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WISE Egypt prodigal of her embalmments, wrapped up her princes and great commanders in aromatical folds, and, studiously extracting from corruptible bodies their corruption, ambitiously looked forward to immortality; from which vain-glory we have become acquainted with many human Remnants of the old world, who could discourse unto us of the great things of yore, and tell us strange tales of the sons of Misraim, and ancient braveries of Egypt. Wonderful indeed are the preserves of time, which openeth unto us mummies from crypts and pyramids, and mammoth bones from caverns and excavations; whereof man hath found the best preservation, appearing unto us in some sort fleshly, while beasts must be fain of an osseous composition.
In what original this practice of the Egyptians had root, divers authors dispute; while some place the origin hereof in the desire to prevent the separation of the soul, by keeping the body untabified, and alluring the spiritual part to remain by sweet and precious odours. But all this was but fond inconsideration. The soul, having broken its . . ., is not stayed by bands and cerecloths, nor to be called by Sabæan odours, but fleeth to the place of invisibles, the ubi of spirits, and needeth a surer than Hermes's seal to imprison it to its medicated trunk, which yet subsists anomalously in its indestructible case, and, like a widow looking for her husband, anxiously awaits its return.
Of Joseph it is said, that they embalmed him; and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.1 When the Scripture saith that the Egyptians mourned him for three score and ten days, some doubt may be made, from the practice as delivered by Herodotus, who saith that the time allowed for preserving the body and mourning was seventy days. Amongst the Rabbins, there is an old tradition, that Joseph's body was dried by smoke, and preserved in the river Nile, till the final departure of the children of Israel from Egypt, according to the Targum of Uzziel. Sckichardus2 delivereth it as the opinion of R. Abraham Seba, that this was done in contempt of Egypt, as unworthy of the depositure of that great patriarch; also as a type of the infants who were drowned in that river, whereto Sckichardus subjoineth that it was physically proper to prevent corruption. The Rabbins likewise idly dream that these bones were carried away by Moses a century after, when they departed into Egypt, though how a coffin could be preserved in that large river, so as to be found again, they are not agreed; and some fly after their manner to Shem-ham-phorasch, which most will regard as vain babblings.
That mummy is medicinal, the Arabian Doctor Haly delivereth and divers confirm; but of the particular uses thereof, there is much discrepancy of opinion. While Hofmannus prescribes the same to epileptics, Johan de Muralto commends the use thereof to gouty persons; Bacon likewise extols it as a stiptic: and Junkenius considers it of efficacy to resolve coagulated blood. Meanwhile, we hardly applaud Francis the First, of France, who always carried Mummia with him as a panacea against all disorders; and were the efficacy thereof more clearly made out, scarce conceive the use thereof allowable in physic, exceeding the barbarities of Cambyses,3 and turning old heroes unto unworthy potions. Shall Egypt lend out her ancients unto chirurgeons and apothecaries, and Cheops and Psammiticus be weighed unto us for drugs? Shall we eat of Chamnes and Amosis in electuaries and pills, and be cured by cannibal mixtures? Surely such diet is dismal vampirism; and exceeds in horror the black banquet of Domitian, not to be paralleled except in those Arabian feasts, wherein Ghoules feed horribly.
But the common opinion of the virtues of mummy bred great consumption thereof, and princes and great men contended for this strange panacea, wherein Jews dealt largely, manufacturing mummies from dead carcasses, and giving them the names of kings, while specifics were compounded from crosses and gibbet leavings. There wanted not a set of Artificers who counterfeited mummies so accurately, that it needed great skill to distinguish the false from the true. Queasy stomachs would hardly fancy the doubtful position, wherein one might so easily swallow a cloud for his Juno, and defraud fowls of the air while in conceit enjoying the conserves of Canopus.
Radzivil hath a strange story of some mummies which he had stowed in seven chests, and was carrying on ship board from Egypt, when a priest on the mission, while at his prayers, was tormented by two ethnic spectres or devils, a man and a woman, both black and horrible; and at the same time a great Storm arose at Sea, which threatened shipwreck, till at last they were enforced to pacify the enraged sea, and put those demons to flight by throwing their mummy freight overboard, and so with difficulty escaped. What credit the relation of the worthy person deserves, we leave unto others. Surely if true, these demons were Satan's emissaries, appearing in forms answerable unto Horus and Mompta, the old deities of Egypt, to delude unhappy men. For those dark caves and mummy repositories are Satan's abodes, wherein he speculates and rejoices on human vain-glory, and keeps those kings and conquerors, whom alive he bewitched, whole for that great day, when he will claim his own, and marshall the kings of Nilus and Thebes in sad procession unto the pit.
Death, that fatal necessity which so many would overlook, or blinkingly survey, the old Egyptians held continually before their eyes. Their embalmed ancestors they carried about at their banquets, holding them still a part of their families, and not thrusting them from their places at feasts. They wanted not likewise a sad preacher at their tables to admonish them daily of death, surely an unnecessary discourse while they banqueted in sepulchres. Whether this were not making too much of death, as tending to assuefaction, some reason there were to doubt, but certain it is that such practices would hardly be embraced by our modern gourmands who like not to look on faces of morta, or be elbowed by mummies.
Yet in those huge structures and pyramidal immensities, of the builders whereof so little is known, they seemed not so much to raise sepulchres or temples to death, as to contemn and disdain it, astonishing heaven with their audacities, and looking forward with delight to their interment in those eternal piles. Of their living habitations they made little account, conceiving of them but as hospitia, or inns, while they adorned the sepulchres of the dead, and planted them on lasting bases, defying the crumbling touches of time and the misty vaporousness of oblivion. Yet all were but Babel vanities. Time sadly overcometh all things, and is now dominant, and sitteth upon a sphinx, and looketh unto Memphis and Thebes, while his sister Oblivion reclineth semisomnous on a pyramid,4 gloriously triumphing, making puzzles of Titanian erections, and turning old glories into dreams. History sinketh beneath her cloud. The traveller as he paceth amazedly through those deserts asketh of her, who buildeth them? and she mumbleth something, but what it is he heareth not.
Egypt itself is now become the land of obliviousness and doteth. Her ancient civility is gone, and her old Glory hath vanished as a phantasma. Her youthful days are over, and her face hath become wrinkled and tetrick. She poreth not upon the heavens, astronomy is dead unto her, and knowledge maketh other cycles. Canopus is afar off, Memnon resoundeth not to the sun, and Nilus heareth strange voices. Her monuments are but hieroglyphically sempiternal. Osiris and Anubis, her averruncous deities, have departed, while Orus yet remains dimly shadowing the principle of vicissitude and the effluxion of things, but receiveth little oblation.
A correspondent recently pointed out that this site presents the Fragment on Mummies as part of the Miscellany Tracts with no comment on its origin. That was semi-purposeful: I thought that "everyone knew that" and if not it would be more amusing to the reader to find out for herself. The Fragment was first published in the Wilkin edition of Sir Thomas Browne's Works (from which this online edition is taken). It was supplied to Wilken by James Crossley, who probably wrote it. My guess is that it was intended to amuse Wilkin more than to trick him. It is certainly one of the very best and funniest parodies I have read, in a league with and surpassing the best parodies of Max Beerbohm. Wilkin was apparently fooled: at least, he published it and ended his friendship with Crossley in the aftermath. Anyhoo, here's the comment: this is not by Browne. Thank you, correspondent, and I hope all readers enjoy this as much as I have.
1Joshua 24:32; Gen. 50:24-26; Sir 49:15; Exo 13:19
2Read Schickardus: Wilhelm Schickard (1592-1635). Jus regium hebraeorum e tenebris rabbinici, Strasbourg 1625.
3King of Persia; in the late 6th century B.C., he invaded Egypt with great cruelty, destroying temples. According to Herodotus, he ordered the mummy of Amasis II Pharaoh of Egypt removed from its tomb at Sais and subjected to various barbarities before having it burned. He is mentioned in the same connection at the end of one of the prettier paragraphs of Chapter V of Hydriotaphia.
4 Not, one would think, an easy accomplishment, even for Oblivion.
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