Burial Practices of Ancient Egypt
By Tom Cleaver
Don’t just play (and win) at Valley of the Kings. Impress your friends with your deep knowledge of Ancient Egypt! Read on, and you may just learn how to make your own mummy.
If you were an ancient Egyptian noble, your death was only the beginning. Your corpse would need to be prepared in just the right way so that you would be eligible for the high life in the afterlife. When an ancient Egyptian noble died, he or she would undergo a two-month-long preparation for eventual burial. We think of Egypt as full of pyramids, but these were pretty much reserved for pharaohs. The ordinary nobility were buried in mastabas, rectangular tombs made of mud bricks.1
Ancient Egyptians believed that the body and all its important organs must be preserved so that the deceased could live for eternity. Since these organs would rot if left in the body, the first thing done in the preparation of a body for mummification was removal of the vital organs. You might think that the brain should be one of these, but no; the Egyptians had no use for the brain. Imagine an iron hook stuck up your nose. That’s the way they did it, ripping out chunks and pieces of the brain and dragging them out through a nostril.
The heart was considered a vital organ, but it was left in the body.
The organs selected for removal and preservation were the lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines. These were carefully removed, and each one was placed in its own special “canopic” jar. In Valley of the Kings, the canopic jars make up an important card set.
Frequently the canopic jars were clay pottery, but carved limestone and wood were also used. Each of the four jars was dedicated to a son of Horus and bore the image of the appropriate god on its lid.
The Hopi Canopic Jar held the lungs. Hopi, the god of the north, was depicted on the lid of the jar. He is usually represented as having the head of a baboon.
The Imseti Canopic Jar contained the liver. Imseti, the god of the south, had the appearance of a human.
The Duamutef jar held the stomach. This one is usually decorated with the head of a jackal (a dog-like scavenger). Duamutef is the god of the east.
The last jar has an almost unpronounceable name: the Qebehsenuef Canopic Jar. If you really want to know, it’s pronounced kay bay SEN oof.2 This jar represents the god of the west who takes the appearance of a falcon. The jar holds the intestines.
After the removal of the organs, the body was stuffed with natron. Natron is a naturally-occurring substance, mostly consisting of sodium carbonate decahydrate (a form of soda ash) and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda).3 It was used to desiccate the corpse. After the corpse was fully dried out, a process that may have taken as long as two months, the natron was removed, and the body cavity was stuffed with sawdust, spices, and other materials, and then wrapped in linen bandages.
Frequently, amulets were included with the wrappings. They were supposed to have magical powers to protect the deceased or to help him on his journey to the afterlife. These amulets may have included the following:
The Heart Scarab Amulet: This amulet was typically carved from some kind of green stone, such as jasper or serpentine.4 The Book of the Dead describes the weighing of the heart. A light heart indicated goodness. The Heart Scarab Amulet may have been a charm to lighten the heart of the deceased.
The Djed Pillar (or Tet) Amulet: This amulet resembles a human backbone. It was intended to stiffen the body of the deceased.5
The Wadj Amulet: This amulet resembles the stem and flower of the papyrus. It was supposed to rejuvenate the corpse.6
The Tyet (or Tit) Amulet, also known as the Knot of Isis: This amulet calls upon the goddess Isis to protect the deceased from every kind of evil.7
The Weres Amulet: The Weres Amulet resembles a headrest. Egypt is a hot country, so few people used bed pillows. Instead they used headrests made of wood or stone. The amulet was not itself a headrest, but a small replica of a headrest. It was supposed to have the magical power to raise up the head of the mummy and also to keep the head from being severed.8
Other common funerary amulets (not included in the game) are:
- The name bead amulet, worn around the neck and inscribed with the name of the deceased
- The serpent head amulet, which supposedly protected the wearer from venomous snakes
- The golden falcon head collar amulet, which was supposed to free the mummy from its wrappings
- The flying vulture amulet, which provided the protection of Isis
The Egyptians were into magic in a big way. The walls of the tombs were covered with magic spells, and papyrus scrolls were also often found in these tombs.
Many of these spells came from the Book of the Dead. There are many other books, including the Book of Traversing Eternity and even the Book of the Heavenly Cow. That last book is not included in the game.
Stocking the Tomb
The tomb itself also needed preparation. The construction and stocking of the mastaba may have begun before the death of its future inhabitant, in anticipation of death.
Among the funerary objects would be boxes of food, some of which may have had meat wrapped in bandages. Yes, they mummified the food too.
Shabti dolls are frequently found in abundance in Egyptian tombs. This needs some explaining. Everyone in Egypt had a yearly duty of manual labor for the pharaoh. Rich citizens could afford to hire someone to perform this duty for them, but the citizen could not employ the same person twice. If this same rule applied in the afterlife, the deceased would need an infinite supply of workers. The shabti dolls in the tomb were supposed to fill at least part of that need.9 But perhaps some Egyptians considered that the rules might be different in the afterlife; rich nobles frequently stocked their tombs with one shabti worker for each day of the year. Tombs have been found with boxes stuffed with shabti.
Statues of the gods were common as tomb ornaments, and the Egyptians had plenty of gods to choose from.
Osiris was one of the most important gods to be found in a tomb, because the deceased would have to present themselves before Osiris to determine if they were worthy. Osiris would weigh the deceased’s heart against a feather.
Putting the Fun in Funeral
When all these preparations were complete, it was time for the funeral. This was a big event and included paid professional mourners called kites.10 These women would cry and wail as loudly as possible to get the attention of the gods and make the gods believe that the deceased was well-loved in life.
Just prior to placing the mummy in the tomb, a priest would perform the Opening of the Mouth ceremony, in which he would touch the mummy’s mouth with a ceremonial knife, insuring that the mummy would once again be able to breathe, speak, and eat.11
The mummy would then be sealed in a sarcophagus (coffin). There may have actually been more than one sarcophagus, so the mummy could have been buried in multiple sarcophagi, like a Russian matryoshka doll.12
The mastaba may then have been sealed. Alternatively, it may have been left open so that friends and family could visit the corpse and leave food and drink on the offering table, in the belief that the body continued to need sustenance in the afterlife.
So that wraps things up for mummification. Now you can go back to playing Valley of the Kings.