One of my favourite topics in Grade 8 social studies is Ancient Egypt. I loved learning about it when I was a kid, and I love teaching it now. In my opinion, there is no other civilization that has as much mystery and fantasy attached to it as Ancient Egypt. Between the treasure-laden tombs to the pantheon of gods, every aspect of life, and afterlife, of the Ancient Egyptians is captivating. Perhaps the most storied elements of Ancient Egyptian culture are mummies.
The word ‘mummy’ originated from the Arabic word meaning ‘wax’ or ‘resin’. Once the mummies were embalmed and wrapped in strips of linen, they were coated in resin to protect from further decay. While a few horror movies would have you believe the mummies could come to life, the true horror lay in what real people did to the remains—it was much worse than a campy Hollywood film.
There is a scene in The Life and Deaths of Frankie D. when the performers participate in a mummy unwrapping party. These were real events that reflected the curiosity of the macabre to the Victorians. Graves were desecrated in order to export mummies back to Europe, or North America to satisfy the craving for the unusual—in this case, the shock and awe of peeling the layers of linen away to reveal the desiccated corpse. “They went much as we might imagine. The mummified body of an Ancient Egyptian would be brought out to a crowd of onlookers and then slowly unwrapped, revealing a face that had been hidden from the world for millennia. Many found it oddly beautiful, others delightfully horrifying. Initially, these unwrapping parties were only done in private homes of the elite (sometimes even royalty), but gradually they made their way down through society.” (historyofyesterday.com)
The Victorians didn’t stop there. They also believed that mumiya or mumia powder had healing properties. Mummies were ground up and the dust sold in small jars. Most healers would have some of the stuff on hand, ready to hand out to cure headaches, stomachaches or to rub on the skin as a salve. While the idea of using mumia powder as a healing agent actually began much earlier (probably the Middle Ages), the Victorians continued the belief.
With so much of Egyptian history steeped in magical elements of life and death, it made the perfect jumping off point for a story that blurs the line between immortality and morality.
(If you’d like to read more about Ancient Egypt, Dundurn Press has two excellent books by Alisha Sevigny. The Lost Scroll of the Physician and The Desert Prince.)
Colleen Nelson is a teacher and and an award-winning YA author whose novels include Sadia, Blood Brothers, and Finding Hope. She lives in Winnipeg. Read more here.