In ancient Egyptian society preserving a body after death was considered a very crucial process necessary for entrance into an immortal existence. The importance of preserving the body was based on their cultural belief that the deceased persons soul must recognize the body and return to it. Ancient Egyptians believed that if the spirit could not identify the body it belonged to, it would die. As a result of this theology Egyptians developed an effective system of embalming. The Egyptian embalming process was a significant and complicated procedure, which was performed by priests.
The early Egyptians thought that after death their spirits would travel to another world during the day, and at night the spirits would return to their bodies. In order for the person’s spirit to live forever, the spirit had to be able to identify and come back to the corpse. This is why the Egyptians wanted to preserve the bodies of the dead in as lifelike a state as possible. Egyptians believed mummification guaranteed eternal life for the spirit, which was considered essential in ancient Egyptian civilization. The practice of mummification was so esteemed in early Egyptian society that major criminals would not be executed, but denied the privilege of becoming mummified.
Priests that performed the embalming were forced to overcome several obstacles before perfecting the method. One major challenge was protecting the bodies. Slaves were forced to guard the remains, to ward off dogs as well as other scavengers. In addition, the Priests used magical items to provide security.
The precise mummification treatment depended on what the family of the deceased could afford. The most elaborate method took about 60 days. The practice of mummification, referred to as, The Seven Steps to Immortality, was performed as follows:
1. After the body had been washed with wine and spices, all of the parts that might decay were removed. The embalmers first removed the brain through the nose using a long hook. Next they made a deep cut in the abdomen and took out the internal organs: the lungs, the stomach, the liver and the intestines.
2. The body was stuffed with bundles of strong drying salt called natron. It was then completely covered with natron and placed on a slanted couch so that any fluids dripping out as the body was drying could be collected and buried along with it.
3. While the body was drying, the internal organs were also dried and preserved with natron. They were then wrapped in strips of linen, placed in tiny coffins and put in a chest divided into four compartments. Each compartment had a lid with the face of the pharaoh.
4. After 40 days the body, then completely dry and shrunken, was removed from inside the mummified body cavity and the whole body was washed inside and out with oil and fragrant spices.
5. The mummy’s head and body were packed with linen soaked in scented oil so that they would regain the shape they had in life. Hand and feet amulets acted as substitutes for decaying limbs. Once this was done, the mummy could be covered with necklaces, rings and bracelets made of gold and gems.
6. The entire body was then covered in shrouds and bound with strips of linen until the mummy had returned to its original size. This was a complicated job and could take as long as a week. Small magical objects were placed between the layers of wrapping to protect the mummy’s spirit on its way to the afterworld. The Ankh amulet provided the wearer, powers of travel and was associated with all aspects of life and death. The Udjat Eye of Horus was the most powerful amulet which, represented health and nutrition. The Girdle of Isis was used to provide a shield for the mummy. Scarab amulets were also placed on mummies to symbolize the rising sun.
7. After the wrapping was finished, the head of the mummy was covered with a portrait mask, to ensure that the returning spirit would recognize it. The masked mummy was then placed in a series of gilded wooden coffins and put into a sarcophagus.
The ancient Egyptians then took further steps to make sure that the spirit of the departed would enjoy life after death. Items were placed around and inside the tombs. Egyptians assumed that their existence in the afterlife would be similar to their preceding life, so they desired to be buried with the belongings they felt they would need.
According to one Egyptian belief, the objects and the paintings deposited in the tombs would positively ensure the deceased persons happiness in the afterlife. After a mummy was placed in its tomb, the priest would recite prayers or cast magic spells. The prayers called upon the Gods and asked them to help the person on their journey from this world to the next.