Why did the ancient Egyptians use onions during mummification? How would the victorious Egyptian king count the dead after a battle? We answer these and other fascinating questions in our trivia round-up.
In today’s world, it is easy to grab a pen and paper, jot down some thoughts, make a list of things to do, or make a quick sketch of something you see if you are artistically privileged. If you are an architect, you could use a computer to draw fancy plans and blueprints.
What if you were an ancient Egyptian? Papyrus was too expensive, but broken bits of pottery or limestone were abundant and cheap, and so became the most commonly used media for unofficial writing purposes. These are referred to by Egyptologists as ostraca. The word ostraca comes from the Greek ostracon, meaning a ceramic vessel, or a fragment of one. Because of their durable nature, a great mountain of ostraca survives from ancient Egypt. The writings and drawings on ostraca cover a wide range of topics: texts both administrative and personal; doodles; and preliminary sketches of tomb paintings, even comics.
Tips and Tricks for an Everlasting Mummy
The aim of mummification was to preserve the body, so the deceased’s soul would recognize and re-enter it, thereby living again. In one way, the Egyptians conquered the decaying effects of death on their corpses, yet accidents happened and little tricks were used to ensure recognition of the body and therefore a safe passage to the afterlife. Eyes are largely water, which meant that the salts used for mummification dried them out, causing the fragile lids to break due to the lack of support. The solution? Evidence survives of little onions being used to fill the space of the eyeballs, which not only retained plumper eyes, but supported eyelids from caving in. Noses were also at risk of being flattened or broken, and acorns were the perfect solution to help keep their shape (think Ramses II). Fingers and toes became dry and brittle after they dried, and were easily broken. The solution? To avoid this issue, and also to cover it up when it happened (as it all too often did), the wealthy deceased were given gold sheets in the shape of toes and fingers to cover their extremities.
Piles of Body Parts
The ancient Egyptians often went to war, and needed to tally the deaths inflicted on their enemy’s ranks. Heads or hands could be cut off to bring back to the king as proof of how many enemies had been killed, but what easier way to count them than to cut off the male members of the deceased soldiers? Grim, but apparently convenient; it also served to remove the manhood from the dead soldiers (too literally perhaps). The walls of the temple of Medinet Habu in Luxor display huge piles of phalluses, severed from the enemy’s army.
Do you think this is too gruesome to be real? Not according to a recent archaeological discovery. In a first of its kind, the skeletal remains of sixteen right hands were found at Tell el-Daba (Avaris) in the Egyptian Delta, which the Hyksos had taken as their capital during Egypt’s Second Intermediate Period. Fourteen of the aforementioned hands were together in one deposit.
The Valour of Flies
Summer in Egypt is marked by an attack of sticky flies with a heightened desire to be obnoxious. The ancient Egyptians also suffered from flies – their word for fly was ‘aaf, which sounds like quite the angry grunt, but they managed to look on the bright side. Flies are persistent, just as good soldiers should be in battle. The Golden Fly of Valour was a fly-shaped pendant once awarded for military achievement, but eventually becoming a generic decoration given to any courtier on a special occasion, such as the coronation. These ‘Golden Flies’ are much more elegant than actual flies, and their manufacture was very delicate and intricate with several steps employed to create these beautiful pendants.
Everyday Ancient Egyptian
It is not new to hear that aspects of the ancient Egyptian language have survived into modern day Egyptian-Arabic, especially in rural contexts, where people have not been too influenced by outsiders. Imboo, for one, from the ancient m pA mw (literally: ‘from the water’) used by Egyptian infants to describe ‘drink’, is amongst the better known modern words from ancient roots. But there are many, many more words. Foota, meaning ‘towel’ in modern Egyptian comes from the very similar fwte. Its non-Egyptian Arabic equivalent is manshafa. People’s names have also survived, such as the male name Bishoy, which comes from an ancient word meaning fate or destiny. The female name Sawsan comes from seshen, meaning a ‘lotus’ or ‘lily’.
Ancient Egyptian words did not only travel across time to modern Egypt, but also across to Arabic in general. The way the sheen letter is written in Arabic is strikingly similar to the ancient and Coptic ways of writing the sh letter. Ancient Egyptian also moved into other languages. The ancient Egyptian word for brick, debet, survived as the Coptic twbe, and onwards as the modern Egyptian tooba. The word did not stop at that, but travelled into Arabic across the Arabic-speaking world, moving with the Arab invasion into Spain, where the word morphed into the Spanish adobe, describing brick architecture. It has since migrated into English.
But does the name Susan come from Sawsan? I vote yes, but I do have my biases!
Rolling in the Dung
The scarab is one of the most recognised symbols of ancient Egypt. In Egyptian mythology, the scarab beetle plays an important role in rebirth and resurrection, both key elements of Egyptian belief. A scarab was thought to push the sun across the sky during the day, and continued to do so during the night hours, ensuring that the sun would shine again, signifying rebirth. Egyptians observed their surroundings closely and did not choose symbols arbitrarily. The scarab beetle was appropriately chosen to push the sun disc because in nature such beetles slowly form balls of dung, which they proceed to roll, so that later they can lay their eggs within – somehow just like rolling the sun disc to ensure a safe birth (or rebirth rather)!
Paint, Painkiller, and Magical Aliment
Before the time of aspirin, decongestant, and effervescent vitamin C tablets, rich Europeans would carry around a pouch of a special powder. A powder that is as ancient as the world itself; a magic powder that cures all ailments and maladies: mummia powder. Sounds familiar? Indeed, powder made from ground up mummies was a highly sought after commodity during the last centuries. There was such high demand, and not enough ancient mummies to satisfy the craze for mummia powder, that alternative methods were employed. Starting in 1200 CE and for a few hundred years, unclaimed fresh corpses in Alexandria had pitch and resin applied to them. These were then buried for a few years in someone’s backyard, and, when they were ‘ready’, were ground up and sold as mummy powder.
Very Authentic Ancient Egyptian Souvenirs
Long before the time of King Tut magnets and trinkets with floating pyramids inside mysterious gelatinous substances (all made in China), the souvenir of choice for many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travellers was non other than a mummy. A real mummy. After all, ‘it would be hardly respectable, upon one’s return from Egypt, to present oneself without a mummy in one hand and a crocodile in another’ (which a certain father Géramb apparently said to Mohamed Ali Pasha in 1833). There was such a high demand, that one story tells of a mummy being sold to a tourist in Aswan, who bought it only later to discover that it was not, in fact, an ancient Egyptian, but the body of an English engineer who had died in Egypt.
Mummies that made it to Europe became the stars of ‘mummy unwrapping’ parties. These parties became grand social events. Amulets from the mummy wrappings were sometimes given as favours to the guests, and the unwrapped mummy would be displayed in the house, perhaps in the study of its owner. In America, linen mummy wrappings were used to make brown paper used by butchers; the bodies themselves were used for making brown paint for oil paintings, cunningly named ‘Mummy Brown’. One artist using this colour was so distraught after finding out that his paint was made from actual mummies, that he buried his supplies in his garden, so that the remains would be dealt with respectfully.
The Book That Is Not Really a Book
Did you know that The Book of the Dead is actually not a book at all? It is actually a collection of funerary texts used to help the dead on their journey through the underworld and into the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians referred to it as the Book of Coming Forth by Day, and it contained magical spells and religious texts that protected the deceased and provided mystical knowledge needed during the journey. There are a total of 192 spells, or chapters, in this book, although there is not a single manuscript that contains them all. Each person chose the texts and spells that they preferred to guide them on their journey, and commissioned them to be written.
Some of the spells were related to the heart, and were written on a scarab placed above the mummy’s heart; the ancient Egyptians believed that the heart played the role that we today know the brain plays. When weighed against a feather during the judgement, the heart had to be lighter. A heavier heart meant that one would be eaten by the Ammit monster, and your memory erased from the world completely; a frightening thought for the ancient Egyptians. Those who had a heart lighter than a feather were permitted to move on to the ‘Fields of Rushes’, the ancient Egyptian equivalent of heaven.
I didn’t do it, I swear
The word ‘paganism’, in the minds of some, conjures up images of … immorality, to put it mildly. Although the ancient Egyptians may be defined as pagans, they were not, well, immoral. Yes, indeed, corruption was present, but they did have a code of morals and ethics. When someone died, they were judged before a tribunal of forty-two gods. The deceased recited a list of sins that he or she did not commit, known as the ‘Negative Confession’, depicted as part of the collective texts of the Book of the Dead. Some of the negative confessions are:
I have not committed crimes against people.
I have not blasphemed a god.
I have not robbed the poor.
I have not caused pain.
I have not caused tears.
I have not killed.
I have not ordered to kill.
I have not made anyone suffer.
I have not damaged the offerings in the temples.
I have not copulated nor defiled myself.
I have not added to the weight of the balance.
I have not falsified the plummet of the scales.
I have not taken milk from the mouth of children.
I have not deprived cattle of their pasture.
I have not stopped a god in his procession.
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Mennat-Allah El Dorry is an Egyptologist specialized in archaeobotanical analysis. Much of her research has revolved around food and trying to reconstruct how people in the past cooked and ate. She is currently editing the proceedings of an international conference on food in Egypt and Sudan that she organized in 2018 in cooperation with the Institut français d’archéologie orientale and the Polish Centre for Mediterranean Archaeology. Instagram: eatlikeanegyptian