Have you seen my mummy?
As a connoisseur of all things spooky, it’s not much of a surprise that my favourite lesson is Gothic Legends, where we go over some of the most popular horror stories and characters in English literature. So, when I recently came across the fascinating tidbit that Victorians were obsessed with mummies, so much so that they even consumed their flesh, I was hooked! After learning this, I decided to unravel (see what I did there?) more information about the reasons why Egyptian mummies were such a commodity.
Like most things, it all began thousands of years ago. In ancient times and all the way up to the early 20th century, a substance called bitumen was used to cure all sorts of ailments, from headaches to the plague. Called Mumia in the Middle East, it was a dark, waxy substance that came from decayed plants and animals that was later discovered to have antimicrobial properties. The word “mummy” comes from this ancient cure-all, since mummies were dark and covered in a waxy material which came from the embalming process. Because of this, people believed that mummies were a great source of bitumen and began crushing up the dried skin and bodies of ancient Egyptians and giving it to those who were suffering from toothaches and dysentery.
Mummies weren’t only used for medicine; they had many different applications and uses. For a painter, mummy brown was a sought-after, earth-tone colour that came from mixing crushed mummy with white pitch and myrrh. The transparency of this colour was popular during the 18th and 19th century and was reported to have been available until the 1960s! Another use for mummies was for fertilizing crops, especially in 19th-century England. Mark Twain even claimed that they were used as fuel for the first steam locomotive in Egypt due to the lack of trees and coal there, but many believe this to have just been his idea of a joke.
Trading in mummies became very profitable, and Victorians who had plenty of money to waste would buy mummies and host “unwrapping parties”. And yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. They would hold gaudy, loud parties (copious amounts of alcohol were served) where they would unwrap Egyptian mummies for everyone to ogle and admire. This all began at a time when autopsies and operations were performed in a theatre for anyone to witness all in the name of science, of course. But after a while, all pretence of gaining knowledge was gone, and the thrill of seeing embalmed flesh, in the flesh, was a luxury.
As someone who studied archaeology and anthropology, I find this subject fascinating, and I believe today a lot of us are still mystified by the wonders of Ancient Egypt. The Pyramids of Giza continue to be a popular tourist attraction, and it is not rare to find sarcophaguses (or sarcophagi, either form is fine) and their remains within museum walls. I’m just glad that we as a society don’t practice medical cannibalism or use human remains as décor and as party favours anymore!