For my first post I'd like to share my bachelor's thesis I wrote for my religious studies degree. What else am I going to do with it? Everyone was required to write one to graduate in my major (all 12 of us). It's about mummies, movies, and mythology. I hope you enjoy. Disclaimer: it does not sound very academic -- on purpose.
By: Nathan John
Professor Mary Kelly
In this essay I will attempt to draw the most relevant parallels and discrepancies between the modern and ancient mythoi within the theme of Egyptian mummification and resurrection. My sample of modern myths will be in the artistic medium of film, from the beginning of the 20th century (inception of the medium) to the present. Egyptian mummies are an exciting and common topic in the modern Western film industry, primarily since the unearthing of the tomb of King Tut (discussed later in this essay). I have been interested in Mummies since I was young – Egyptology and notions of tampering with the dead, interacting with the divine, has fascinated me for years.
I will analyze ancient Egyptian philosophies and beliefs on death care and the afterlife; I will examine their fascinating rituals, myths, and stories, then slowly unwrap the greater overarching themes and prevailing details that have been preserved through the millennia and projected on to the silver screen. By unraveling the genre I will track the most pertinent themes, the most titillating of details, and present the prevailing characteristics within the adapting and evolving medium. I will effectively identify persisting themes in Egyptian mummy mythoi and provide my informed opinion on what mummies are, what they have become, and what they mean to the living.
What We’re Made Of – Ka, Bah,&Sah
Ka and ba are often mentioned together as a single idea – one part. However, it must be noted they are distinct aspects of a person – similar to cake and icing. While together we may call the spongy loaf and sugar infused paste a delicious cake, they are in fact two separate foods with separate qualities. Together, they are a cake. Together, ka and ba are distinct pieces of a person, described throughout mortuary texts. You can eat a spongy loaf by itself, and you can eat a delicious sweet paste by itself – and you can identify your ka and ba.
Ka in Egyptian death philosophy is not a part of one’s physical body – not pertinent to the physical sphere. Ka, while difficult to explain in Western American-English terms, is essentially one’s social status, honor, or sense of dignity. It is similar to the Western notion of a heart.This is our icing.
Ba is ascribed to the physical sphere. Ba’s primary characteristic is movement, but it is not the body. Similar to ka there is no direct translation to American-English, but it is more or less a personality – a collective manifestation of the individual that does not pertain to social status. It is with the ba that the dead are able to leave the tomb and travel, while their corpses remain in the tomb. This is our spongy loaf.
Sah is yet another aspect of you. But it is you in the most uninteresting and basic form. It is the house for the ka and ba – the capsule, the corpse. The sah was not expected or believed to rise from the tomb and be physically active after death. Sah is the cold, dead plate on which the scrumptious cake of you is served.
Ba and ka are more than just philosophical notions in Egyptian belief. They are pragmatic components of a person that must be understood for the resurrection process. And it is only through the survival and union of sah, ba, and ka that resurrection is possible. Funerary preparations are devoted to preserving these parts of a person for resurrection.
Resurrection, Rebirth, and the Word
Preservation was vital in Egyptian death care. The mummification and subsequent resurrection processes depended on preservation. However, Egyptian mummification was not simply a method to preserve the body as it was in life – it was understood that the changing body was a natural part of life. Mummification was a process to help the dead become what was considered the perfect image of the deceased. This was initially left to the desert’s natural processes. Before popular funerary innovations, Egyptians buried corpses in shallow oval graves and the sand would act as a natural protecting agent; the dry environment would preserve the corpses well. But as early as the second half of the fourth millennium BCE, corpses were being wrapped in linen or hides. Graves grew more elaborate, with vertical walls and covers. And the funerary processes evolved, also growing more elaborate, and widespread over time.
How then does the resurrection occur? With the most important tools of all – words, language, and literature. Identified as “mortuary liturgies” and “mortuary literature” by German Egyptologist Jan Assmann, both provided the means by which Egyptians cared for their dead beyond immediate needs such as preservation, tools, food, etc. (It was custom for the living to include provisions for the afterlife with those whom they buried.) The Egyptian custom of mortuary literature, text written or engraved on tombs, sarcophagi, papyri, or the Books, dates to King Wenis of the 5th dynasty (circa 2500 BCE). His pyramid was the first to bare such literature.
It was believed that these liturgies performed on earth, and literature plastered on our dead, were also performed in the divine realm of the gods. So, if Isis had not awoken her formerly dismembered and deceased husband, Osiris, with her lamenting words (and the composition of his body parts), and had she provided him rebirth to his new form, the ritual liturgies performed on Earth would be of no use (discussed in the following section). Words in Egyptian mortuary liturgy and death rituals were highly revered, and the vital agent by which resurrection and rebirth were facilitated.
Isis, Osiris, and the Egyptian Pantheon
The divine realm belongs to the pantheon of gods and goddesses – the commanding deities of the Egyptian land. These are the characters of Egypt who were essential to understand in said culture. The Egyptian people would emulate these deities in everyday life based on their myths. And the legend of Isis reviving Osiris is one of the most beautiful and well known.
To appreciate the legend of Isis and Osiris however, we must also understand how they fit into the pantheon. As a disclaimer to the reader and acknowledgment to any Egyptologists, I must establish a caveat – there is more than one version to every story in Egyptian mythology. This consistent inconsistency is due to the fact that two main cities in Egypt acted as the centers of religious and mythological doctrine. One was Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, and the other was Memphis. These two cities, due to geographic proximity, maintained a lot of mythological similarities, yet were dissimilar enough to be distinct in their own ways.
Isis originally belonged to the aforementioned city of Heliopolis. However, this is not held exclusively, except in Heliopolis. Isis was a part of the Ennead, or the Nine (9). The Nine were the first deities to emerge at and after the genesis. Atum (or Ra/Re), who rose from the primordial waters, gave birth to Shu (who represented air, life, space, and light) and Tefnut (who represented moisture, and order). Shu and Tefnut then gave birth to Nut (the sky goddess) and Geb (the earth god). Nut and Geb then had five offspring in five days. The first day bore Osiris, the second Arueris, third was Seth, then Isis on the fourth day, and last on the fifth day was Nephthys. Isis was sister-wife to Osiris and Osiris was husband-brother to Isis. They loved each other even in their mother’s womb before they were born.
Osiris, as the oldest male, became the first king of Egypt, created civilization, established justice throughout the Nile, taught the Egyptians about agriculture, was an international traveller, and generally very popular. Seth, his younger brother, became jealous of Osiris’ fame and virtue. Seth decided to create a chest the size of his brother and trapped him in it, sealed it with molten lead and threw it into the Nile. The chest floated down to the sea. Isis, as Osiris’ wife and sister became overwhelmed with grief. She cut off her hair, dawned mourning garb and searched relentlessly up and down the Nile. She eventually found Osiris in the chest, then wept, mourned, then changed form to a bird and gave birth to her son Horus (who is depicted as a falcon). Isis then hid the chest containing the body of Osiris in the delta. Days later, Seth discovered the chest and tore the body to fourteen pieces, and scattered them all around the country. Some versions of this myth say that he threw Osiris’ penis into the Nile. When Isis learned of this, once again she searched for her brother-husband. This time, she travelled on the Nile in a boat of papyrus along with Seth’s wife, who was Isis’ sister and consort, Nephthys, and Nephthys’ son, Anubis. Also with them was Thoth, the moon god and Isis’ son Horus. Together, they found all of Osiris’ parts except his penis, which was believed to have been swallowed by a fish. Isis made a replica of the missing phallus to take the place of the original, and consecrated it in ceremony. Isis’ words in ceremony (and sitting on Osiris’ penis, according to variations of the myth) brought Osiris back from the dead. Osiris then became the Ruler of Eternity in the underworld.
Isis was the most important goddess in Egypt and was worshipped for over 3,000 years, from pre-dynastic times (before 3,000 BCE) until the second century CE. Isis originated in Egypt, but was worshipped across several cultures and traditions, including Greece in the third century BCE, the Roman Empire, and even to Danube and Rhine. Similar to other Egyptian deities, she was represented in various forms with an array of responsibilities, such as: a milk-giving cow-goddess, goddess of serpents of the primeval waters, a star goddess, accumulator of the Nile waters, fertile pig goddess, bird goddess, goddess of power, goddess of the Tree of Life, and the giver of life to Osiris.
The Films – Our Modern Mythoi
Disclaimer: I recognize that artistic liberties are taken to alter stories and traditions (particularly ancient ones that might have less appeal to the non-ancient audience) to attract to a wider fan base and/or make money. I am not persecuting filmmakers for being wrong, unknowledgeable, or inaccurate (though they may be). However, it should be noted that my interjections (and objections) will be primarily based on the historical and philosophical accuracies and inaccuracies observed in the films pertaining to Egyptian afterlife ritual and philosophy.
Egyptomania! The appropriately named craze of the early 20th century for all things Egypt, with particular attention to tombs, mummies, pharaohs, and afterlife relics occurred in response to the unearthing of King Tutankhamun (named “King Tut” for short) in 1922. This event was highly intriguing and enticing to the popular culture. The craze caught on, and received further attention due to mysterious stories surrounding the tomb’s discovery, such as the disappearance of several of project workers during the trip to Tut’s tomb. This was exciting! And this exciting event is accepted by film scholars as the beginning of Egyptomania. An influential fiction and non-fiction author of the 1920s, Jon Manchip White, claimed that King Tut in fact was among the least esteemed of pharaohs in his time. Noting the irony that he is now, in the 20th century, among the most famous of Egyptian pharaohs and characters. King Tut was not resurrected as perhaps was planned – he (or, his ka and ba) has been transformed. But regardless of Tut’s social standing in this or his previous life, the theme was reborn, repackaged, and became palatable to the Western film audience. A sub-genre was born from this event that permeated other film genres – literally hundreds of films (either as motion pictures, television shows, television episodes, pornographic films, or film shorts) were created with the focus of Egyptian mummies.
The most intriguing theme I sought to analyze as I watched and read about the mountains of modern mummy myths was the uniting of the mummy, the corpse, the sah, with his or her (primarily his) “soul.” I was careful to not get swept away by my childhood love for the genre. As a child I loved mummies. I loved Egyptology. And having grown up in American culture, I understood and accepted the melding of the ghost-like spirit entity into a corpse as a spirit entering the body. I approached with fresh eyes and a healthy skepticism. Yet again I observed a plain spirit entering the body in as I re-watched my favorite childhood mummy film, The Mummy (1999). However, as discussed earlier in this essay, Egyptian afterlife philosophy did not prescribe to the modern Western notion of soul. This was the problem. There would logically be no incantation or spell to simply put a soul back into its shell as two parts. The Mummy (1999) completely corrupts my cupcake analogy. They are taking the ka and the sah as one part – the social status and the corpse are analogous in this film. The ka and sah, are acting as the spongy cake and the ba as the icing – that is inaccurate. And yes, perhaps I am taking the defamation of my analogy too personally, but that example of a person’s properties is not “correct” in ancient Egyptian afterlife beliefs.
Some films do however continue the powerful theme of mortuary liturgy and literature. The character of Imhotep, the revived priest, in both the 1932 and 1999 Mummy films, is often using his words or reading from ancient literature on stone, books (of the Dead), etc., either to create something ridiculous, like a sandstorm in the shape of his face, or as preparation to revive his love for whom he was killed, Anaksenamun. As noted earlier in this essay, words in Egyptian mortuary liturgy and death rituals were highly revered, and essential to resurrection and death preparation. This attention to the power of the word, is just one of the reasons why The Mummy (1932) is the most accurate and authentic of the mummy films I have seen. The characters use their words. One of my favorite examples is in penultimate scene of the film, when lead actress Helen faces her death to be transformed into Imhotep’s lost romantic partner Anaksenamun, prays to Isis. In praying to the goddess, Helen recognizes Isis’ importance in mortuary ritual and process, and in life, as she faces her own death.
The Mummy (1932) and (1999) are my primary focus of the modern mythoi. These two films act as bookends to the 20th century mummy genre. Both have similar content and themes: the characters Imhotep and Anaksenamun, in deep passionate love that persists through millennia of death; mortuary liturgy and literature, (although they are used in different ways); and of course the excitement of unearthing a mummy. Yet with these similarities both represent different appeal to the audience from the times in which they were made. The 1932 film is a more historically and spiritually anchored thriller. Imhotep quietly incants in the museum on his knees, hovering over the Book of the Dead, slowly preparing for the return of his lost love, Anaksenamun. 67 years later, the 1999 Mummy is an action thriller packed with death-defying stunts and incredibly long gun fights. Yes there are spells, yes they impact the story, but they are used extravagantly, not in liturgical or ritual form.
Admittedly, these analyses may be a narrow focus. The deep and complex theme of Egyptian afterlife is forced and molded into a select group of Western culture-infused films. Each film is further adapted with artistic liberties, resource restraints, and mass appeal based on its source culture’s (primarily U.S. culture) status in the evolution of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Additionally, a notable difference in the evolution of Egyptian mummy mythoi is the reversal of gender roles from the deistic resurrection of Osiris by Isis to the modernized Imhotep, Anaksenamun tale. The modern Western audience is misogynistic, patriarchal; Isis and Osiris are ancient. Isis transcends an array of cultures and customs, and was revered as one of the most important figures in the world in more egalitarian eras. This shift in gender roles from 3000 BCE to 2000 CE is obviously an important factor that impacts who plays the leading role – who saves whom. Small details like these further add to the complexity of the evolution of the Egyptian mummy mythoi.
Furthermore, it is crucial that I present what I believe is lost from these films due to the aforementioned restraints and likely filmmaker inconsiderations. These films, provided more mythological background, more connection to the divine realm from which the Egyptian mortuary literature was dependent upon (and upon which Helen referred to in the 1932 Mummy), could provide a much richer and more intellectually/spiritually engaging experience for the audience. I consider the 1932 Mummy the crown jewel of mummy films to which I am well acquainted. In other films, there is hardly a mention of the divine actions that are so crucial to Egyptian afterlife practices. I imagine a perfect mummy film, full of creepy thrills and haunting atmosphere, yet fully cognizant of the deistic forces that are the true backbone of afterlife belief and spirituality. To include exciting characters like Anubis, perhaps mention to the ever-important Ennead (nine original gods and goddesses), Horus, or even the cunning Seth, would be a story worth diving in to. These complex relationships between the gods and goddesses, and between the pantheon and the people whom they reside over, would be a rich and colorful story.
Based on the history of death preservation and the importance of the afterlife in Egyptian culture and mythology provided, I posit that mummies are in fact a preservation of us. As one cares for their dead, they care for themselves.
This notion, this mythology of routine and ritual in raising the dead – what is understood in Western culture as a mummy – holds at its crux not fear or terror as suggested by panic instilled in the film characters or audience of the 20th and 21st centuries, but love and passion. The undying need to reunite with (by reconstruction and revival) a romantic partner, as with Imhotep and Anaksenamun, as with Isis and her brother-husband Osiris, through their words and focus on reassembling whom they love so dearly, is the purpose of mummies. Mummies are preservation of love. And yes, preservation of the self and provisions for one’s life after death can be selfish, but I suggest that the mythoi that has transcended the millennia, that is most prevalent, is one associated with romance – the most classic of themes.
Thus, in the broadest spectrum of mummification practices, the mummy of Isis and Osiris, accepted as any reanimated or rebirthed being (Osiris), was a tale of passion, then was emulated in Egyptian practice as preservation of the self and society – particularly those of the utmost importance, pharaohs and alike, and now, in the 21st century, as highlighted in the artistic medium of film, have been reprised as figures of passionate devotion. This devotion in action films like The Mummy 1999 is also apparent, as the destruction of human life and environment occurs only when Imhotep is unable to revive Anaksenamun.
Supplementary Reading and Viewing
Corrigan, Timothy. A Short Guide to Writing About Film. 7th ed. New York: Longman, 1998. Print.
Hart, George. A Dictionary of Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. London: Routledge&Kegan Paul, 1986. Print.
The Mummy. Dir. Karl Freund. Perf. Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners. Universal Pictures, 1932. Film.
The Mummy. Dir. Stephen Sommers. Perf. Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah. Universal Pictures, 1999. DVD.
Bubba Ho-Tep. Dir. Don Coscarelli. Perf. Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce. Silver Sphere Corporation, 2002. DVD.
Blood From The Mummy's Tomb. Dir. Christopher Wicking. Perf. Andrew Keir, Valerie Leon, James Villiers.EMI Films, 1971. Film.
Assmann, Jan. "Death as Dissociation." Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. 87-110. Print.
Taylor, John H.. "Death and Resurrection in Ancient Egypt." Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. 10-45. Print.
Taylor, John H.. "The Eternal Body: Mummification." Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. 46-92. Print.
Assmann, Jan. "Mortuary Liturgies and Mortuary Literature." Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. 237-252. Print.
Taylor, John H.. "Chronology." Death and the Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. 266. Print.
J. Assmann, “The Search for God in Ancient Egypt.” Ithaca, 2001. 40-52. Print.
Baring, Anne, and Cashford, Jules. "The Bronze Age: The Mother Goddess and Her Son-Lover." The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. London, England: Viking Arkana, 1991. 145-174. Print.
Baring and Cashford. 225-272.
The Mummy. Dir. Karl Freund. Perf. Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners. Universal Pictures, 1932. Film.
van den Berg, Hans. "The Ancient Egypt Film Site." The Ancient Egypt Film Site.N.p., n.d. Web. 15 May 2012. <http://www.ancientegyptfilmsite.nl/>.
 Baring, Anne, and Cashford, Jules. “Isis of Egypt: Queen of Heaven, Earth and Underworld.” The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image. London, England: Viking Arkana, 1991. 225-272