Fragrance and Mummification in Ancient Times

Written by Leanna Serras

Ancient cultures are responsible for developing many ideas and practices that have carried over through the years into modern-day culture. Although the practices, of course, have been altered in some ways, the basic principles remain. Ancient societies first began as groups of instinctual beings, but over the years, people began to transform into more complex thinkers. These more complex beings began to have wants and desires that stemmed beyond their basic needs for survival. The ancient Egyptians are an ancient culture that is well-known for introducing luxury items and practices into history, but there are many other ancient societies that helped to pave the way as well.

When most people hear the word "mummy," they either think of Halloween decorations or ancient Egypt. While mummies are quite popular during Halloween and are most commonly recognized as staples of the ancient Egyptian world, they were actually quite prominent in other ancient societies as well. Other ancient cultures did not use the exact process that the Egyptians did during mummification, which involved embalming the body and then wrapping it in pieces of linen; however, there were several other ancient communities that used this method for persevering the dead. A civilization in Chile known as the Chincorro people are actually thought to have been the first people to use a mummification process. Although the mummies of Chile were buried in mud, which preserved the bodies, they were thought to have used the mummification process nearly 2,000 years before the people of ancient Egypt. Other ancient people who used the process of mummification include the Incan people of Peru and certain Chinese cultures around 2,000 years ago. The Incan people preserved the bodies of their people by freezing them in the mountains or holding the bodies together with vines and preserving them with a paste made from ash, while the Chinese may not have fully intended to mummify their people. It is thought that many of the mummies that have been found in China were perhaps mummified simply because of the way they were buried underground in a dry climate, though others claim that the bodies were so well preserved before burial that the climate only helped the preservation process that took place shortly after death. Regardless of the method used to mummify a person, each of these societies took a great deal of care in preparing the bodies of their loved ones who had died.

Another similarity between ancient cultures is their use of fragrances. In ancient times, spiritual rituals were simply a part of life. Over the years, ancient people found many uses for naturally scented spices and oils. The first form of fragrance that was used was incense, by the ancient Egyptians. They first began by using fragrant pieces of wood and resin that they would burn during their religious ceremonies. Under the leadership of Queen Hatshepsut, the Egyptians began to use incense more commonly during spiritual and religious ceremonies and even went on searches to find new types of fragrant woods and plants to use. The plants and fragrant woods that they found to be pleasant-smelling would also often be soaked in water and various oils. After the materials were soaked, people would rub the excess liquid on their bodies, and they even began using these fragrant liquids to embalm their dead before mummification. The Egyptians eventually began to save the excess liquid and would store it in fancy glass or gold jars. This practice is the first known use of perfume in history. The use of incense and fragrant liquids in the manner of the ancient Egyptians was carried on through the years, and the practice was adopted by many other ancient cultures, including the ancient Greek, Syrian, Roman, Italian, and Lebanese people.

While there are various differences between ancient cultures throughout the history of the world, many of them shared the same very basic desires that we have today. Ancient people, as people do today, wished to find a way to say goodbye to their loved ones. Although they used different methods for mummification, the basic thought is the same - they wished to properly preserve and send off people who died in a way that would honor them. Also, like societies today, ancient people had the desire to satisfy all of their senses, which provided a form of immense enjoyment. The use of fragrances in religious rituals and the eventual use of perfume for personal hygiene paved the way for later societies to seek luxury items. Without ancient cultures developing such practices, it is difficult to tell what the effects on future societies might have been.

The following resources contain additional information about mummification and fragrances in ancient societies: