Mummification and the Idealized Image

King Tutankhamun: Mummification as Preservation of an Ideal


The attempt to preserve the deceased body as an idealized form was very important to Ancient Egyptian tradition and culture because it was through this preservation that the spirit of the dead was able to survive the transition to the afterlife and attain immortality. Death in Egypt was seen as a continuation of life and as such Egyptians ensured that post-mortem the dead would be supplied not only with the necessities for survival in the afterlife but also with the tools with which to process the supplies. Mummification was the primary method used to preserve the deceased and prepare them for the afterlife and it was through this process that the dead were believed to gain a better opportunity at achieving immortality. Using the mummy of King Tutankhamun as evidence, I will explore mummification in Ancient Egypt as an attempt to preserve the ideal form of the dead and how that preservation is important to the afterlife.

The Deceased Approaching Osiris in the Afterlife. Image from Artstor.

The Osirian Myth

Attitudes and ideas concerning death and the afterlife in Ancient Egypt stem from the Osirian Myth, a legend developed in the Late Old Kingdom that informed the funerary ritual through the Roman Period. Osiris was first associated with fertility and agriculture in the Nile region and later took over the role as a God of the Dead. Because of the combination of associations with death and rebirth, Osiris became connected with resurrection in Ancient Egyptian legend (Shaw 115). There are various accounts of the myth, but the most relied upon version is told by Plutarch, a Greek Historian from Boeotia, Greece who lived in the first century AD. According to Plutarch, Osiris was the son of Nut and Geb, the Gods of the earth and the sky, and the brother of Isis, Nephthys and Seth. Osiris married Isis and together they ruled over the Earth, extending Egypt’s borders and prospering. Seth soon became jealous and conspired to usurp his brother’s reign. Seth decided to hold a large feast and present a large box to whoever could fit inside. When Osiris attempted to fit inside, Seth quickly nailed down the coffin and threw it into the Nile. Although Iris found his body, Osiris had already drowned and Seth managed to steal the body again and cut it into pieces. Iris succeeded in gathering all the pieces and briefly resurrected Osiris to conceive Horus. Osiris became the God of the Dead and Horus, the God of the Living (D’Auria 50). This myth became central for the Egyptian traditional views towards the afterlife and served as a basis for the growing Cult of Osiris and the spread of mummification. The Myth of Osiris propagates the idea that in order to ensure eternal life and immortality, one must be not only practice piety in life towards the Gods (which goes without saying) but also undergo mummification in death, to achieve the same resurrection as Osiris.

King Tutankhamun

In 1922, Howard Carter discovered the Tomb of King Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in almost perfect condition. Except for a few failed attempts to break in, grave robbers had been unsuccessful and the tomb had become almost forgotten. The Tomb of King Tutankhamun is extraordinary not only because it gives us an untouched grave from the New Kingdom but also because it provides an example of a mummy in perfect condition (Lega 200).

Mummy of King Tutankhamun. Image from Artstor.


The mummification process evolved out of a desire to preserve the ideal form of the body in death. This concept revolves around the Myth of Osiris and the idea that if the body disintegrates the ka, the “vital essence” or soul (Lega 5), of the deceased will not be able to return to the body to receive sustenance, and its chances of reaching immortality in the afterlife will diminish. It is important to note however, that while mummification improved the dead’s chance of gaining eternal life, it was not necessary. Neither the poor, nor those whose bodies were lost were mummified and this process was generally reserved for royalty. The most detailed description of mummification comes from the Greek Historian Herodotus who traveled to Egypt in the 4th Century BC. Although artificial mummification existed since the Old Kingdom it was not until the New Kingdom that the height of mummification practices were reached and the results of this can be seen in the mummy of King Tutankhamun.

The methodology of mummification is as follows. First the brain was extracted through the nose. Next the entrails were removed and the body was washed with either water or palm oil. The lungs, liver, stomach and small intestine were treated separately (washed and dried with natron) and placed in canopic jars. The heart, it should be noted, was left in the body because it was considered vital for the ma’at ceremony or the final judgment before Ra. Next the body itself was dehydrated using linen sacks of natron that would be placed inside the body. After this the body was no longer perishable and would be stuffed with resin-drenched cloths to give the body a fuller, more natural look. (Taylor 36-49).

Aside from preserving the body, mummification was also used as a tool to stylize the corpse into a divine image. The deceased would resurrect and transcend to immortality in the body it was mummified in so the embalmers would try to give the body an idealized form. Because the eyes would shrink during the dehydration process, embalmers made no effort to save them and instead they would create artificial eyes made of cloth, wax or gilded stucco (Lega 157). Hair and cosmetics would be applied and arranged in special decorative ways and in the cases where the deceased was missing a limb; an artificial one would be created (Taylor 44).

Artificial Toe. Image from the British Museum.

What does this tell us about Ancient Egyptian society?

Using the functionalist approach we can examine the purposes of mummification in terms of how it affects society and what it tells us about Ancient Egypt. The rites de passage theory, articulated by Van Gennep’s, essentially states that the “the journey of the soul into the land of the dead is made visible to the living by the transformation of the corpse” (Pearson 22). The ways in which the living learn about the afterlife is by what is done to the body, and the ways in which the living deal with the deceased and the way they treat the body indicate their own beliefs towards the afterlife. In terms of Ancient Egypt it can be seen that the people were not fearful of death, it was instead seen as an unpleasant but natural part of life that could not be avoided but that would hopefully, with the aid of various endeavors such as mummification, result in eternal life.

Works Cited

Budge, E.A. Wallis. The Mummy: Chapters on Egyptian Funereal Archaeology. New York, Biblo and Tannen, 1964. Print.

D’Auria, Sue, Peter Lacovara, Catharine H. Roehrig, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Mummies & Magic: The Funerary Arts of Ancient Egypt. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts c1988. Print.

Dunand, François and Roger Lichtenberg. Mummies and Death in Egypt. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. Print.

El Mahdy, Christine. Mummies, Myth and Magic in Ancient Egypt. New York, NY.: Thames and Hudson, c1989. Print.

Lega, Ange Pierre. The Egyptian Way of Death: Mummies and the Cult of the Immortal. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981. Print.

Pearson, Michael Parker. The Archaeology of Death and Burial. Texas A&M University Press, 1999. Print

Shaw, Ian. Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.

Taylor, John H. Egyptian Mummies. London: The British Museum Press, 2010. Print.

Marina Rothberg