Question: What would cause a stone-throwing mob to chase down an Egyptian mummy “slitter”?
Answer: A job well done
Egypt is famed for its mummies, and it’s a truly stunning achievement that it found ways to preserve its dead so that they could last for millennia. The process was long and the task painstaking, so mummification couldn’t be left up to just anyone. Performing the wrapping ritual was believed to facilitate a happy rebirth into the next life, so embalmers had to be priests. Those selected had to then be trained in medicine and the use of preservatives, so that their work was the intersection of the sacred and scientific.
In mummification, a team of practitioners would spend days dehydrating the corpse with special salts, preservatives, and perfumes that drew out all the moisture. Once the corpse was well-drained, the compounds were rinsed off, and a 40- to 70-day drying process began. But none of that was possible without first removing the organs—a task left up to slitters, so named for their specific task of cutting open the skin with sharp obsidian knives.
The slitter who made the first cut had a position of honor—but it was a dubious honor for sure. Because cutting a body also counted as defiling a corpse, which was forbidden, the slitter made the ceremonial first cut, then immediately had to drop his tool and make a run for it. Witnesses to the embalming would give chase, throwing stones at the slitter to punish him for the very deed he was hired to do. Records suggest that, though the stones were real, it was not a stoning unto death, just a kind of brutal hijinks that were part of an otherwise somber ritual.
11 More Fascinating Facts about Mummies
- Though Egyptians started making mummies in 3400 BCE, the efforts in that first millennium weren’t very successful at eternal preservation; it wasn’t until 2600 BCE that they realized the bodies would last longer if they removed the organs first.
- The early wrapping technique was so rough that a number of royals were found with hips dislocated or bones broken due to over-vigorous wraps.
- The priests doing the embalming had an eerie uniform: they all wore jackal masks covering their faces, depicting Anubis, god of the dead.
- While mummified royal cats have been made famous, the menagerie of other animals which were mummified is quite extensive: at least one lion, plus hippos, crocodiles, baboons, jackals, horses, gerbils, birds, and even tiny fish.
- Bulls were considered sacred, so their mummies merited their own private cemetery at Sakkara.
- If you unwrap all the layers of linen sheeting, usually at least seven, your average mummy weighs only five pounds.
- Some researchers believe that Ancient Egyptians traveled to the Americas, as traces of both coca and nicotine have been found in their mummified remains.
- In Victorian England, purchasing mummies was all the rage and people would hold unwrapping parties, where guests would gather around the remains to peel away the layers.
- Mummy bones were ground up into powders for skin creams and medicines, as Victorians believed they had mystical powers.
- As mummies were discovered from prominent tombs, the finder usually did the naming, including one famous mummy with traces of red hair who was named Ginger. Later, scientists, finding this disrespectful, instituted the numbering of mummies.
- When Egyptologists noticed that Ramesses II’s mummy was deteriorating in 1974, they flew his remains to Paris. He was issued an Egyptian passport for the flight, which listed him as King (Deceased).
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