Origins and Significance of Mummification in Different Cultures

Traditionally, mummification is associated primarily with the practice of embalming in ancient Egypt. Nevertheless, in fact, this process was used by many peoples of old times. Analyzing the cause of its appearance one can see that it had great importance in connection with the development of the spiritual and religious life of ancient peoples. The idea of the continuation of life after death was one of the factors in the improvement of the art of embalming the dead. On the other hand, the analysis of this practice ensures that its reasons were much more complex and included social and political factors as well. Thus, the process of embalming was carried out with great care according to all the necessary principles. The primary task of mummification was to help the body adequately meet with the other world, as well as to perform certain social and political roles. Each of the cultures, including the Egyptian one, focused attention on the various features of mummification in accordance with the specific religious and social beliefs about life after death. Until now, scientists have a number of questions as to the real reasons and factors, which had contributed to the emergence of embalming techniques in various cultures around the world. This paper analyzes the features of the appearance and development of artificial mummification in various old cultures.

Ancient Egypt has demonstrated a deep respect for the body of the deceased person if it belonged to Pharaoh or other members of the nobility. However, the view that first embalming appeared in ancient Egypt is wrong. In fact, “the Chinchurro culture in Peru had the oldest system of artificial mummification in the world, dating back to around 3,000 BC” In the Chinchurro culture, mummification was associated with religious reasons that characterized this process in other civilizations. In particular, representatives of this culture sought to ensure that, after the death, the person was able to continue his/her existence in the afterworld. In this regard, Chinchurro people showed a peculiar type of mummification. In fact, “Chinchorro’s captivating mortuary tradition transformed the corpses into human effigies.” As a result of the use of clay and mineral pigments, “the final product was a rigid and shiny black body, the so-called black mummies.” Over time, embalming was applied to people of all ages. The technique of mummification was also changing. In an effort to emphasize the willingness of dead people to meet with the other world, embalmers corrected facial characteristics of the dead. They conducted a ceremony of opening the eyes and the mouth. In their opinion, the person who died was ready to convey life by breathing.

In general, the analysis of a given culture involves taking several theories regarding the factors of origin of this tradition. First, researchers argue that one needs to take into account the religious component of this tradition. Similar to many other ancient peoples, the Chinchorro representatives believed in life after death. They thought that the preservation of the body was necessary for the survival of the soul. A similar understanding can be found in other cultures, including Egyptian one. Religious ideology was one of the key factors in the development of mummification. In addition, according to another scientific idea, this embalming had not only religious, but also social and political significance. In particular, it was used as a sign of higher social and political status. In general, mummification was applied to the representatives of the nobility. Even if it was provided for people from the lower strata of society, its technique was much simpler than the one that was used for the rich. This theory is not certain since it is possible to find researchers who argue that the Chinchorro culture was not characterized by rigid social stratification. However, most scientists point to the validity of this idea. The third opinion points to the importance of mummification as a manifestation of the love to children. Moreover, the development of this tradition started from embalming of children. The fact is that the Chinchorro culture was characterized by high infant mortality. Several researchers suggest that the use of such mummification was determined by the mothers’ the desire to preserve the bodies of their beloved children as long as possible. Finally, no less interesting point of view on this subject is presented by Bernardo T. Arriaza himself. The author believes that the high mortality rate among children in areas inhabited by the Chinchorro people was determined by the characteristics of the environment. In particular, the water of the Caramones Valley where this folk lived contained various toxic substances, including arsenic. In fact, “arsenic is a poisonous, odorless and tasteless chemical element that significantly affects human health, particularly in pregnant women and their fetuses.” Arriaza sees the emergence of mummification as a social response to high infant mortality in the region: “As a social and emotional response to losing many of their fetuses and infants, Chinchorro parents created artificial mummification to assuage their collective grief.”

As one can see, the study of the causes of embalming in the Chinchorro culture is associated with a number of ideological disputes because different researchers emphasize on different factors of mummification in the region. Analyzing the ancient Egyptian tradition, one can get a clear picture about the causes and development of embalming. In particular, the mummification was a result of the development of the ancient Egyptians’ religious beliefs and strengthening the authority of the Pharaoh as one of the key elements in the lives of all citizens. During his life, Pharaoh had not only political and social but also religious significance to his people. “The king had a variety of responsibilities to the deities as well as to his people.” Moreover, even after his death, Pharaoh continued to be responsible for his own people. The rite of mummification was particularly important because it allowed the Egyptians to hope for a further life of their pharaoh after his death. Thus, the Pharaoh had the opportunity to carry on his activities due to the rite of mummification. It allowed the soul to find its body and to continue the existence within the underworld.

In general, “mummies resided not only in Egypt, but all around the world such as Alaska, Northern South America, Western Europe, North Africa, Canary Islands, Australia, Japan, China and the Arctic.” As the researchers note, the religious factor namely, belief in life after death, was one of the main reasons for the spread of mummification in different cultures around the world. On the other hand, scientists recognize that the religious factor is not the only source of mummification. One can find a variety of evidence to suggest that the causes of embalming were not only religious ideas of the ancient people, but also their social and political perceptions and expectations. Here, scientists face a number of difficulties, since to establish all the factors contributing to the development of mummification in different cultures is not an easy task. This is due to the fact that the researchers do not have qualitative evidence in favor of a certain theory. For this reason, various disputes continue to exist in anthropology on the subject.

To sum up, the study of the exact factors of mummification occurrence in different cultures still continues. Given that there is no consensus as to the origin of mummification in all civilizations, it makes sense to use the multifactorial principle. It is able to provide an opportunity to consider not only religious, but also social and political significance of embalming. In this regard, the use of this principle allows one to receive a better understanding of the possible factors of embalming in ancient nations. In particular, the example of the Chinchorro and the Egyptian cultures demonstrate that the origin of mummification has not only religious, but also social and political character.