Decoding Tutankhamun's Mysterious Mummification: Riddles From the Afterlife
The Curious Mummification of Tutankhamun
When the tomb of Tutankhamun was uncovered by Howard Carter in 1922, the world was amazed by the splendor that was found. Understandably, the first focus of attention was the marvelous treasure of the king. In later years also the body of Tutankhamun itself became subject of investigation, and a lot of research was done on the medical condition of the king and the cause of death. Until recently, less consideration was given to the way in which the king's body was mummified. This has now changed, and studies have revealed some interesting anomalies regarding the mummification of Tutankhamun.
- The body was mummified with a fully erect penis.
- The heart is missing from the body.
- An extraordinary amount of oleo-resinous material was poured onto the body.
Famous archaeologist Dr. Salima Ikram, professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, has come up with a new theory that could explain these oddities by connecting them to the magical transformation of the dead king into the god of the underworld.
The Erect Penis
The strangest feature of Tutankhamun's mummification when compared to other pharaonic mummies, is that his mummy was buried with a fully erect penis, which was angled at 90° to the body. No other Egyptian mummy was ever recovered this way. The body part broke off from the rest of the corpse sometime after the unwrapping of the mummy, and it is now lost. There has been some speculation that it was stolen.
The Missing Heart
Another abnormality is that the heart is missing. It can not be ruled out entirely that somehow the heart was lost after the body was unearthed, but it is more likely that it had already been taken out before the body was mummified. The lungs, the stomach, the liver, and the intestines would all be removed from the body and stored separately in so-called canopic jars, which would then in turn be kept in a special canopic chest. The heart was an entirely different matter because it was considered to play a crucial role in the resurrection.
Weighing of the Heart
The Egyptians believed that the heart would be weighed against a feather in the ultimate test to decide whether the deceased had lived a righteous life. Only if the heart was equal in weight to the feather, the deceased could live on in the afterlife. If not, the heart would be eaten by a monstrous deity called Ammit, the "Devourer of the Dead". Once Ammit swallowed the heart, the deceased would cease to exist for eternity. Under normal circumstances, the embalmers would therefore not remove the heart from the body.
Not only was the heart itself absent from the body, also the heart scarab that would normally be placed atop the heart, was lacking. In extraordinary cases where the heart was damaged or lost, the heart scarab could replace the original heart. It was also an essential funerary amulet, because it played a key role during the weighing of the heart. The scarab was inscribed with a magic spell that would ensure that the heart would not bear witness against his owner, and in doing so, it would clear the way for a successful resurrection. In Tutankhamun's case the heart scarab was not found on the body of the king, but it was found near the canopic chest.
The Black Resin
All of the royal New Kingdom mummies were anointed with oils and resins in order to preserve the bodies for eternity, but the amount of the black substance that covered Tutankhamun was unprecedented. Howard carter already noted that:
"The most part of the detail is hidden by a black lustrous coating due to pouring over the cofﬁn a libation of great quantity. As a result this unparalleled monument (meaning: the first cofﬁn) is stuck fast to the interior of the second cofﬁn – the consolidated material of the libation ﬁlling up the space between the two cofﬁns almost to the level of the lid of the third one."
Tutankhamun's body was almost drowned in the sticky fluid and as a result the mummy was fixed to his coffin, and it became very difﬁcult to free the mummy from its wrappings.
Return to Orthodoxy
In the article 'Some Thoughts on the Mummification of King Tutankhamun', Dr. Salima Ikram suggests that these extraordinary features should be viewed against the backdrop of the theological developments that took place within that particular period.
The Amarna Revolution
During the reign of Tutankhamun's father Akhenaten, a theological revolution had taken place in which the old gods were replaced by a single god, the Aten (the sun disk). After the death of Akhenaten, these religious innovations of Amarna period were almost immediately abandoned, and the reign of Tutankhamun saw the restoration of the old, polytheistic religion.
Tutankhamun transforms into Osiris
In traditional Egyptian religion, the god Horus is indentified with the living pharaoh, and the deceased pharaoh is identified with the god Osiris. Dr. Ikram theorizes that the anomalies in the mummification were intended to change Tutankhamun's appearance, to make him look like Osiris, to emphasize that the king was transformed into the god Osiris after his death.
- Osiris is often portrayed as having black skin, and the enormous quantities of resinous materials poured over the king's body may have been an attempt to darken Tutankhamun's skin.
- In the myth of the battle between Osiris and his brother Seth, Seth killed his brother, dismembered him and buried the body parts in different places. His heart was buried at Athribis. The absence of the heart in Tutankhamun's mummy could be a reference to this story.
- Osiris was not just simply the god of the underworld, he was also attributed with great regenerative powers. The erect penis of the mummy is likely a symbol of rebirth and resurrection, and could therefore be interpreted as further reference to these Osirid powers.
The Final Pieces of the Puzzle?
On the north wall of Tutankhamun's burial chamber, Ay, the successor of Tutankhamun, is seen performing the 'opening of the mouth' ritual on the deceased king. Tutankhamun is shown as a fully-ﬂedged Osiris and not simply as a wrapped mummy. Already during the unwrapping of the mummy in 1925, Howard Carter had noted the resemblance of Tutankhamun's mummy to Osiris.
"Upon the top of the head of the King, was an enormous pad some [.. ] centimetres [sic] in height, of linen wads and bandages wrapped in the manner of a modern surgical head bandage. This was of a conical form and in its shape was suggestive of a crown. The linen was in this case in far better preservation than any hitherto found upon the mummy. Its purpose is obscure, though possibly it either represented the form of the crown of Osiris (the mummy being necessarily made in his semblance), or was merely a pad intended to ﬁll up the space that otherwise would have been left empty in hollow of the headdress of the mask. The former explanation seems for the moment to be the more probable."
Howard Carter may have been more correct in his initial assessment than he suspected. During this tumultuous period from an historical and theological perspective, a stronger emphasis on the divinity of the king may have been deemed necessary to ensure that Tutankhamun, living Horus on earth, was successfully transformed into the eternal Osiris of the underworld.
Ikram, S., "Some Thoughts on the Mummification of King Tutankhamun" In: Études et Travaux 28, (2013), 292-301
Rühli, F.J., Ikram, S., "Purported Medical Diagnoses of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, c. 1300 BC" In: HOMO, Journal of Comparative Human Biology, 65.1, (2014), 51-63