A mummy is a person or animal whose body has been dried or otherwise preserved after death. When people think of a mummy, they often envision the early Hollywood-era versions of human forms wrapped in layers upon layers of bandages, arms outstretched as they slowly shuffle forward. Mummies may not literally rise from their ancient tombs and attack, but they’re quite real and have a fascinating history.

What are mummies?

The practice of preserving a body as a mummy is widespread across the globe and throughout time. Many civilizations—Incan, Australian aboriginal, Aztec, African, ancient European and others—have practiced some type of mummification for thousands of years to honor and preserve the bodies of the dead.

Mummification rituals varied by culture, and it’s thought some cultures mummified all their citizens. Others reserved the rite of passage for the wealthy or people of status. Since most bacteria can’t thrive in extreme temperatures, exposing a corpse to the sun, fire or freezing temperatures was an uncomplicated way to create a mummy.

Some mummies happened by accident. Take, for instance, the Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato, a collection of over 100 mummies found buried in above-ground crypts in Mexico. Those bodies weren’t mummified on purpose. It’s thought either extreme heat or the area’s rich geological stores of sulfur and other minerals spurred the mummification process.

Some Buddhist monks practiced self-mummification by spending years starving their bodies and only eating foods that promoted decay. Once their body fat was gone, they spent a few more years drinking a poisonous sap to cause vomiting to get rid of bodily fluids. The poison also made the body an unsavory future host for corpse-eating bugs.

When the time was right, the monks were buried alive to await death and mummification. Death came quickly, but self-mummification seldom worked.

Egyptian Mummies

No matter how a body was mummified, the end game was the preservation of as much skin tissue as possible—and the priests of ancient Egypt are considered the experts on the process. Egypt’s arid climate made it easy to dry out and mummify a corpse, but the Egyptians routinely used a more elaborate process to ensure the dead experienced safe passage to the afterlife.

The mummification process for royalty and the wealthy often included:

  • washing the body
  • removing all organs except the heart and placing them in jars
  • packing the body and organs in salt to remove moisture
  • embalming the body with resins and essential oils such as myrrh, cassia, juniper oil and cedar oil
  • wrapping the embalmed corpse in several layers of linen

Ancient Egyptians of all walks of life mummified deceased family members, but the process wasn’t as elaborate for the poor. According to Egyptologist Salima Ikram, some corpses were simply filled with juniper oil to dissolve organs before burial.

The mummies of pharaohs were placed in ornate stone coffins called sarcophaguses. They were then buried in elaborate tombs filled with everything they’d need for the afterlife such as vehicles, tools, food, wine, perfume, and household items. Some pharaohs were even buried with pets and servants.

Mummies as Medicine

According to a 1927 abstract published in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, medicinal preparations made from powdered mummies were popular between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries. During that time, countless mummies were disentombed and burned to meet the demand for “mummy medicine.”

The interest in mummies as medicine was based on the supposed medicinal properties of bitumen, a type of asphalt from the Dead Sea. It was thought mummies were embalmed with bitumen, but that was rarely the case; most were embalmed with resins.

King Tut's Tomb
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The long-lost tomb of the 18th-dynasty boy pharaoh, Tutankhamen, was rediscovered by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922. Located in the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile, Tut’s tomb had been covered by debris for some 3,000 years, protecting it from looters. Braving rumors of a curse, Carter’s team opened a tomb filled with treasures—notably Tut’s mummy, wearing a splendid gold death mask—that provided evidence of the most lavish period of Egyptian history.

Mummies Go Mainstream

Perhaps the best-known mummy in modern history is King Tutankhamun, commonly known as King Tut. His tomb and mummified body were discovered in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter. It was an exhilarating find yet destined to be overshadowed by several unexplained deaths.

According to folklore, disturbing a mummy’s tomb leads to death. This superstition didn’t rattle Carter, however, nor stop him from exhuming Tut’s tomb. Still, when several people involved in his expedition died early of unnatural causes, the story was sensationalized by the media—even though the so-called curse spared Carter’s life.

Mummies became more than religious symbols of the ancient world in the early 20th century with the debut of Bram Stoker’s novel, The Jewel of the Seven Stars, which featured them as supernatural villains. But it was Boris Karloff’s portrayal of a mummy in the 1932 movie, The Mummy, that made mummies mainstream monsters.

Later movies such as The Mummy’s Tomb and The Mummy’s Curse portrayed mummies as the heavily-bandaged, mute beings they’re known as today. Fictional mummies can’t feel pain and, like other horror monsters, are hard to kill. The most effective way to send them to a permanent demise is to set them on fire.

Despite being real—and creepy—mummies don’t have the same notoriety as zombies, werewolves and vampires. That may change as Hollywood releases new mummy movies with spine-chilling storylines and unnerving special effects.

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Mummies. NOVA.
Mummies Back in Action: A Regenerated Classic Monster. Central Rappahannock Regional Library.
Mummification. Science Museum, London.
Mummy as a Drug. U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
The Afterlife in Ancient Egypt. NOVA.
Accidental mummies: Mexican villagers are preserved. ScienceBuzz.org.
Mummy as a Drug. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine.