Ancient Egypt

3d. Mummies

How to make a mummy
Do not try this at home. From purification to dehydration — nine quick steps to mummification. And don't forget to discard the brains.
Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead
© 1996 Deurer — used with permission.
Legend claims that Osiris taught agriculture to the ancient Egyptians. After being murdered by his brother Seth, Osiris became even more influential as ruler over both the dead and the underworld.

A dead noble stands trembling in the Hall of Truth. Behind the noble, Horus, the half-falcon, half-man ruler of Earth, unleashes a piercing stare at the quivering man. Thoth, the sharp-beaked, ibis-headed deity of scribes, sharpens his quill — poised to record a verdict of divine judgment.

Seated before the noble on a golden throne is Osiris, the king of the dead. Upon his head rests a glittering crown with a gorgeous white feather plume on either side. Behind Osiris stands Isis, the revered goddess of nature, who is responsible for bringing the dead earth back to life each year. She holds an ankh, a cross with a loop above the bar. An ankh guarantees that a dead person will live forever.

The noble wonders if he will live forever. Or will he be fed to the hideous crocodilelike god called the Eater of the Dead and forever cease to exist. (How can the noble wonder about all this if he's already dead? The noble is actually in limbo, a place where the souls of dead people go while being judged.)

Osiris begins the process of judging the noble's life. On one side of a scale, Osiris places the heart of the noble, which bares the secrets of the soul. Had the soul lied, cheated, or lived an evil life? The soul defends itself before a variety of interrogating gods.

Thought to be the oldest surviving medical text (1600 B.C.E.), the Edwin Smith Papyrus explains the treatment of wounds in Egyptian medicine. What important organ does this hieroglyphic spell out?

The noble thinks about his second self, called the ka. The ka lives within every human being. When the physical body expires, the ka goes on to enjoy eternal life, where it can hunt, fish, live with its family, be entertained, and eat favorite foods.

Now Osiris holds up the sacred feather, the emblem of truth, and places it on the other side of the scale. If the scales balance, eternal life awaits. If not, the Eater of the Dead has his favorite food for lunch: noble.

My heart, my mother! My heart whereby I came into being! May nought stand up to oppose me at [my] judgment, may there be no opposition to me in the presence of the Chiefs; may there be no parting of thee from me in the presence of him that keepeth the Balance! Thou art my ka, which dwelleth in my body; the god Khnemu who knitteth together and strengtheneth my limbs. Mayest thou come forth into the place of happiness whither we go. May the Sheniu officials, who make the conditions of the lives of men, not cause my name to stink, and may no lies be spoken against me in the presence of the God.

-"Prayer of Ani," from the Book of the Dead (c. 1,700 B.C.E.)

The Egyptian Pantheon

Alternate names are in (parentheses). Some of the duties and animals of the Egyptian gods overlapped. The gods listed below were most popular during the Age of the Pyramids.

Name of god or goddessSymbolRole or Purpose
Amun"the hidden one"god of the atmosphere, sun, sky, and empire
Anti (Anty)hawk, falconguardian of the living
Anubisjackal, dogguardian of the dead, mummification
Atum"the complete one," setting suncreator of the universe
Babibaboondemon god of the underworld
Bastetcatgoddess of the home
Bat (Bata)buffalo, cowancient goddess of kingship, became Hathor
Geb (Keb, Seb)goosegod of the Earth
Hapi (Hapy)large bearded human with a crown of plantsgod of the Nile flood, abundance, fertility
Hathorcowgoddess of love, music, song, and dance
Heket (Heqet)froggoddess of childbirth, fertility
Hehkneeling man holding two palm ribsgod of eternity, longevity
Horus (Har, Hor)falconwarrior-king of the gods
Isis (Aset, Eset)Sirius, the brightest star in the skygoddess of resurrection, announcer of the flood
Khnum (Khnemu)ramcreator of the Nile flood, builder of the Great Pyramid
Maat (Ma'at, Mayet)female wearing an ostrich feathergoddess of truth, justice, order, and balance
Min (Minu, Menu)white bullgod of fertility, protector of the eastern mines
Neith (Neit)two crossed arrows behind a shieldgoddess of northern Egypt, hunting, warfare
Nekhbet (Nekhebet, Nechbet)vulturegoddess of Upper Egypt, protector of the king
Nephthysroyal palace, kitegoddess of the dead
Nut (Neuth, Nuit)skymother-goddess
Osiris (Usire)man wrapped in the linens of mummificationgod of the dead, underworld, agriculture
Ptahbullancient creator-god of Memphis, patron of craftsmen and artisans
Re (Ra)sunking of the gods
Renenutet (Ernutet, Renenet)cobramother-goddess, witness at births
Sakhmet (Sachmet)"the powerful one," lionessgoddess of war, protector of the people
Seth (Set, Setekh, Setesh, Seti, Sutekh, Setech, Sutech)oryx, boar, crocodile, hippopotamusgod of the desert, chaos, and storm
Shu (Su)male wearing an ostrich feathergod of air and light
Sobek (Sebek, Sebeq, Sebk, Sabk)crocodilegod of kingship, decisive action, and violence
Sokar (Seker)hawkpatron of the Memphis royal cemetery
Tefnut (Tefnet, Tefenet)lionessgoddess of moisture, dew, rain, and mist
Thoth (Thot, Thout, Tehuti, Djhowtey, Djehuti, Zehuti)ibis, baboongod of scribes, writing, justice, truth, wisdom, knowledge, and the moon
Wadjet (Uto)snakeone of the king's protector goddesses


Before being judged by Osiris, the noble's soul had undertaken a journey that lasted over two months. When the noble died he was brought to the Beautiful House, where an embalmer (often a priest with knowledge of rituals, wrapping, and anatomy) prepared the body to cross to the afterlife.

Egyptians believed that the afterlife would be much like life on Earth and that the soul would want use of its body in eternity. That's why Egyptians made an art out of mummification, or the preservation of the dead.

The process of embalming took great skill and required many steps. What follows is a crash course on Egyptian embalming technique.

The coffin of Iret-iruw
This is an example of an Egyptian coffin made of wood, painted, then gilded. Created during the Ptolemaic Period (305-30 B.C.E.), the lid is adorned with images from the Book of the Dead, a text believed to lead the dead into the lands of Osiris, the god of the underworld.
  1. Removal of the Brain
    With long hooks, the brain is extracted through the nasal passage. The Egyptians didn't think that the brain had any special use.
  2. Organ Removal (Evisceration)
    A cut is made on the left side of the body, and the liver, lungs, and other organs are removed, dried out, and stored in sacred vessels called canopic jars. The heart is left in the body, because it will be needed to be weighed in judgment by Osiris.
  3. Dehydration with Natron Crystals
    Now the body must be dehydrated (have the liquids removed) to stop decay. A type of salt called natron is used. Natron crystals are packed around the body. The crystals absorb body fat and fluids and keep the body from decaying. After being treated for about 40 days, the corpse is washed and dried.
  4. Stuffing
    Because the body has lost much of its mass, resin-stained clothes or bits of sawdust are used to pack the corpse, which by now has also lost its eyeballs. Pieces of cloth are stuffed in the eye sockets and painted black. At this point, the corpse's lips and cheeks are painted.
  5. Oiling the Body
    This elaborate process includes, massaging, perfuming, and anointing (blessing with oil) the corpse.
  6. Coloring
    After the nose and mouth are filled with cloth scraps to restore the shape of the face, the body is colored. Men are colored red; women are colored yellow. After the coloring, resin is poured into body cavities.
  7. Arrangement of the Body
    Depending on which period of Egyptian history the deceased lived in, the arms are either placed to the side of the corpse, folded on its chest, or placed with hands on shoulders.
  8. Wrapping
    The body is wrapped in several layers of fine linen; and various body parts receive particular attention. This process takes two weeks, after which a resin is added to the bandages.
  9. Funerary Mask
    A mask, sometimes made entirely of gold, is fitted to the mummy's body. Symbols of gods often adorned masks.
  10. Burial of Waste
    All materials used to prepare the corpse (such as natron and bloody linen) are placed in a jar and buried away from the mummy's tomb.
A present-day mummy
© 1996 Deurer — used with permission.
Meet Mumab, the first mummy created in nearly 2,000 years using the ancient Egyptian formula. Before his mummification, Mumab lived in Baltimore, Maryland.

Finally, the time has come to entomb the mummy. Jewelry, games, furniture, food, clothing, and cosmetics might be entombed with the corpse. These things would be used in the afterlife. The Book of the Dead, a collection of hymns and prayers, might also be included in the tomb to protect the body on its journey to the realm of the dead.

So how did the noble fare before the great Osiris? Ask his mummy.

On the Web
Encyclopedia Smithsonian: Egyptian Mummies
Find out more about the process of mummification, who was mummified, the study of these preserved people today, and books on the subject at the Smithsonian Institution website. The writing is sharp, and the information comes from one of the most reliable sources on the Web.
Mysteries of Egypt: Religion
Egyptians believed that their pharaoh was actually the human embodiment of the falcon-headed god Horus. Egyptian religion evolved through nearly 4,000 years of constant change, surviving invasions and occupations by the Greeks and Romans. Explore their various gods and goddesses, the priesthood, and the afterlife, as presented by the Canadian Museum of Civilization.
At the Tomb of Tutankhamen
Step back in time and join the National Geographic correspondent who reported the opening of King Tut's tomb in 1922. Join him at the official opening of the tomb, which was also witnessed by the Queen of Belgium. This interactive, graphic website gives visitors the opportunity to see the same things that thousands of tourists saw when the tomb was first opened.
Ancient Egypt
Small errors in the Egyptian calendar added up over hundreds of years, until the seasons were reversed. With a fantastic layout, beautiful graphics, and loads of information, this website enables visitors to expand their knowledge of all things ancient Egyptian. Egyptian timekeeping, the pharaoh, and the temples are just a few of the many topics explored.
Gods and Goddesses
From Amon to Thoth, Egyptologists have determined who the gods and goddesses were and what they represented. Click here for images of each, complete with descriptions.
Neuroscience for Kids: Ancient "Brain"
Egyptian medical treatment for ailments ranging from a broken arm to a broken neck are found in the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, which describes 48 cases in all. The Egyptians even treated brain injuries, and were the first civilization to write a word for "brain." They thought the brain was essentially useless. however, and discarded it during the mummification process.

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