Mummies in Media

For years, ancient secrets have been unraveled through the discovery of mummies. When we think of mummies in our society, we think of the whimsical figures that symbolize the approach of Halloween. Hollywood films have often created the resurrection of ancient gods, goddess or important figures though mummies. Often times, we do not think about the cultures that actually practice mummification and the value that practice holds within their society.

The Practice of Mummification in Ancient Egypt

Mummification in ancient Egypt started around 2600 B.C, and this was a process to preserve bodies [i]. Ancient Egyptian religions believed it was important for dead bodies to be in good condition and look as closely as possible to the person before they died. Egyptians believed that the soul left the body after death, and the body needed to be preserved in excellent conditions so the soul could find it in the afterlife to reanimate it [ii].

The process of mummification took about seventy days, and required special priests that could pray and also embalm the body. First, all organs would be removed from the body so that it would not decay. Taking out the brain was a difficult task and could leave an individual with a disfigured face, so it was important that the embalmers were careful. Only the heart was left in the body because it was believed to hold a person’s intelligence and being. Next, all the moisture in the body was removed from a type of salt called natron. Natron was placed around and inside the body, and this helped to dry it out. They were later taken out, and the body would be dried out. Hundreds of linens were then used to wrap the body. Afterwards the body was wrapped with linen, a final shroud or a final cloth.

The process of intentional mummification as performed in Ancient Egyptian culture
https://www.tes.com/teaching-resource/mummification-process-comic-11409309

After the special priest embalmed and wrapped the body, they performed essential rituals. These rituals were performed to prepare the deceased for the afterlife. “Opening of the Mouth,” was a practiced ritual used to ensure the decease could eat, drink, speak, and see in the afterlife [iii]. Before the priests began the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony, they first purified the body. During the rite of purification, priests would chant special prayers over the deceased. Once the ritual began, the chief lector priest and assistant priests first sacrificed animals such as gazelles, geese, and bulls. These sacrifices symbolized the killings of the dead king’s enemies. Then, the priests would use the special tools (instruments of Anpu) to open the eyes and mouth of the statue [iv].

“The Opening of the Mouth” Egyptian mummification ceremony
http://www.mummies2pyramids.info/mummies-death/opening-the-mouth.htm

 

Another essential ritual performed was “The Weighing of the Heart.” This ceremony takes place after the soul enters the afterlife. The soul first confesses for past sins committed then the soul enters into the ‘Hall of Maat” for the weighing of its heart. The heart is placed on a balancing scale; the heart is on one side and ‘Maat’s feather of truth’ is on the other [v]. Ancient Egyptian cultures believed the heart revealed the true intentions of the person. The heart is weighed by the god Anubis, while the god Thoth record the results. If the heart was heavier than the Maat’s feather, the soul would be eaten by the demon Ammut (a hybrid of crocodile, lion, and hippo). If the heart was balanced with the Maat’s feather, the soul would be sent to be judged by the god of the afterlife [vi].

“The weighing of the heart” Egyptian mummification ritual
https://www.art-prints-on-demand.com/a/egyptian/theweighingoftheheartdeta.html

Tombs for the deceased were built before their death. Final touches were added to the tomb during the mummification of the deceased. After this process, essential items needed for the afterlife such as furniture and statutes, painting of religious or daily scenes, and a list of food and prayers were added to the tomb [iii]. Once the rituals were complete the deceased were placed into the tomb, finally prepared for the afterlife.

Not everyone was mummified and the mummification process tells us a lot about Egyptian culture [ii]. Mummification was a long and expensive process that only certain people could afford. Extensive usage of linen, mummy decorations and jewelry demonstrated high quality in mummification [vii]. This was something only the wealthy or the royals could afford. The mummification process was an elaborate procedure, and it helped to demonstrate the importance of death and afterlife in Egyptian culture. Mummification was a way to remember loved ones and create a memorial for them [viii]. It was important that each body was taken care of properly, and prayers and rituals were done over the body. This reveals the significance of death, and the importance of embalming in this culture.

Ancient Egyptians valued life and wanted to ensure their lives would continue after death. The idea of death and a proper burial was prominent in their society. Arrangement for death were planned early to ensure the spirit reached the afterlife. Mummification was important to Egyptian culture because it was a way of preserving the body to protect the spirit. Ancient Egyptians believed the soul was made up of three components the ka, ba, and akh [iii]The spirit ka remains in the tomb to receive offerings, it is immoral and is nourished by the offering of food. The ba is the soul that freely travels in and out of the tomb, the ba was released during the “Opening of the Mouth” ceremony. When the ba and ka combines it forms the akh [ix]. The akh is the spirit that ascends to the sky to travel to the afterworld [x]. Rituals and mummification were rooted deep into the spirituality of ancient Egyptian culture.

The Practice of Mummification in Eastern Asia

The mummification process was not universal and different civilizations had different procedures. For instance, Korea did not use embalming techniques and the climate did not allow for natural mummification [xi]. Mummification in Korea originally occurred by accident, and was not intentional. In the Joseon period, tombs were constructed with sand, red clay and lime. It was placed on the grave and it hardened the grave and sealed it. This lowered the oxygen inside the coffin and raised the temperature which caused the mummification process to occur [xii].

China’s mummification process was very similar to Korea’s. China also placed clay, lime and sand on their graves; however, they also included sticky rice water. Research done on Korean and Chinese mummies indicated that hair, nails and skin were all found to be preserved really well. The internal organs were also well preserved. The sealing and the humidity in the coffin helped to preserve the dead body. Clothes were also wrapped around the body, and this prevented bacteria in the body from dying. Charcoal was also placed inside the tomb and this absorbed the moisture [xi].

Graves built of lime soil mixture were traditional burial technique called ‘Hoegwakmyo,’ this was a practice in Korea amongst the Joseon people. This practice was vital in their religious beliefs. Additionally, the mummies found in China belonged to Ming and Song dynasty. The tombs found in China were called “sticky rice paste sealed tomb”. The mummies found in China were similar to the ones found in Korea because the remainings were perfectly preserved. The burial techniques in both places were parallel because of their close religious ideologies practices [xi].

A structure diagram on how the “Sticky Rice Paste Tombs were made in China; this technique is similar to ‘Hoegwakmyo.’ https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Diff-erence-in-Hoegwakmyo-grave-construction-A-at-the-initial-and-B-late-stages-In_fig4_319893189

As said before, mummification in Korea and China were originally unintentional acts.  Mummification in both places resulted from burial technique, which is not surprising because China and Korea share common cultural origins. Both civilizations burial styles were influenced by the ideology of Confucianism.  Confucianism is an ethical philosophy rather than a religion. Confucianism is built off of the principle of social values, humaneness, and virtue [xiii]. During the rise of the Joseon empire, there was a religious shift from Buddhism to Neo-Confucianism in Korea. The practice of Neo-Confucianism derived from Confucianism. This practice was led by philosophers and innovators who believed in civil service and self-reflection [xiv]. The co-founder of Neo-Confucianism, Zhu Xi believed that ‘Hoegwakmyo’ was the best burial system for Confucianism. Zhu Xi wrote a ritual guide book titled ‘Jujagare,’ that stated sealing the tombs would protect the grave from intruders [xv]. The shift of cultural beliefs resulted in the remains of descendants of the Joseon, Song, and Ming dynasty becoming mummified.

Misrepresentation of Mummification

The ancient practice of mummification is one that has been performed all around the globe in early civilizations: from Egypt to Korea and China. Despite the fact that these sacred rituals were performed in so many places, Western Media, specifically Hollywood, tends to depict Egyptian mummies almost exclusively. Additionally, Western media very rarely portrays said mummies in the light that the ancient culture intended. These misinterpretations raise an ethical concern: Is it justified for the walking dead to be presented in a dark, evil, and mischievous manner in the name of entertainment or should those in charge of present-day Western media be held accountable for contorting several cultures’ traditions and rituals in order to attempt to entertain the public while knowingly misinforming them.

For the past decades, Hollywood has concocted an image of the walking dead, namely mummies, that shows them as figures that “violate laws of nature, mock the laws of man, and disregard the code of the West [xvi]. These same figures are also commonly used as tools of mockery and critique for topics such as consumerism, religion, racism, nationalism, and other ideological concerns and threats of the West. These unearthly souls are commonly presented as embodiments of cannibalism, evisceration, mutation, and predators that kill the living in intimate yet impersonal ways [xvii].

One of the most famous examples of mummies being depicted in a dark light by Hollywood is the film The Mummy. In this action-packed cinema, director Alex Kurtzman paints a scene where a curse resurrects a mummy “seeking either vengeance or a lost lover, wreaking havoc on contemporary society until a hero stops it” [xviii]. Although the Kurtzman film is widely regarded as the epitome of “evil mummy” movies, the public has been exposed to the idea for decades. The public has been repeatedly exposed to the concepts of Egyptophilia and has partaken in a “mummy craze” dating back to before the discovery of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb back in 1922. Due to the public obsession with mummies and their counterparts, the first Hollywood film, which is now considered “the mother of all mummy films,” had its debut in 1932. The work, also presenting the mummy as an evil undead figure, set the template for other directors. In this film, starring Boris Karloff, an Egyptian priest by the name of Imhotep is mummified alive after attempting to bring back his long-time lover, princess Ankh-es-en-amon, from the dead. Imhotep proceeds to be revived thousands of years in later in contemporary society and believes that his lover is somewhere in London. He continues to look for his lost lover and wreaks havoc on the way [xix]. With ethical concerns aside, the success of mummies in a horror setting is because of the primal fears surrounding life, death, and the undead. In addition, the reports of a curse during the excavation of Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb took off after the supposed words “Death comes on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King” were inscribed on the tomb and the man who financed the project died from an infected mosquito bite [xx]. Just as any businessman and director would do, the opportunity to create work related to this trending topic was seized by many, thus the “evil mummy” stereotype was born.

The overwhelming ethical issue that arose with the creation of the “evil mummy” was the disrespect and mockery of an ancient culture. Since Tutankhamun’s tomb was the excavation that built up all the hype around mummification, early Egyptian culture became a joke, a topic of entertainment despite the historical inaccuracy the media presented the public with.

There have been rules implemented regarding the safety and preservation of real-life mummies within museums which vaguely state that “institutionalized human remains be treated respectfully according to the interests and beliefs of the body’s culture of origin” [xxi]. As a result of the wording of such policies, “respectful treatment” is largely undefined and as a result, these once sacred bodies are consistently degraded by people of the West. Public objections of mummies in museums are more than common as people argue that the display of human beings like an art show is a lack of respect to the human on display, regardless of culture. The other side argues that the display of the mummified corpses is the best way to disprove and eliminate stereotypes created by media [xxii].

Egyptian mummies and those of other cultures were mummified upon death with the intention of the preservation of one’s body. Those who were mummified were more often than not members of said culture’s nobility and due to the high cost of the burial ritual, those who were given the honor were considered sacred [iii]. The conception of mummies that has been painted by Western media is a disservice and an offense to not only those who were mummified, but the rest of the culture as well.

Conclusion

After analyzing the historical rise of mummies in Western media from an ethical, cultural, and scientific perspective, we can conclusively state that mummies are misrepresented by modern Western civilization. In terms of ethical concerns raised by this misrepresentation, the sacred process of mummification and its purpose, which is to preserve one’s soul for the afterlife, is degraded and mocked mostly through movies that present these reincarnated beings as evil. The exploration of scientific and cultural perspectives on mummification enables us to recognize the lack of respect that currently sits with the depiction of sacred traditions. As long as the public is blind to cultural appropriation that Western media promotes, cultures worldwide will never be fully respected.

 

Makayla Jefferys

Lydia Ocbu

Ian Baracco

 

References

[i] Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, “Egyptian Mummies”,https://www.si.edu/spotlight/ancient-egypt/mummies

[ii] Clinton Sandvick, Edward Whelan, “Why Egyptians Mummified their dead?”, Last modified January 4, 2018, https://dailyhistory.org/Why_did_the_Egyptians_Mummify_their_Dead%3F

[iii] “Egyptian Mummies.” Smithsonian Institution. https://www.si.edu/spotlight/ancient-egypt/mummies.

[iv] “The Opening of the Mouth Ceremony.” Experience Ancient Egypt. http://www.experience-ancient-egypt.com/egyptian-religion-mythology/egyptian-afterlife/opening-of-the-mouth-ceremony.

[v] Mark, Joshua J. “The Egyptian Afterlife & The Feather of Truth.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. April 06, 2019. https://www.ancient.eu/article/42/the-egyptian-afterlife–the-feather-of-truth/.

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Gessler-Löhr, Beatrix. “Mummies and Mummification – Oxford Handbooks.” Oxford Handbooks – Scholarly Research Reviews. June 16, 2017. Accessed March 31, 2019. http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199571451.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199571451-e-41.

[viii] “Burial and the Dead in Ancient Egyptian Society.” SAGE Journals. Accessed March 31, 2019. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1469605302002001595.

[ix] “Anatomy of the Ancient Egyptian Soul.” Experience Ancient Egypt. http://www.experience-ancient-egypt.com/egyptian-religion-mythology/egyptian-afterlife/egyptian-soul.

[x] “Egyptian Mummies.” Smithsonian Institution. https://www.si.edu/spotlight/ancient-egypt/mummies.

[xi] Hoon, Dong, Bianucci, Raffaella, Fujita, Hisashi, and Jong Ha. “Mummification in Korea and China: Mawangdui, Song, Ming and Joseon Dynasty Mummies.” BioMed Research International. September 13, 2018. Accessed March 31, 2019. https://www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2018/6215025/.

[xii] Ibid

[xiii] Oh, Chang Seok, In Uk Kang, Jong Ha Hong, Sergey Slepchenko, Jun Bum Park, and Dong Hoon Shin. “Tracing the Historical Origin of Joseon Mummies considering the Structural Similarities between the Burial Systems of Korean and Chinese Dynasties.” Papers on Anthropology 26, no. 2 (09, 2017): 68. doi:10.12697/poa.2017.26.2.07.

[xiv] Ibid

[xv] “Confucianism.” Asia Society. https://asiasociety.org/education/confucianism

[xvi] Miller, Cynthia J., and Van Riper Anthony Bowdoin. Undead in the West: Vampires, Zombies, Mummies, and Ghosts on the Cinematic Frontier. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013.

[xvii] Ibid

[xviii] Barker, Craig. “Friday Essay: Desecration and Romanticisation – the Real Curse of Mummies.” The Conversation. December 06, 2018. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-desecration-and-romanticisation-the-real-curse-of-mummies-77476.

[xix] Ibid

[xx] Ibid

[xxi] Swaney, M., and M. Swaney. “THE LIVING DEAD: EGYPTIAN MUMMIES AND THE ETHICS OF DISPLAY.” Academia.edu – Share Research. May 2013. Accessed April 06, 2019. https://www.academia.edu/4677578/THE_LIVING_DEAD_EGYPTIAN_MUMMIES_AND_THE_ETHICS_OF_DISPLAY.

[xxii] Day, Jasmine. “‘Thinking Makes It So’: Reflections on the Ethics of Displaying Egyptian Mummies.” Papers on Anthropology. 2014. Accessed April 06, 2019.  https://ojs.utlib.ee/index.php/PoA/article/view/poa.2014.23.1.03

 

13 Comments

  1. It was always so fascinating to me that people who existed so long ago were able to perfect the preservation of bodies and organs- so much so that the bodies discovered in modern times still bear resemblance to their human appearance. There is another interesting instance of accidental natural mummification known as ‘bog bodies’. They are so well preserved by the peat bogs that their facial features and sometimes hair is retained. Some bodies discovered date back to as early as 8000 BC.

  2. After reading this article, I can fully attest to the fact that Western culture and civilization has misrepresented mummies and the mummification process. Prior to reading this post, I knew some information about the mummification process, but not enough to say I understand it fully. Additionally, I was unaware of the fact that other cultures practiced the act of mummification, something I feel ashamed to admit. However, this post proves the power media has, especially media in our country. Western culture has made mummies out to be scary, when in fact they were created with only proper and good intentions in mind. Posts like this are important because without them I would be oblivious to the true intentions and history of mummification. However, I do wonder, why has American culture never taken up mummification, or at least some form of it? Is it because of how media has presented the process? I understand that this process is not as popular now but I still find it interesting that we have not or did not take it up in some way.

  3. This article really opened my eyes. Movies that depict mummies as scary and evil are frankly ridiculous, but they have become a commonality of modern horror. This was simply a way for people to preserve their loved ones that has been flipped on its head in order to profit off of entertainment, which is a sad reality. My favorite part of the article was the cultural comparison, where you talked about mummification in China and Korea. I had no idea mummification was a practice outside of Egypt, and I found that part to be very interesting. The only aspect that I would like to hear more about would be the scientific effect of mummification on the corpse from a chemical standpoint. Great article overall.

  4. This was such an interesting topic to learn more about. As a few of the other comments have mentioned, it is incredible that civilizations thousands of years before ours were more advanced than we have been in a lot of ways. Reading the ethical perspective on the media’s interpretations of mummies immediately made me think of the group who did Ghosts and Possessions and The CSI Effect. Both of these groups discussed how the popularity of tv shows about ghosts and crime scenes affect peoples perceptions of these things in real life. It seems that the same is being discussed in your paper as well. The media tends to put a certain false spin on topics which consumers find entertaining such as mummies, ghosts, and criminal investigations. This false spin is often taken as truth to those who watch them. This definitely connects to a broader cultural trend which allows our false interpretations of people, cultures, and professions to be integrated in and to influence society.

  5. This post was really informative and I learned things I didn’t know before. For example, I thought that all people were mummified and not just the rich. This is similar to burials in the U.S. now, with burial being an option for wealthier people and if a family cannot afford a funeral, cremation is the option chosen. Also, it was incredibly interesting to know how Western culture has almost demonized mummies and the mummification process in order to capitalize off of a different culture’s rituals. This is something I don’t think many Americans think about and are more than likely unaware about. We see mummies as something evil and associated with Halloween and scary movies, yet there is no reason for us to see it like that, since this was the process of how people would take care of their loved ones after death. This is a great post and well explained.

  6. I found out a lot that I did not know about mummies through your article. I do agree with the comments pithing the article about how Western media talks about mummification exclusively which is very weird when you think about it. Most of the time our culture doesn’t really take the time to do independent research about things like mummies and instead just take what they learned form someone else in Hollywood. They don’t think about the fact that they are addressing someone’s culture that hey truly know nothing about.

  7. Kenzie Chasteen

    April 24, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    Makayla, Lydia and Ian,
    I really enjoyed your article as I have always found mummification to be an interesting process. I do agree the movies, cartoons and media have made mummies into “monster figures” and even put them in categories similar to zombies. These disrespectful extremes redefines to original meanings behind these acts of respect and preservation. How are we to know what the original intentions of ritual embalming practices were or how embalmers and mourners would view the excavations of mummies today.
    However, I do believe the very practices of mummification shows an interest and fascination with an early form of science as many different organic materials were tested and used for preservation. It is interesting that the Chinese even put charcoal outside the graves of bodies to absorb water. These extremely detailed practices were clearly important and done to show reverence and respect in addition to preservation. Because these preservation practices have allowed bodies to reach todays scientific curiosity, I do not think they should lose the respect they once held.

  8. The problem of how the media portrays mummies and sometimes twists their images so that they provide entertainment value to the average consumer is an important problem many people overlook and I’m happy to see you guys tackling this issue. One question I had come up while reading this article is how destructive are these depiction of mummies? When thinking in the context of social death, some mummies that are shown in popular culture such as King Tutankhamun (King Tut) are very well known. They become a legend of some sorts and are essentially immortalized, whereas many other types of burials never become known to the average person. So is it completely destructive to the image of the great kings the ancient Egyptians intended to show to future generations? Although there are plenty of ways media distorts the image of mummies to look like the bad guys, there are also informative documentaries and books that exhibit them in a much more educational way. In this way, there is a perspective we develop as we consume different kinds of media, and how an understanding is built of these mummies. Otherwise, I enjoyed reading your article and found it informational.

  9. Wow! I had no idea so many cultures utilized mummification as their burial process, I only had the knowledge of Egyptians, and found it insightful that they believe that the soul resides in the heart instead of the brain! What is also extremely interesting is that even thousands of years ago, there was still a hierarchy on mourning and treatment of bodies. The mentality that If one has more money, they get treated better in death is present in today’s society as well in funeral costs like fancy caskets and expensive mementoes of the dead. Why is it that if someone is wealthy in life, their death is also worth more than others? We all die, why do some deaths matter more in every society?

  10. While reading this article, I actually learned a lot of surprising things. For one, I had no idea that ancient Egyptians were not the only culture that practiced mummification. My question is: If other cultures also practiced mummification, then why is ancient Egypt the only culture that has become widely known for this? Another idea that I found to be interesting is the fact that mummification is often portrayed in Hollywood, but often misses the mark as far as cultural accuracy and sensitivity. The only exposure many people in America get to mummies and Egyptian culture is through movies and TV shows, therefore it is easy to forget that this idea of mummification is not just a form of entertainment, but its actually someone’s culture and beliefs.

  11. This post really opened my eyes to the ways in which, again, Western culture has made a mockery of ‘outlandish’ rituals. I really found many parallels between my group’s post, “Post-Mortuary Cannibalism and the Case of Kuru in the Fore Tribe of Papua New Guinea,” and this one. Within both posts, there was in depth discussing on how Western culture disrespected significant mourning practices of countries other than the United States and Europe. In our post, we discussed how cannibalism, often a spiritual mourning practice, is often labeled as ‘barbaric’ and ‘evil.’ However, similar to mummification, it is actually misunderstood and stands for a larger idea of transcendence into the afterlife.

  12. I found it interesting to read about the practice of mummification in ancient Korean and Chinese cultures. I did realize that when it comes to the idea of mummies several prototypical themes come to mind immediately. Unfortunately, some of those themes do fall in-line with Hollywood’s long-standing portrayal. Although used for entertainment, this portrayal prevents proper respect for other cultures’ practices from being given. Having actually viewed Egyptian mummies within the context of a museum exhibit, I do believe that the intention of those who displayed those bodies was educational and respectful, and not to bolster the negative portrayal seen in Western Media. Going forward, I am interested to see how mummies from other cultures (especially from more “western” cultures) are portrayed, if at all, by our media.

  13. I chose to read this project because the name was very intriguing and different! While we often only consider mummification to have been practiced in Egypt, this group was very good about comparing another means used in East Asia that was very informative and helped to draw parallels and contrasts between Egyptian practices. This post was very in depth and brought about issues of how Westerns speak and portray mummies that is problematic. If I hadn’t read this post, this wouldn’t have been something that I would have evered considered so I think this is very thought provoking. This project is very relevant to cultural appropriation which connects with the mummification issues because we take these traditions and customs and use them as we intended and not how they were intended. With being such a current topic, this project helps to bring awareness of this issue and how it can manifest in more areas. This group also did a good job with being thorough and greatly explaining the different processes of mummification to the readers.

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