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The Perfumed Mummy

The Art of Embalming in Ancient Egypt

by Peg Aloi

The culture of ancient Egypt holds endless fascination: the colossal pyramids and elaborate tombs, the mysterious mummies, the decadent grave goods, the sophisticated urban design, the elegant pantheon of deities, and the richly complex religious beliefs. Artifacts and archaeological evidence reveal a people obsessed with cleanliness, cosmetics and personal adornment…not to mention death. The funerary rites of ancient Egypt are perhaps the most intricate of any culture through history—certainly they are the most sumptuous. Part of what makes these rites so unusual is the insistence upon using precious perfumery ingredients in the embalming process. What might seem merely a sensual and ritualized form of indulgence is actually pure science, however artful; in fact, the ancient Egyptians were the earliest practitioners of aromatherapy. This ancient art fell out of practice for hundreds of years and did not emerge again until the eighteenth century. The potent essential oils found in the many unguents used in mummification, containing myrrh, sandalwood, attar of roses, and cedar were effective antibacterial agents, and are partly responsible for the remarkable preservation of the corpses known as mummies. The other important factors include the dryness of the Egyptian climate, and the desiccation of corpses, treated with the salt natron found along the Nile basin. The same properties that make essential oils useful for so many modern purposes were known thousands of years ago by our ancestors along the Nile. In other words, the myrrh we employ today in mouthwashes and toothpaste; the same sandalwood we use in perfumes and soap; the same cinnamon we spice cakes and cookies with; the same cedar which lines chests and closets; the same juniper berries which lend their flavor to gin; as well as frankincense, saffron, cardamom, figs, honey, cypress, wine, dock, and calamus, among other herbs and ingredients: all were used in Egyptian funerary rites, either in ritual incense (like the famous kyphi, below), or as embalming agents.

Kyphi is an incense that is made from myriad precious ingredients. A recipe, carved in hieroglyphics, appears on the temple wall at Idfu, and refers to it as "twice-good" perfume. Its main components are honey, wine, cypress, grapes (also interpreted as raisins), myrrh, broom, stoenanthe, saxifrage, saffron, juniper (whether needles or berries is not clear), cardamom, patience (a species of dock), and calamus. Ground together and strained through a sieve, these ingredients are then placed in a mortar with "oasis wine" and made into a paste. (This recipe courtesy of Annick Le Guérer in her marvelous book, Scent.)

Religious temples such as the one at Idfu contained rooms specially designated for priest/perfumers, whose sacred duties included offering perfumes to the gods throughout the day. Kyphi was offered at night, myrrh at noon, and frankincense in the morning (presumably because frankincense is traditionally offered to sun gods, such as Ra or Osiris, and later Mithras and Christ). Statues of the gods were offered incense and perfume, and also anointed with oils. On religious feast days they would be anointed with perfumed oils up to nine times throughout the day. This is particularly interesting when one considers that cattle offered for sacrifice were also anointed with these same oils in elaborate, ritual fashion. Herodotus writes of the preparation of these carcasses, in which they were "stuffed with loaves of bread, honey, figs, frankincense, myrrh and other aromatic substances," then covered with oil and offered to the flames. This intricate operation was very similar to the ritual preparation of human corpses for burial. Humans were also stuffed with precious aromatics before burial; after evisceration of the organs (which helped to prevent decomposition) myrrh and cassia (a fragrant bark similar to cinnamon) were placed in the abdominal cavity, which was then sewn up. Cedar oil was also injected into the flesh as a preserving agent. For a more complete explication of this embalming process, see "The Perfumed Rites of Burial," below.

A Fascination with Beauty and Scent

The Egyptian obsession with cosmetics and cleanliness was reflected in every aspect of their waking lives. Their urban sanitation and plumbing systems were models of innovation and efficacy: centuries ahead of their time and a puzzling legacy, given the septic conditions that riddled Egypt during the plague outbreaks of the late nineteenth century. The same cedar used in building was also employed in cosmetics, burned as incense, and applied to papyrus to repel insects. In the tombs of the pharaohs, doors and ornaments were usually made of cedar, and often gilded or decorated with paints or inlay. The remarkable ability of cedar to resist decay made it invaluable to the Egyptians, who used it to build boats, temples, doors, chests, coffins, and tombs; not to mention using the precious cedarwood oil in embalming and many cosmetic preparations. Solomon's temple was made entirely of Lebanon cedar, as was the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World—and the last great structure built using precious Lebanon cedar. The Lebanese cedar forests eventually were demolished because of the demand for their wood. It stood for two hundred years, and then burned down in 356 BC, on the day Alexander the Great was born (whether this portentous event should be interpreted as praise for Alexander, or a curse upon him, is not known, but has been much debated).

The structures so carefully designed for maximum efficiency and pleasure housed people who lived in the lap of luxury and refinement. While the Romans were to later pervert this Egyptian sensuality into a hedonistic decadence, the Egyptians believed in an ordered, balanced existence—pleasure was a right, not an indulgence. In social situations, Egyptians employed perfumes as signs of hospitality, and also to present an attractive, charismatic persona. Perfumes were valued not just for their pleasant scents, but for their aphrodisiac powers—being scented meant you were sexy. Men and women alike enjoyed a daily regimen of fragrant customs. And the men were every bit as likely to observe these customs as the women. Diane Ackerman, in A Natural History of the Senses, writes that "Egyptian men, attending a dinner party, would receive garlands of flowers and their choice of perfumes at the door. Flowers would be scattered underfoot, so they could make a fragrant stir when guests trod on them." (This practice is echoed in the medieval custom of strewing herbs upon the floors, such as rosemary and lavender; this also acted as an effective air freshener and antibacterial agent.) Men would also crush solid perfumes into small bits and scatter them upon their beds, so that their bodies would be fragrant upon awakening. There are hieroglyphic drawings of women wearing small cones of fragrant unguents on their heads; warmed by body heat, these cones would slowly melt over the course of the evening, releasing a shiny trickle of perfume that coated the hair, face, neck, shoulders, back and breasts—this was an ancient precursor of the synthetically-derived "body sprays" and "splashes" many women use today.

Cleopatra, of course, was an ardent lover of perfumes. It has been said that she was a rather plain-looking woman, and that her looks in combination with her age would not alone have wooed the young and handsome Mark Antony. But the queen was a determined seductress. She had the sails of her barge perfumed when she set sail to see her lover; she ordered the floors covered ankle-deep in fragrant rose petals upon his arrival to her palace. Shakespeare describes it thus:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne
Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them;

And later:

From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs.

Diane Ackerman calls Cleopatra "the quintessential devotee of perfume," and offers a sensual description of her toilette: "She anointed her hands with kyphi, which contained oil of roses, crocus and violets; she scented her feet with aegyptium, a lotion of almond oil, honey, cinnamon, orange blossoms, and henna. The walls were an aviary of roses secured by nets, and her regally-perfumed presence arrived before her, like a kind of calling card in the scent-drenched wind." Cleopatra also perfected recipes for aphrodisiac wines containing raw opium and various nightshade plants—deadly in high doses but sure to induce reckless eroticism when properly administered.

The image of Cleopatra often portrayed in Hollywood films is of someone heavily made-up, her eyes ringed with black kohl, crimson lips, satiny skin. She was not unusual in this regard—most upper class Egyptians were dedicated wearers of cosmetics, both to preserve the skin and make it sweet-smelling, and to add color and ornamentation. The addition of poisonous substances to many cosmetics was common, including arsenic, lead, mercury, and other heavy metals. In fact, it was this poisoning which brought the desired effects, of small pores, white skin, glowing complexions, etc. Cleopatra was a woman acutely aware of her advancing age; perhaps because the love of her life was so much younger than she—but in her efforts to appear young and beautiful, to slow the passing of time by way of toxic cosmetics, she was no doubt effecting a rapid deterioration of that elusive youthfulness. Clearly our own modern obsession with youthful beauty, and our use of Draconian means such as acid peels and liposuction to obtain it, has its origin in our ancestors' poison practices.

This is a sample of The Perfumed Mummy from issue No. 4 of Obsidian.

Peg Aloi is a freelance writer and witch of Romano-Celtic heritage. She has been studying the lore of perfumery and herbalism for years. She is also an enthusiastic practitioner of aromatherapy, and delights in crafting natural perfumes for herself and others.