Saturday, 20 March 2010

Quest for Immortality

Throughout history, men have been obsessed with the quest for immortality, especially those in possession of great power and were held in high esteem. In recent years, we have the example of Chairman Mao, whose embalmed body is still on display in Beijing. From ancient times, the stories of Emperor Qin's fanatic search for the elixir of immortality are passed down from one generation to the next and many have seen his extensive terracotta army buried underground for his posthumous command. And long before that in the ancient Egyptian civilisation, bodies were desiccated and preserved for reunification with their spirits in the afterlife.

To put into modern day perspective, the fuss surrounding the ancient Egyptian's funerary procedures seems redundant. From building a pyramid to mummifying a body, to the complex rituals being performed, those were done to prepare the deceased for smooth transition into an afterlife, which I am not sure really does exist. Mummificiation itself was an elaborated process, grotesque if I may say, where brain was drawn out through the nostrils and organs pulled out from only a 3 inch long incision at the flank. Why the intricacy? Surely a simple surgical procedure would have quite easily achieved the same result. Even if surgery was not so advanced at that time, it would have been a more straightforward task if bigger slits were made on the cadaver, did not matter if that inflicted lacerated wounds.

But it did matter, not just cosmetically but every other minute details in the mummification process. The ancient Egyptians viewed the afterlife as sacrosanct and out of respect for the deceased, the body must be preserved as complete as possible. The importance of the afterlife to an Egyptian is most appropriately summarised in the following statement:

Sure, everyone likes to look pretty while he/she is "alive".

My favourite in the Quest for Immortality exhibition at the National Museum is the showcase of mummies. To me they are mysterious and bizzare, creepy but intriguing. After attending a 90 minute lecture on mummification, I am totally an expert non-professional embalmer! All I need is a twisted clothe hanger (for whisking up the brain then extracting it), an Ethiopian stone (obsidian knife made of volcanic glass; if not available I will improvise with a scalpel), 400 pounds of natron (similar to a composition of 60% baking soda 40% table salt), 50 yards of untreated linen (available today only in Ireland), some resin (for gluing the bandage together), a tent in an open space and 70 days... plus the guts of a hippopotamus so that I will not faint haha!

A mummy from several centuries BC (I forgot the year). The black stone-liked items on the mummy's chest are scarab amulets (scarabs being the black beetles that Rick and Evelyn O'Connell often encountered in the Egyptian tombs). These amulets protected the heart against betrayal.

The heart was regarded as most sacred in ancient Egyptian culture for it was believed that in there intelligence resided. The "Book of the Death" dedicated chapters to ensure that the heart was never to be separated from the body. According to the Book of the Death, the heart of a deceased would be weighed against the "feather of truth" (symbolically). If the heart was heavier, it would mean that the person was not pure (evil, hence with a heavy heart) and would be denied to enter the afterlife.

The ancient Egyptians believed that one thinks with the heart, not with the brain. That was probably why the brain was callously removed and disposed during the mummification process while the heart kept intact. Given our understanding today, would we have done the reverse? The other organs such as stomach, intestines, lungs and liver were kept in the canopic jars with carvings of heads of the 4 gods, responsible for guarding each organ.

This is a marvellous piece from 700-600 BC. The outer casing looks like a piece of thin wood or plastic but is actually the wrapping of untreated linen painted over with resin (called the cartonnage cover). As the resin dried up, the linen hardened and was then decorated with drawings of gods, patterns and hieroglyphic spells.

A closer look at how delicate the drawings are and the colours remained vivid after 2,700 years.

Mummified cat (you probably can't tell because it has been "elongated" by the lousy photographer).

Other interesting exhibits at the museum include artifacts found in burial tombs, statues of ancient Egyptian gods, hieroglyphic inscriptions.

Tomb carvings representing the replicas of the deceased, though not necessary to bear facial or physical resemblance.

Inscription in Hieratic, a cursive script derived from hieroglyph for quick writing in day-to-day activities such financial accounts. Thank goodness... can you imagine booking keeping in hieroglyph otherwise?

Statue of an elephant in motion (only 3 pieces in the world), very rare as most other Egyptian statues were carved in static. And the sphinx of a royalty distinguished by his elaborate headdress.

Probably the oldest artifact I have ever seen... dated 3100 BC! It is very tiny, less than 10cm carved out of a hippo ivory (hmm... why carve small statue out of big tusk?).

Colour palette for cosmetics in the shape of fish (believed to be a tuna) and tiny container with stick for eye makeup.

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