Most people know about mummies in ancient Egypt, and have maybe even seen one or two in a museum. We know the traditions involving sarcophagi, elaborate tombs, and how mummies were made in the days of the pharaohs. But most people don't know that mummification practices aren't just confined to ancient Egypt. Mummies have been found around the world, all throughout history, and some cultures still practice mummification today. Even though this is a practice concerning the dead, it's hardly a dead art.
Why do these cultures perform this arduous and macabre act? For some, it is religious; for others, political; and for still others, it started as somewhat of a happy accident. And as to how they did it? There are a few known methods, but in some cases, scientists still aren't sure, which only lends to the air of mystery surrounding the practice.
So, if you're scurious as to what sort of mummies exist, how to make a mummy, and why someone would make a mummy, read on. But if you've got a weak stomach, you might want to prepare yourself, because a few of these pictures are a little unsettling.
Buddhist Monks Started Mummifying Themselves While They Were Still Alive
Usually mummification starts after you die. For some Buddhist monks, however, the process began years before you actually passed away.
These monks believed the path to immortality began by eating nothing but nuts and seeds and exercising vigorously to rid themselves of all body fat. Then, after three years, they would drink a poisonous tea that would cause them to violently purge themselves, removing moisture from inside their bodies while also killing off any internal parasites that might otherwise rot their flesh.
At last, they would wall themselves into a small, closed-off stone tomb, assume the lotus position, and simply wait to die, ringing a bell each day to let people outside know they were still alive. When the bell stopped ringing, everyone knew the monk inside was dead and the mummification process was complete.
Unfortunately, most who attempted this ritual were not successful, as opened tombs have revealed. Their corpses showed signs of decay. However, the bodies of those who achieved their goal were removed, put on display, and venerated.
Australian and Melanesian Mummies Painted Corpses in Their Own Body Fat
The indigenous people of the Torres Straits and neighboring islands had a particularly gruesome mummification process. First, the bodies were tattooed elaborately, often with stripes. All body fat was carefully removed from the corpses.
Then, all the body's orifices would be sewed shut, and their bodies smoked over a fire over the course of about ten day. During that time, mourners stood guard over the corpse, shooing away flies. The mourners were not allowed to speak at all for the entire time it took to smoke the bodies.
Once the bodies were dried, they were further decorated, and then the removed body fat was mixed with red ochre and painted back onto the body as a preservative.
If you think that sounds horrifying, consider this slightly different practice in the region. Some Melanesian people would place a dead body into a canoe and push it out to sea. There, its skin was peeled away, and its organs removed and replaced with palm pith. Then the body was brought back to land and dried. The tongue, the palms of the hands, and the soles of the feet were removed and given to the deceased person's spouse.
When the mummy was fully dried, it was painted and decorated with seashell eyes, grass, and seeds. The mummy was then tied to the center post of its former home.
The Chinchorro in Northern Chile Dismember, Then Rebuild Their Dead
Mummies in the Chinchorro style, in northern Chile, are about as far from Egyptian mummies as you can get. (They also predate the Egyptian mummies by about two thousand years.) For these mummies, the body itself isn't so much preserved as rebuilt from the ground up by a master craftsman.
First, a dead person's skin was removed and their skull packed with straw and earth. The spine would be recreated and strengthened with wood or reeds, as would the rest of the bones. Body parts would be held together using glue made from eggs or sea lion blood. Then, with expert care, the artisan recreating the dead person would layer a thick coat of clay across the body, especially the face, and sculpt features on top of that, often creating a little o-shaped mouth for emphasis. Bodies would even get a wig. At last, the skin would be reattached when the process was finished.
In other words, mummies made in this way were all about effort and precision, but many of them have lasted for thousands of years!
The Cold, Arid Climate Created Incan Mummies out of Sacrificial Victims
Incan mummies were said to be pretty stunning, complete with hair, clothing, and jewelry, and were paraded by their people through the streets. Tragically, European colonizers thought this treatment of the dead was irreverent, and so many mummies were destroyed. Because of this, the process by which these mummies were made is still not fully understood. However, we do know that the Inca people used their natural surroundings to help them with the process.
We know this because of several mummies found in a mountain burial site, all children, and all sacrificed in a ritual fashion. These "Children of Llullaillaco," as they are called, were dressed in ceremonial clothing, surrounded by statues, gold, and other offerings. Their bodies had been naturally mummified by the cold and arid climate.
We don't know if previous, now-destroyed mummies were preserved in the same manner, but the intact hair, clothing, and facial features on the Children do provide a lot of information on ancient Incan culture.