was uncommon during this time. The pharaoh could pierce his navel but it was a crime punishable by death for anyone else to have a pierced navel.

    © Ashley Van Haeften - Earring

    Magic in Ancient Egypt

    In ancient Egypt, if a woman were having difficulty conceiving a child, she might spend an evening in a Bes Chamber (also known as an incubation chamber) located within a temple. Bes was the god of childbirth, sexuality, fertility, among other his other responsibilities, and it was thought an evening in the god's presence would encourage conception. Women would carry Bes amulets, wear Bes tattoos, in an effort to encourage fertility.

    Once a child was born, Bes images and amulets were used in protection as he or she grew and, later, the child would become an adult who adopted these same rituals and beliefs in daily life. At death, the person was thought to move on to another plane of existence, the land of the gods, and the rituals surrounding burial were based on the same understanding one had known all of one's life: that supernatural powers were as real as any other aspect of existence and the universe was infused by magic.


    Magic in ancient Egypt was not a parlor trick or illusion it was the harnessing of the powers of natural laws, conceived of as supernatural entities, in order to achieve a certain goal. To the Egyptians, a world without magic was inconceivable. It was through magic that the world had been created, magic sustained the world daily, magic healed when one was sick, gave when one had nothing, and assured one of eternal life after death. The Egyptologist James Henry Breasted has famously remarked how magic infused every aspect of ancient Egyptian life and was "as much a matter of course as sleep or the preparation of food" (200). Magic was present in one's conception, birth, life, death, and afterlife and was represented by a god who was older than creation: Heka.


    Heka was the god of magic and the practice of the art itself. A magician-priest or priest-physician would invoke Heka in the practice of heka. The god was known as early as the Pre-Dynastic period (c. 6000-c. 3150 BCE), developed during the Early Dynastic Period (c. 3150-c. 2613 BCE) and appears in The Pyramid Texts of the Old Kingdom (c. 2613-2181 BCE) and the Coffin Texts of the First Intermediate Period (2181-2040 BCE). Heka never had a temple, cult following, or formal worship for the simple reason that he was so all-pervasive he permeated every area of Egyptian life.

    Like the goddess Ma'at, who also never had a formal cult or temple, Heka was considered the underlying force of the visible and invisible world. Ma'at represented the central Egyptian value of balance and harmony while Heka was the power which made balance, harmony, and every other concept or aspect of life possible. In the Coffin Texts, Heka claims this primordial power stating, "To me belonged the universe before you gods came into being. You have come afterwards because I am Heka" (Spell 261). After creation, Heka sustained the world as the power which gave the gods their abilities. Even the gods feared him and, in the words of Egyptologist Richard H. Wilkinson, "he was viewed as a god of inestimable power" (110). This power was evident in one's daily life: the world operated as it did because of the gods and the gods were able to perform their duties because of Heka.

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    Magic & Religion

    The priests of the temple cults understood this but their function was to honor and care for their particular deity and ensure a reciprocity between that god and the people. The priests or priestesses, therefore, would not invoke Heka directly because he was already present in the power of the deity they served.

    Magic in religious practice took the form of establishing what was already known about the gods and how the world worked. In the words of Egyptologist Jan Assman, the rituals of the temple "predominantly aimed at maintenance and stability" (4). Egyptologist Margaret Bunson clarifies:


    The main function of priests appears to have remained constant they kept the temple and sanctuary areas pure, conducted the cultic rituals and observances, and performed the great festival ceremonies for the public. (208)

    In their role as defenders of the faith, they were also expected to be able to display the power of their god against those of any other nation. A famous example of this is given in the biblical book of Exodus (7:10-12) when Moses and Aaron confront the Egyptian "wise men and sorcerors".

    The priest was the intermediary between the gods and the people but, in daily life, individuals could commune with the gods through their own private practices. Whatever other duties the priest engaged in, as Assman points out, his primary importance was in imparting to people theological meaning through mythological narratives. They might offer counsel or advice or material goods but, in cases of sickness or injury or mental illness, another professional was consulted: the physician.

    Magic & Medicine

    Heka was the god of medicine as well as magic and for good reason: the two were considered equally important by medical professionals. There was a kind of doctor with the title of swnw (general practitioner) and another known as a sau (magical practitioner) denoting their respective areas of expertise but magic was widely used by both. Doctors operated out of an institution known as the Per-Ankh ("The House of Life"), a part of a temple where medical texts were written, copied, studied, and discussed.


    The medical texts of ancient Egypt contain spells as well as what one today would consider 'practical measures' in treating disease and injury. Disease was considered supernatural in origin throughout Egypt's history even though the architect Imhotep (c. 2667-2600 BCE) had written medical treatises explaining that disease could occur naturally and was not necessarily a punishment sent by the gods.

    The priest-physician-magician would carefully examine and question a patient to determine the nature of the problem and would then invoke whatever god seemed most appropriate to deal with it. Disease was a disruption of the natural order and so, unlike the role of the temple priest who maintained the people's belief in the gods through standard rituals, the physician was dealing with powerful and unpredictable forces which had to be summoned and controlled expertly.

    Doctors, even in rural villages, were expensive and so people often sought medical assistance from someone who might have once worked with a doctor or had acquired some medical knowledge in some other way. These individuals seem to have regularly set broken bones or prescribed herbal remedies but would not have been thought authorized to invoke a spell for healing. That would have been the official view on the subject, however it seems a number of people who were not considered doctors still practiced medicine of a sort through magical means.


    Magic in Daily Life

    Among these were the seers, wise women who could see the future and were also instrumental in healing. Egyptologist Rosalie David notes how, "it has been suggested that such seers may have been a regular aspect of practical religion in the New Kingdom and possibly even in earlier times" (281). Seers could help women conceive, interpret dreams, and prescribed herbal remedies for diseases. Although the majority of Egyptians were illiterate, it seems some people - like the seers - could memorize spells read to them for later use.

    Egyptians of every social class from the king to the peasant believed in and relied upon magic in their daily lives. Evidence for this practice comes from the number of amulets and charms found through excavations, inscriptions on obelisks, monuments, palaces, and temples, tomb engravings, personal and official correspondence, inscriptions, and grave goods. Rosalie David explains that "magic had been given by the gods to mankind as a means of self-defense and this could be exercised by the king or by magicians who effectively took on the role of the gods" (283). When a king, magician, or doctor was unavailable, however, everyday people performed their own rituals.

    Charms and spells were used to increase fertility, for luck in business, for improved health, and also to curse an enemy. One's name was considered one's identity but Egyptians believed that everyone also had a secret name (the ren) which only the individual and the gods knew. To discover one's secret name was to gain power over them. Even if one could not discover another person's ren they could still exercise control by slandering the person's name or even erasing that person's name from history.

    Magic in Death

    Just as magic was involved in one's birth and life, so was it present at one's departure to the next world. Mummification was practiced in order to preserve the body so that it could be recognized by the soul in the afterlife. The last act of the priests at a funeral was the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony during which they would touch the mummified corpse with different objects at various places on the body in order to restore the use of ears, eyes, mouth, and nose. Through this magical ritual the departed would be able to see and hear, smell and taste, and speak in the afterlife.

    Amulets were wrapped with the mummy for protection and grave goods were included in the tomb to help the departed soul in the next world. Many grave goods were practical items or favorite objects they had enjoyed in life but many others were magical charms or objects which could be called upon for assistance.

    The best known of these type were the shabti dolls. These were figures made of faience or wood or any other kind of material which sometimes looked like the deceased. Since the afterlife was considered a continuation of one's earthly life, the shabti could be called upon to work for one in The Field of Reeds. Spell 472 of the Coffin Texts (repeated later as Spell 6 of The Egyptian Book of the Dead) is given to bring the Shabti to life when one needs to so one can continue to enjoy the afterlife without worrying about work.

    The Egyptian Book of the Dead exemplifies the belief in magic at work in the afterlife. The text contains 190 spells to help the soul navigate the afterlife to reach the paradise of The Field of Reeds, an eternal paradise which perfectly reflected one's life on earth but without disappointment, disease or the fear of death and loss. Throughout The Egyptian Book of the Dead the soul is instructed which spells to use to pass across certain rooms, enter doors, transform one's self into different animals to escape dangers, and how to answer the questions of the gods and those of their realm. All of these spells would have seemed as natural to an ancient Egyptian as detailed directions on a map would be to anyone today - and just as reasonable.


    It may seem strange to a modern mind to equate magical solutions with reason but this is simply because, today, one has grown used to a completely different paradigm than the one which prevailed in ancient Egypt. This does not mean, however, that their understanding was misguided or `primitive' and the present one is sophisticated and correct. In the present, one believes that the model of the world and the universe collectively recognized as 'true' is the best model possible precisely because it is true. According to this understanding, beliefs which differ from one's truth must be wrong but this is not necessarily so.

    The scholar C.S. Lewis is best known for his fantasy works about the land of Narnia but he wrote many other books and articles on literature, society, religion, and culture. In his book The Discarded Image, Lewis argues that societies do not dismiss the old paradigms because the new ones are found to be more true but because the old belief system no longer suits a society's needs. The prevailing beliefs of the modern world which people consider more advanced than those of the past are not necessarily more true but only more acceptable. People in the present day accept these concepts as true because they fit their model of how the world works.

    This was precisely the same way in which the ancient Egyptians saw their world. The model of the world as they understood it contained magic as an essential element and this was completely reasonable to them. All of life had come from the gods and these gods were not distant beings but friends and neighbors who inhabited the temple in the city, the trees by the stream, the river which gave life, the fields one plowed. Every civilization in any given era believes that it knows and operates on the basis of truth if they did not, they would change.

    When the model of the world changed for ancient Egypt c. 4th century CE - from a henotheistic/polytheistic understanding to the monotheism of Christianity - their understanding of 'truth' also changed and the kind of magic they recognized as imbuing their lives was exchanged for a new pardigm which fit their new understanding. This does not mean that new understanding was correct or more 'true' than what they had believed in for millenia merely that it was now more acceptable.

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