The ‘Ritual of Embalming’ Papyrus and Herodotus’ Account

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: HISTORY OF ANCIENT EGYPT

By Bob Brier, Ph.D.Long Island University

The papyrus called the ‘Ritual of Embalming’ provides more information about rituals than it does about the surgical process involved. For some surgical details we have to rely on an account provided by the ancient Greek traveler and historian, Herodotus. But what are the details that we can glean from these two sources?

Illustration of the process of mummification.
Tomb illustrations and papyri can provide some information about embalming. (Image: matrioshka/Shutterstock)

The Time for Ritual

The ‘Ritual Of Embalming’ has a couple of really great details. First of all, it says the bandaging took place 46 days after death. So we’re almost able to re-construct what happens to a body. A person dies. And then, you’ve got a period of mourning. Then it’s brought to the embalmers, who put the body in natron for 35 days. And then, on day 46 it’s wrapped. We know that the mummy is buried on the 70th day. So, what happens till the burial? This must be when the priests say the prayers, where all kinds of rituals go on.

There’s a couple of other details in this papyrus. It has vignettes that go with the text. One of them shows Horus, the falcon-headed god, standing behind the funerary couch on which the deceased lies. He has the bandages that the deceased is going to be wrapped in. The wonderful little detail is that the bandages Horus holds in his hands have ragged edges.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Ragged Linen Strips of Mummies

Illustration of Horus.
The falcon-headed god Horus was often depicted on tombs and in papyri. (Image: OlgaChernyak/Shutterstock)

The ragged edges are there for a reason: the bandages were ritually made from the bed linens of the person who died. You always were buried with something that you used in daily life. This is something you went to the next world with, something familiar. The family would probably tear some of the bed linens, give them to the embalmers to use. So even when the god Horus carries mummy bandages, they’re ragged.

The study of mummy bandages is something in itself. You can tell when the linen was woven by how tight it is. You can tell whether the person was wealthy or poor by the quality of the linen. If you analyze what’s in the linen, you can tell what resin was used to stick it.

Learn more about ancient Egyptian medicine.

Spicing up Matters

There’s perhaps only example of a mummy bandage that’s finished on both edges, which means it was woven specifically for that purpose. These finished bandages were found in the little burial pit near Tutankhamen’s tomb, with the remains of his mummification equipment. This means that some weaver was hired to weave special bandages for embalming the pharaoh.

The ‘Ritual of Embalming’ papyrus tells us one other thing that is important. It tells us that spices were used for the mummy. Frankincense was placed in the head, after removing the brain. And after they removed the internal organs, they put spices inside—incense—so it wouldn’t smell. It would also help dehydrate the mummy.

Herodotus: The Curious Visitor

If you want to look for clinical detail, the best source is Herodotus. He went to Egypt in 450 B.C. or so. He was curious about mummies.

Professional mourners in eloquent gestures of mourning.
The way of mourning as described by Herodotus is also seen in the depictions on tomb walls. (Image: Alma E. Guinness/CC BY S.A/1.0/Public domain)

He tells us about the mourning procedure. He says when a person dies, women mourners would tear their hair, tear their clothes, and throw sand on their heads. We know this is true because we have similar scenes illustrated on tomb walls. Also, he says, when they brought the mummy to the embalmer’s shop, the embalmer would show the family the models of what you could get for your money. There were three different price ranges, depending on what you could afford, which is not unlike a funeral today.

But Herodotus also describes the specifics of the process of mummification. Herodotus says that first a man would come and draw a red line on the abdomen of the dead body.  Then a man called the ‘slitter’ would use a “sharp Ethiopian stone” to cut open the abdomen. He has made the slit where the red line had been marked. So, the slitter cuts open the abdomen and then they remove the internal organs.

Learn more about what mummies tell us.

Hooking and Salting?

Herodotus also says they removed the brain with an iron hook through the nose. Iron was in use in Herodotus’s time—450 B.C. The embalmers probably went in through the nasal passage with a hook and pulled out the brain one piece at a time. At least, that’s what Herodotus is telling us. And then, he says, they placed the body in natron, this material that’s going to dehydrate the body.

There is a disagreement about what Herodotus means, because of the word he used for putting the body in natron. He uses a Greek word, which is used to talk about preserving fish. So, he’s saying they preserved the mummy with natron, like fish. Now natron is basically a salt. And how do you preserve fish?

Well, one way is to salt it dry. But you can also pickle it. You can also put it in brine. Did they put the bodies in a pickling solution for a while and then dry them out? Or did they put them in dry natron, salt it like fish, and then take it out? Nobody is really sure.

In any case, Herodotus is almost our best source for the process of mummification, because tomb illustrations and papyri such as the ‘Ritual of Embalming Papyrus’ do not provide the surgical details of the process.

Common Questions about the ‘Ritual of Embalming’ Papyrus and Herodotus’ Account

Q: What does the ‘Ritual of Embalming’ papyrus tell us about the bandaging of the body?

The ‘Ritual of Embalming’ papyrus tells us that the bandaging of the body began on the 46th day after the death of the person, and after the body has been in natron for about 35 days.

Q: Why do mummy bandages have ragged edges?

The bandages used to wrap the mummy were ritually made from the bed linens of the person who died. This was the reason for the bandages to have ragged edges. The family would probably tear some of the bed linens and give them to the embalmers to use.

Q: Does the ‘Ritual of Embalming’ papyrus tell us about the use of spices?

Yes, the ‘Ritual of Embalming’ tells us the important fact that spices were used for the mummy. Frankincense was placed in the head, after removing the brain. And after the embalmers removed the internal organs, they would put spices inside—incense—so it wouldn’t smell.

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