I went to see a really fascinating exhibit today about Egyptian burial rituals. It was kind of amazing how much we know about death culture in such an ancient society, but the exhibit displayed sarcophagi from both the rich and the poor, amulets used in burials, jars used for organs, headrests and lifelike paintings. In some respects, our knowledge of Egyptian culture, which seems to surpass our knowledge of other ancient societies, makes us feel that much closer—and fascinated. On the other hand, certainly we don’t know everything there is to know about this society captivated by ceremony and beauty, and that type of exoticism intrigues us. Whatever the reason, Americans are absurdly obsessed with ancient Egypt. Namely, that obsession seems to be that of the mummy.
In ancient times, Egyptians believed in that one could only achieve life after death through a series of rituals and specific preparations. The body’s organs must be purged from the bodily vessels, and placed into specific compartments. The body’s soul must travel with Ra on his boat through the sky and into the underworld. The dead person’s tomb must be stocked with food and clothing necessary for life in the next world.
The American obsession with mummies seem to come from some intersection between the Egyptian belief in the possibility of living forever—a concept to which Americans certainly cling—and the disruption of the earthly death rituals in the form of archaeology and museum display. We relate to the ancient Egyptians because of their ritual which allowed them to achieve the afterlife, and fear their remains—mummies—because they may punish us for disturbing their tombs.
I was really fascinated with mummies when I was a kid. I remember an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? that featured a museum curator who had brought a curse upon himself because he had disrupted a mummy’s tomb. It was called “The Tale of the Guardian’s Curse,” and mimicked every spooky television show and plenty of mummy movies since the invention of the genre. In the end, the curator found a way to solve the case, and the mummy came back to life in the body of a beautiful woman.
That episode seems to sum up our feelings about the Egyptians: we want them to be a part of us—even to the extent that we grind up their mummies for medicine, but also fear the wrath of what our sacrileges to their religious artifacts will bring.