What did the Ancient Egyptians do with the internal organs when they mummified a body?

Before the Ancient Egyptians could mummify a body they had to take out the brain and the lungs, liver, stomach and intestines - these contain a lot of water and the body would putrefy (start to decompose) very quickly if they were not removed. But the heart and kidneys they left inside the body. The heart was very special to the Ancient Egyptians but the kidneys were not, and these are not considered further on this Page.

To find out more about mummification and to see lots of pictures of mummies you can visit the British Museum Mummification site.

The heart

The Ancient Egyptians believed that when you died your ka (what today we might call your soul) had to make a long journey through the darkness of the Underworld, and be tested in different ways, before it could emerge into the Everlasting Day. There were lots of magic spells needed to ensure its safety on this journey and these were often written on a special scroll which was placed in the tomb with the body. Because of this, today we usually call it The Book of the Dead but the Egyptians themselves called it The Book of the Coming Forth into the Day.

This scroll was always hand-written and drawn and was usually about 50 cm wide and up to 40 m long, and all the spells were written using the actual name and picture of the person for whom it had been prepared.

The Ancient Egyptians believed that we thought with our heart, and that our heart stored the memory of our good and bad deeds. We of course are much cleverer than them: unlike them we know that we think with our brain, and that we store our memories of the things we have seen and heard and done in our brain. Actually, most of us know this only because we have been told it: it is not at all obvious.

Our heart pumps the blood round our body. In a healthy young adult it usually beats a little more than sixty times a minute, or faster for children: the younger you are the faster your heart beats. If we are running around and using a lot of energy it beats faster than this. There is more about the biology of the heart on another Page.

Our heart also beats faster if we are very excited, or happy, or sad, or if we are doing something we ought not to be doing, or if we are with someone we love, or for lots of other reasons. Our thoughts and emotions really do affect our heart rate: we can actually feel our heart beating faster. We may say that the people who believed that we thought with our heart were mistaken, but I do not think that we can say that they were stupid.

The heart was very important to the dead person because during your ka’s journey through the Underworld your heart was weighed against the Feather of Maat in the Judgement Hall. If your heart was missing you could not be judged and so could not enter the Afterlife. In Ancient Egypt one of the worst punishments was to be thrown into a pool of crocodiles: if you were eaten by a crocodile your heart was destroyed.

Here is the Ceremony of the Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Coming Forth into the Day which was prepared for a man called Hunifer.

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The first scene, at the top left, shows Hunifer placing gifts on an offering table for the fourteen gods and goddesses who will witness the next stage, the weighing of the heart.

The next scene, underneath, shows Hunifer being lead by the jackal-headed god Anubis into the Judgement Chamber. Here Anubis weighs Hunifer's heart against the Feather of Maat. The result is written down by the ibis-headed god Thoth. If the scales do not balance the heart is thrown to Ammit, the Destroyer, who has the head of a crocodile, the forequarters of a lion and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus. If they do balance the falcon-headed god Horus leads Hunifer into the presence of the god Osiris sitting on his throne. In front of Osiris are the four Sons of Horus in a lotus flower, and behind him are the goddesses Isis his wife and Nephthus her sister.

If the heart was accidentally cut out when the lungs were being removed it was sewn back in with gold wire - X-rays of his mummy show that Ramesses ii's heart was sewn back in the wrong way round!

If the heart really was missing it was replaced with a very hard stone carved into the shape of a scarab engraved with a special spell - a heart scarab. A heart scarab was also usually put onto the chest even if the heart was inside the body. This spell was engraved on the base of the scarab.

“O my heart which I had from my mother! O my heart which I had upon Earth! O my heart of the different ages! Do not stand up in witness against me, do not be opposed to me in the tribunal, do not be hostile to me in the presence of the Keeper of the Balance.”

The lungs, liver, stomach and intestine

These were removed and put into special containers which we call canopic jars, although the Ancient Egyptians themselved called them qebu en wet, or jars of embalming. We call them “canopic jars” because when Europeans first began the serious study of Ancient Egypt they mistook these jars for things which they associated with the Ancient Greek God Canopus.

Each jar was protected by one of the four Sons of Horus, and often the stopper for each jar was shaped like the head of the Son of Horus who protected its contents.

The Ancient Egyptians would of course have written these names in hieroglyphs: you may see them transliterated (written in English letters to show how they should be pronounced) in different ways. The actual heads carved onto the canopic jar lids would be more realistic than the hieroglyphs used to write them.

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Although Tutankhamen's canopic jar stoppers were all in the shape of human heads the hieroglyphs on the jars still referred to the four Sons of Horus. Whatever some books may say the face on these stoppers is not Tutankhamen's face - this is one of the reasons why we think that he was buried in a hurry.

About five hundred years after the death of Tutankhamen the Ancient Egyptians started wrapping up the heart, lungs, liver, intestines and stomach but putting them back into the body before it was wrapped up in its linen bandages. But they still placed four dummy (empty) canopic jars into the tomb.

The brain

The Ancient Egyptians did not understand what the brain was for: they thought the skull was filled with a substance whose only purpose was to produce the stuff that sometimes comes out of your nose (“snot”)! So they made a small hole inside the left nostril and took the brain out through it and then just threw it away - the only part of the body they did not keep. To do this they used a special copper tool with a hook on the end - we even have one, because we have found a mummy where someone pushed it so far into the skull that he could not get it out again!

© Barry Gray July 2019