Living for ever

Mary Renault

  • The Cult of the Immortal by Ange-Pierre Leca
    Souvenir, 304 pp, £8.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 285 62393 1

‘But man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave, solemnising Nativities and Deaths with equal lustre, nor omitting ceremonies of bravery in the infamy of his nature.’ Thus the good Sir Thomas Browne, meditating on urns, and on mankind’s dealings with the last mystery.

Sumerian Gilgamesh journeyed to the Garden of the Sun at the world’s end to find the herb of eternal youth; but when he bent to drink at a fountain, a serpent stole it, proving its power by shedding his old skin. Gilgamesh, defeated, resigned himself to his mortal lot. It did not occur to him to attempt the reanimation of his corpse.

How did this macabre cult originate? There is no evidence that the life-loving Minoans, who borrowed so much from Egypt, ever had any truck with it. For them, as for the Greeks then and later, the tomb was a link with the departed shade, a place where it could be given, if vengeful, placatory offerings, or, if beloved, due honour. For immortality, a Greek looked to his fame. It was taken for granted that the dead heroes of Marathon or Thermopylae or Chaeronaea would rest content in a fraternal, undifferentiated heap, so long as their mound was marked with the monument of their exploit. Family and tribe and city would keep the individual’s memory green over the generations.

The embalming of Alexander the Great was an extraordinary exception, due to the veneration in which he was held, but mostly to the accident of his dying in a city with a large Egyptian quarter. Had he fallen in one of the many far-flung operations in which he risked his life, he would have been cremated like his father and his forefathers; his urn would have received the same pieties as his golden coffin did, and no one would have expected him to resent it. He himself had burned his beloved Hephaestion on a pyre so huge that not a shred of bone can have been left. A man who met the prospect of death by contemptuously ignoring it (thus dying inconveniently intestate), it would be interesting to know what he thought, when seeing the sights of Egypt, about its recipes for personal survival.

Dr Leca, in a rather slapdash but still fascinating book, suggests that the first mummies were natural, accidental products of sun and sand and dry air. Mystery may have attached itself to the uncorrupted body found in the desert. Some very early burials have been found dismembered. Considering the myth that the evil Seth cut up the body of his brother Osiris to prevent his resurrection, it is hard to suppose that the intention can have been benign.

From whatever cause, this clinging to the dead body grafted itself on a religion in many ways beautiful and profound, causing deaths to be celebrated with infinitely greater lustre than nativities; producing one of the strangest arts in history, and some of the most grotesque anomalies. The Ba, the soul of the dead, could not survive unless the Ka, the vital spark, was nourished in the tomb, and the body preserved to house it. At first, immortality was a prerogative of the Pharaoh, who embodied Horus on earth, Osiris in the underworld. Later it was extended to men of rank; by the time of the Persian conquest in the sixth century BC, all but the humblest beggars made some attempt at it; even animals of sacred significance, ibises and cats and sacred bulls, cows and dogs and crocodiles, were embalmed and stacked in enormous mortuary chambers. But it is the great, mostly the pharaohs, whose mortal integuments have survived to offer a persuasive case for cremation.

The shade of Achilles told Odysseus that he had rather live on earth as a poor ploughman’s serf than be king of the perished dead; but a king in Egypt was resolved to take his royalty with him. In the earliest period, this included a retinue of servants who took poison at his tomb, though in more enlightened times these were replaced by figurines. His luggage for eternity, however, still accumulated: exquisite furniture and jewels, banquets of food and wine, dancers and musicians. Amulets and certificates of merit were given him to get him safely past his judges.

But to be pompous in the grave brought its own law of diminishing returns. The dark tomb did not preserve like the dry sands. Thus began the elaborate processes described in detail by Herodotus, which in the costly full treatment took 70 days. Dehydrated in natron, eviscerated – the organs carefully preserved for the subject’s later use in separate pickle-jars – the emptied thorax stuffed with rags, the shrunken limbs often padded with insertions of sawdust or of mud, the fingers tipped with gold, the final result was wrapped in scores of yards of cloth, all this being accompanied by the reading of sacred scriptures. At last the funeral mask was fitted, to make the dead eternally beautiful. As the book’s gruesome illustrations show, no human illusion was ever sadder.

The law of diminishing returns had another aspect. The rich dead took their wealth with them, but they did not keep it. Tomb-robbery goes back to the earliest times when anything of value was interred. The explorations of modern science and archaeology are natural enough: but that men who believed as the Egyptians did were ready to rob a fellow creature of eternal life in order to steal his amulets throws a depressing light on human nature. Of all the magnificent royal burials, only the young Tutankamun was unearthed in his pristine splendour, promptly to be stripped like all the rest.

Several photographs of unwrapped pharaohs are reproduced here, calling for a strong stomach in the reader, though their autopsies have furnished invaluable information to medical science and to history, even their blood-groups having been found recoverable, settling vexed questions of family relationship. They also reveal the limitations of Egyptian medicine: kings buried with a fortune in precious grave-goods are found to have jaws eroded with what must have been agonising dental abscesses, no one having had the expertise to pull an infected tooth. It seems a pity that one or two of the more revolting illustrations were not sacrificed to let more recognisable faces, like those of Ramesses II and Queen Hatshepsut, be put alongside their official portraits. Hatshepsut seems to have had a distinct look of Katharine Hepburn.

‘Mummie is become merchandise,’ wrote Sir Thomas Browne in the 17th century, ‘Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsam.’ For physic, too, incredible as it seems that this horrible black human biltong was actually sought after and eaten. (Some dealers made fortunes by kippering recent corpses.) Yet there is, I suppose, a certain want of logic in the general abhorrence of taking in human flesh by mouth, and its acceptance when inserted on the operating table.

Despite its painstaking study of recent research, the book contains some very shaky ancient history, and no evidence of any copy-editing whatever. Hermes Trismegistus was a Graeco-Roman-Egyptian phenomenon, not a Hellenic one; Alexander IV, murdered at 13, rebuilt no temples, though some dedication may have been offered in his name; the Mitanni lived west, not east of the Euphrates; the bearded dwarf god Bes is a ‘guardian goddess’ on page 63, regaining his proper sex on the next page; Ramesses II’s regnant years are given variously as 72 and 65. The consistent accounts of Diodorus and Strabo make it evident that the body of Alexander the Great cannot have been preserved in honey, a fable whose source is not supplied. Incidentally, the Egyptian and Chaldean embalmers of Babylon did a very good job on him. Augustus, paying him a state visit, found him still handsome, though rather fragile, after three hundred years, despite his having been treated without wrapping. However, perhaps the search for his tomb under modern Alexandria should be called off. He had his pride, and after two millennia he might well prefer his privacy.