Herodotus spends more time discussing Egypt than any other nation in his Histories. One gets the feeling that he very much enjoyed himself there. The amiable and curious Greek had a talent for getting along with nearly everyone; he seems to have fallen into conversation with priests and merchants in every country he visited.
Contrary to what some other writers have said, I do not get the sense that people deliberately lied to him; I think it more likely that they answered his questions as well as they could, considering information that was available to them. In all my own travels, I do not recall any instance of someone deliberately lying to me about some local matter. Ignorance may be common, but deliberate malice is rare; but perhaps I am too trusting. But enough of these matters. We will discuss a topic of continuous fascination: the embalming techniques of the Egyptians. Herodotus’s information on these matters is relatively well-known (or at least I have seen it described in many secondary sources).
But who will object to our relating this information one more time? The source material here is found in II.86 through II.88 of his Histories. Professional embalmers did a brisk business in ancient Egypt, as this was the preferred method of dealing with human remains after the departure of life. Commercial considerations, of course, intrude even in death: there are three embalming methods, ranked from most expensive to least expensive. Relatives would confer with the mummifiers; once a price was agreed on, the families of the deceased would be asked to leave, and the professionals would then begin.
The first and most expensive method proceeded as follows. An iron hook would first be inserted in the nostrils, and as much of the brain as possible would be pulled out. What remained in the cranial cavity would be removed by liquid drugs being poured through the nostrils and then drained out. Using an Ethiopian obsidian knife (which we should remember is sharper than a modern surgeon’s scalpel), the embalmers would then open the abdomen and remove the intestines and stomach. These organs were rinsed with palm wine and mixed with crushed spices. The abdominal cavity would then be filled with ground myrrh, cassia, and other aromatic spices except frankincense. The cavity would then be stitched up. The corpse was then buried in natron (a naturally occurring mineral composed of several active chemicals) for a period of seventy days. The body was then removed, washed, and covered over with fine linen strips, one side of which was smeared with gum. The preserved body was then returned to the family, placed in wooden coffin, and placed upright against a wall.
The second method was only “marginally inferior in quality” to the first. The embalmers would insert some kind of syringe or tube into the rectum of the deceased and fill the body with cedar oil. In this method, there is no surgical opening of the corpse. Some kind of plug was used to prevent the oil from leaking out; and the body would then be packed in natron for the required number of days. Herodotus tells us that cedar oil is so powerful in this context that, at the end of the seventy days, the dissolved internal organs could be drained out of the body through the rectum. The rest of the embalming procedure was the same as is used in the first method.
The third and final method was even simpler. The internal organs are “rinsed out with a purgative,” presumably after the abdominal cavity is opened. Herodotus does not tell us if the organs were placed back in the body or removed; he only says that the corpse was then packed in natron for the prescribed seventy days, and then returned to the family. These, then, are the three Egyptian embalming methods described by Herodotus. Death mattered a great deal to the Egyptians; our historian tells us that at dinner parties, a wooden image of a deceased person would be shown around to attendees. “As this person is now, you yourself will one day be,” the host would intone.
I have to admit that my feeling on reading these passages was curiously flat; I found it odd that I registered no real emotion in learning this information. This may be because I am not particularly interested in the perpetual maintenance of my physical remains after the departure of life. One senses that too much attention to one’s embalming is unwholesome vanity, unbecoming of a man of virtue. It indicates, to me at least, an unwillingness to accept the dictates of mortality; one also detects, in these fixations, the scent of an unmanly fear of death. It does not much matter to me whether my guts are stuffed with cinnamon and cloves, or whether I am adorned with linen strips dipped in gum Arabic; and I am uninterested in pondering the merits of cremation and sepulchral burial.
These questions do not concern me. A man’s achievements are what will survive him after death; and while the condition of his physical remains is not wholly to be neglected, it is not something he should be too obsessed with. The monuments to our memories must be fashioned in this life, hewn from life’s rock with the labor of mind and hand: these achievements, and only these, will be posterity’s reminder that we once existed.
Read more in Lives of the Great Commanders: