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Introduction to Mummification

Blessed with a long, rich history as well as countless marvels and wonders, the Land of the Pharaohs always reveals bewildering mysteries. Huge volumes of research and studies have been dedicated to the exploration of the mysterious process of mummification the Ancient Egyptians mastered. Examining the dried human remains, along with the distinct architecture, religious beliefs, as well as the funerary arts and crafts, people can actually draw a vivid image for the Ancient Egyptian civilization before their eyes. Depending on the realization that every thing after death came to life again, the Ancient Egyptians hold the belief that there is a life after death: they realized the sun, after the dusk, rose again and the Nile after dryness, flooded again. Based on these beliefs, they held to the idea that a new life began after a person died, a supposition that made the idea of mummification of dead bodies inevitable. Notably, mummification symbolizes the fear of the Ancient Egyptians had of death and answers their eager desire for immortality. Such elaborate burial practices of Ancient Egyptians suggest that the Egyptians began early to make plans for their death because of their great love of life. A mummy is the preserved creature’s body “animal or human”, which may be preserved naturally or by artificial means. The oldest Egyptians buried their dead in small pits with some offerings into the hot, dry desert, but the heat soon dehydrated the corpse. Later on, the Egyptians started fashioning coffins for the deceased. However, the body decayed as it was protected from the desert heat coffins. This made the Egyptians get somewhat troubled, as they believed that without a body, the deceased could not resurrect again. Ancient Egyptians believed that there were six important aspects that made up a human being: the physical body, shadow, name, Ka (spirit), Ba (personality), and the Akh (immortality). Each one of these elements played an important role in the well being of an individual and therefore was necessary to achieve rebirth into the afterlife. Without a physical body, there was no shadow, no name, no Ka, Ba, or Akh. By mummification, the Egyptians believed they were assuring themselves a successful rebirth into the afterlife. That is, mummification was used to preserve the body for the purpose of keeping the soul, or “ka”, intact for the journey through the afterlife. Importantly mummification was not the same as dissection. The organs were removed for safe keeping not for further examination. The priests who removed the organs were able to learn much about the placement of the organs, but could not develop understanding of each their functions. The Egyptians believed that the heart controlled the body (which of course is wrong as it is the brain, but since they were unable to dissect living creatures, they could not discover this).

 

 

 The Word “ Mummification ” and Its Meaning

Preservation of human bodies after death is usually designated by two expressions: “embalming” and “mummification”. The word ’embalmment’ literally means “placing in balsam or resin”, which is actually one of the last steps of the whole process. On the other hand, the word “mummification” is derived from the Latin word (perhaps of Persian origins) “Mumia”, which was mentioned by “Dioscorides” (first century A.D.) as black bitumen found oozing from the earth in certain places. Later, the word “Mumia” was applied to the mummified bodies in Egypt. One suggestion for this is derived from the fact that from the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty onwards, people largely used bituminous materials in the preservation of the body. The occasional use of bitumen in mummification as early as the New Kingdom is suggested by recent analytical studies, but so far, there is no proof that it was widely used until the Late Period. It is also possible that the word ‘Mumia’ was applied to the Egyptian preserved bodies because of the Egyptians’ often blackened appearance, which might suggest that they had been treated with bitumen. All in all, the term “mummy” has become firmly established as a description for an artificially preserved corpse. The primary aim of proper funerary burial was to protect the corpse from destruction. That is why great efforts were devoted to ensuring the security of the body. The process itself, that the Egyptians perfected, involved a number of steps: the extraction of the internal organs, through drying of the body, anointing and wrapping in linen.

 The Origins of the Word Mummy

The term ‘Mummy’ is generally applied to the body of a human being, animal, bird, fish, or reptile, which has been preserved by means of bitumen, spices, gums, or natron. Nevertheless, we ignore the etymology of the word. As far as can be discovered, the word is neither a corruption of the Ancient Egyptian word for a preserved body nor of the more modern Coptic form of the hieroglyphic name. Notably, the word ‘Mummy’ also has origins in Byzantine Greek. The Persians, on the other hand, gave the name ‘Mumiai’ to a medical drug. The celebrated Arab physician, Ibn Betar, who lived in the first century of our era, says that the material which is called ‘Mummy’ is found in a country with the name Apollonia. He also says that it flows down with water on the side of the water courses; becomes hard and thick; and has a smell like that of pitch. He believes that the name ‘Mummy’ is given to a drug which is called Bitumen of Judea. This drug is made by a certain mixture the Byzantine Greeks used formerly for embalming their dead in order that the dead bodies might remain in the state in which they were buried and experience neither decay nor change. Bitumen of Judea is the substance which is obtained from Lake Asphaltites. Abd Elatif mentions that he saw Mummy or Bitumen which had been taken out of the skulls and stomachs of mummies sold in the town, and he adds that he bought [the contents of the three for half an Egyptian Dirham, and varies very little from mineral pitch, for which it can be substituted if one takes the trouble to procure it]. About three or four hundred years ago, Egyptian mummy formed one of the ordinary drugs in apothecary’s shops. The trade in mummy was carried on chiefly by Jews, and as early as the twelfth century a physician called El-Magar was in the habit of prescribing mummy to his patients. It was said to be good for bruises and wounds. After a time, for various reasons, the supply of genuine mummies ran short, and the Jews were obliged to manufacture them. The hieroglyphic word for mummy is [s3 hwu] Sahu and it was used to indicate the act of making a dead man into a mummy, which means to [wrap up bandages].

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    Development of Mummification

 

  Mummification in The Pre-Dynastic Period

 

Until recent works at Hierakonopolis (Nekhen) and Adamia, it was generally believed that burials of the Pre-Dynastic Period were relatively simple, consisting only of naturally desiccated individuals placed in shallow graves cut into the desert gravel, together with a few grave goods. Nevertheless, recent excavations at these sites show that by the Naqada II Period, an active attempt was being made to protect and preserve the bodies of the deceased by wrapping them in linen, using linen padding to protect fragile portions of the anatomy, and employing resins to deodorize and preserve. Further excavations at these and other sites will no doubt change knowledge about the history of mummification in this early period.             

Mummification in the Archaic Period

Though very few mummies had survived from the early Dynastic Period, they were found wrapped in linen and placed in a flexed position in rectangular clay or wood coffins, with their arms at the sides. Some bodies, dating back to the First Dynasty from Tarkhan, were placed on beds, a practice that was revived in the Greco-Roman Period in Egypt and in the Meiotic Period in Nubian. In all Tarkhan burials, the viscera were left intact. It is possible that the bandages were treated with natron and liquid resin, but unfortunately none of the bodies found from the First Dynasty were scientifically tested. The earliest royal mummy-part found is the bandaged and bejeweled arm of King Dyer – or perhaps his wife, as a female skull was also found in the tomb – which was recovered in 1900 by Bertie. In some depictions at Cairo Museum, the mummification process is completed by a priest dressed as Anubis, wearing a mask, while the mummy is laid out on a funerary bed shaped like a lion, a solar and protective symbol. Priestesses in the guise of Isis and Nephthys flank the deceased’s bed and carry out funerary rituals.

Mummification in The Old Kingdom

Some effort was exerted to create an image of the deceased using the wrappings. Two famous Fifth Dynasty examples of similarly well-modeled bodies are the mummies from the Tomb of Nefer at Saqqara. Other mummies from Giza also had an extensive plaster coating applied to the linen, creating a carapace which was also well modeled and painted. This treatment transformed the body into an image of itself. This method of mummification continued to be used throughout the Old Kingdom with a few innovations being made in succeeding dynasties. Evisceration was introduced by the Fourth Dynasty. The earliest surviving visceral container comes from the Fourth Dynasty burial of Queen Hetepheres, the mother of King Khufu. Although the queen’s mummy was not found, her canopic chest, containing visceral packages in a weak solubility of natron in water, was recovered. The removal of the internal organs rendered the body less susceptible to putrefaction. The viscera were removed from a vertical incision in the left side of the body, with the resulting cavities filled with linen after desiccation was completed.

 

 

Mumumification in The First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom

 

As with the early Dynastic Period, there is little evidence of mummified remains that survive from the First Intermediate Period. The examples that exist are prepared in a way similar to that used in the Old Kingdom. The bodies are cured in dry natron, eviscerated and bandaged, with the viscera being separately dried and placed in canopic chests. The practice of molding the wrappings declined by the end of the Old Kingdom, being replaced by simpler bandaging that spiraled around the body. An exception to this is the unusual Eleventh Dynasty mummy of Djehutyankht from Deir el-Bersha. His head is treated in a manner similar to that of the Old Kingdom mummies, with the face covered by modeled linen, with the facial features detailed in paint. This head is remarkable in that its brain was removed through the nose, developments that sporadically featured in the Middle Kingdom mummies. The facial modeling common in the Old Kingdom was replaced by car-tonnage masks that covered the deceased’s face and chest. Methods of mummification diversified in the Middle Kingdom. The Old Kingdom method of evisceration through the left flank continued. But a second method, in which a cedar or juniper oil enema was used, was also introduced during this period. The majority of the corpses that were thus treated were of Theban origin, coming from Deir el-Bahari, and belonging to women related in some way to Mentuhotep II. The bodies of many of these individuals were so well-preserved that elaborate tattoos are visible on the arms and abdomens of some women. The princesses whose corpses were prepared in this innovative manner were dried using natron, with a thin resin layer coating the skin. There were no evisceration cuts in the flank, although their torsos were, for the most part, devoid of internal organs. There were indications, however, that the viscera were dissolved and partially extracted through the rectum. Princesses Henhener and Ashayer, and the burials in Dier el-Bahari, all had dilated recta and vaginas, and some had bits of tissue, mainly intestines, projecting from the anus. Quite probably, an oleoresin, skin to turpentine, was injected into the anus in order to dissolve the organs, with partial success. Turpentine is made of resin and could easily have been produced and used for this purpose. Herodotus cites that cedar oil was used for this purpose, although juniper oil is a more probable candidate as it is more effective and more strongly scented. Furthermore, it has been suggested that the bodies might have been filled with resin from the same orifice as some shiny particles were found adhering to Ashayet rectum. Analysis of these particles, however, shows that this identification is doubtful, since all the mummies’ skulls contained brains. However, there is some debate as to whether the dilated recta and vaginas as well as the tissue projections were due to a particular mummification technique or to other reasons. Some scholars disagree with the viability of the turpentine method and posit that the bodies had partially decayed prior to mummification and that the changes were due to the decay rather than the method of mummification. However, they can not satisfactorily explain the absence of internal organs.

 

Mummification in The Second Intermediate Period and The New Kingdom

Virtually no Hyksos mummies exist, so it is impossible to judge how exactly their burial practices differed from those of the Egyptians. Much damaged by water, the few graves found contain skeletons and grave goods. Most of the information about the Second Intermediate Period comes from Thebes and provides the basis of knowledge concerning mummification during this period. By this time excerebration (the removal of brains from dead bodies) was more common; a great number of mummies found had empty crania. Arm positions become more standard: women arms lay along their sides with the hands resting on their thighs, while the arms of the men are so arranged that their hands cover their genitalia. Care was taken in mummification: an elderly woman had hair extensions so that she could be more attractive throughout eternity. Hair extensions and even toupees have been found at Hierakonpolis as early as the Naqada II period. The majority of the New Kingdom mummies found date back to the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Dynasties and include both royal and non-royal examples. This large body of material provides information about the changes in mummification and illustrates differences in mummification between social classes. Royal mummies tended to be prepared with more expensive materials and their arm positions, crossed over the chest, are different from those of non-royal individuals who continued the arm placement common in the Second Intermediate Period. It should be remembered that, along with the innovations in mummification that were introduced during this period, older and more economical methods of preserving the body continued to be concurrently used. The royal tomb workmen from Deir el-Medina, although possessing finely decorated coffins, were only wrapped in linen, not treated with natron or resin until the early Nineteenth Dynasty. This suggests an extension of the technique in the years following the Amarna period.

  Gods Related to Mummification Process

The Egyptian gods related to the process of mummification can be divided into two groups: some have to do with the judgment of the dead and others presided over and protected the inhabitants of the Underworld. The first group includes gods Haroeris [Horus the elder, who guided the deceased through the chamber of the underworld], Maat [whose feather symbolizing truth was weight against the heart of the dead person], Thoth [the scribe who recorded the actions of life], and Anubis. The most important god of the Dead who supervised the balancing of the heart on the scales, Anubis is depicted in funerary contexts where he is shown attending to the mummies of the deceased or sitting atop a tomb protecting it. The critical weighing of the heart scene in Book of the Dead also shows Anubis performing the measurement that determined the worthiness of the deceased to enter the realm of the dead (the Underworld). New Kingdom tomb-seals also depict Anubis atop, which symbolizes his domination over the Nine Bows, which represent the traditional foes of Egypt. Anubis gained some titles during the mummification process, such as “He who belongs to the mummy wrappings”, and “He who is before the divine embalming booth”. High priests often wore Anubis masks to perform the ceremonial deeds of embalming. In the New Kingdom, Anubis, the God of Embalming, was replaced by Osiris. Some tomb scenes depict god Osiris, the chief deity of the Underworld, seated on his throne, with four goddesses protecting the dead behind him. Scenes decorating walls of numerous tombs show goddesses Isis [sister and wife of Osiris], Nephthys [sister of Osiris and wife of Seth], Neith [with crossed bows on her head], and Selket [with her scorpion headdress]. These four goddesses are carved at the corners of the sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun and gilded statues of them surround the canopic chest that holds his internal organs.

Supervisors of Mummification

Mummification was a process that involved many steps performed by specially-trained Egyptian priests. Mummification, practiced by the ancient Egyptians, was used to preserve the body for the purpose of keeping the soul, or “ka”, intact for the journey through the afterlife. Because of the obvious religious implications behind mummification, the process was a long one performed by a team of embalmers and priests who completed specific steps, along with prayers and rituals that would have guaranteed that the deceased would have enjoyed life beyond Earth. As part of their religious death rituals, Egyptian priests mummified the body of the deceased in preparation for the afterlife. The process required that the internal organs of the body be removed to stop them rotting. To do this, the corpse had to be cut open and each organ removed then placed into canopic jars .In return for the task, priests received limited gains. Priests wrote down the new methods and knowledge they had been discovering. The priests of god Thoth were responsible for recording the medical knowledge of the Egyptians in the Book of Thoth. This gave detailed instructions to doctors on how to treat their patients. It combined religious ideas with practical ones. This gave doctors access to the combined medical knowledge of the Egyptian civilization. Notably, cleanliness was practiced for religious reasons. Priests washed every day and shaved their body hair regularly. This was done for religious reasons, but it had the effect of keeping the priests healthy and acted as a good example to others. Wealthier Egyptians had baths and washed regularly. Toilets were constructed with waste being removed in large jars. Although this was done to be clean in the sight of god, it was good for the general health of the population.

 

 Detailed Steps of the Process of Mummification

 

Mummification was practiced throughout most of early Egyptian history. Herodotus provides a detailed account of the process of mummification. Although relatively late in date, the description he provides manifests that when a body was brought to the embalmers, they produce specimen models in wood and graded in quality. They asked about the type of embalming required, and the family of the dead, having agreed upon a price, left the embalmers to their task. The quality of the mummification varied, depending on the price paid for it. Beyond knowing the correct rituals and prayers to be performed at various stages, the priests also needed a detailed knowledge of human anatomy. Right after death, the deceased’s body was taken to an embalming workshop, a busy place with constant noise of ritual chanting and bodies lying around in various stages of preservation. In a tent known as the ‘Ibu’ (“Place of Purification”), specialists washed the body and shaved most of the body hair as an act of ritual purification. They left only the facial hair and hair on the head. Embalmers then washed the body in water gathered from the Nile, a procedure that represented a sort of rebirth. This is because the dead person was thought to pass from one world into the next. Once the body was cleaned, the embalmers carried it to another area enclosing a further tent and known as Per-Nefer (the “House of Beauty”). At this tent, the actual mummification took place. Since the internal organs decompose quickly after death, so removing them would have been most prudent in the preservation process. Embalmers then made an incision along the left flank of the abdomen and removed these organs, including the intestines, stomach, lungs, and liver. After the process of evisceration is complete, organs were dried separately with natron and then placed in special clay containers known as canopic jars. Each jar held a special purpose and significance and each had a lid sculpted in the form of a deity associated with the protection of the specific organ. (Starting from the 21st Dynasty (1070 BC-945 BC), techniques changed and embalmers frequently placed the bundles of dried organs back in the abdomen and chest of the mummy). These jars were buried with the mummy. In some cases they removed the heart, but in others they left it, because it was considered to be the seat of the soul and the center of thought and emotion that testified on behalf of the deceased during judgment before the gods. The brain (thought to have no real purpose to the Egyptians) was removed through the nose, using a long needle-like instrument. It was a delicate operation, one which could easily disfigure the face. Sometimes, the embalmers also broke a bone behind the nose of some bodies, a procedure that enabled them to cut the brain into small pieces and to use a hook to remove it through the nose. They then filled the skull with thick resin or with resin-saturated sawdust. Once the organs were removed and taken care of, all moisture needed to be removed from the body. This was accomplished by covering the body with a type of salt with great drying properties called natron (sodium bicarbonate) which absorbed moisture and dried the body. (The Egyptians collected this natron powder from the shores of Egyptian lakes in the desert west of the Nile Delta). Embalmers also filled the body cavity with packets of additional natron. Usually, it took 40 to 50 days for the body to dry out completely. During this waiting period, somebody had to stand guard, as the body’s strong odor attracted desert scavengers. Then, embalmers removed the internal packets and lightly washed the natron off the body. The result was a very dried-out but recognizable human form. The embalmers then cleaned the body and anointed it with perfumes. At this point, the embalmers would then stuff the body cavity and mouth with herbs, sawdust, or bags of linen, and insert stones or small onions under the eyelids to restore a lifelike appearance. Sometimes, other materials and false eyes were added to make the body seem more alive. In the final step of mummification, priests meticulously wrapped the entire body of the deceased and putting a cover of linen shroud using hundreds of yards of linen. While the deceased was drying in the desert, his or her family gathered roughly 4,000 square feet (372 sq. meters) of linen and brought it in to the embalmers. The wealthy sometimes used material that had clothed sacred statues, while the lower classes collected old clothing and other household linen. Bandaging was a very involved process, and it typically took a week or two to complete. Sometimes even each finger and toe was wrapped separately before wrapping the entire hand or foot. Bandaging was extremely crucial in the process of mummification: the bandages kept moisture away from the body so it would not decompose; allowed the embalmers build up the shape of the mummy (to give it a more lifelike form); and kept everything together. Without this binding system, the fragile, desiccated mummies would likely burst or fall apart. In order for the bandages to contain the mummy effectively, they had to be wound tightly and meticulously. Warm resin coated the linen every few layers in order to promote preservation, followed by more layers. In order to protect the dead from mishap, amulets (including a scarab beetle over the heart) were placed among the wrapping and prayers and magical words were also written on some of the linen strips .Such prayers and amulets were intended to protect the mummy from any potential danger in his journey into the afterlife. After wrapping was completed, a mask of the person’s face was placed between the layers of head bandages on the face of the mummy. This new face, which was either a likeness of the deceased or a representation of an Egyptian god, played an important role in the passage to the afterlife. It helped the spirit of the deceased find the correct body among the many Egyptian tombs. Then, the mummy was housed in a suhet, a coffin decorated to look like a person. The suhet was brought to the tomb in a procession of mourners. Until about 2000 BC, these were most often rectangular boxes of stone or wood. (After this date, the coffins took human shapes and were made in sets that nested one within another. In the 21st Dynasty form-fitting coffins made of a papier-mâché substance called car-tonnage were popular. Some coffins were works of art decorated with scenes of the gods and inscribed with hieroglyphs that noted the name of the deceased). It was then time for the funeral and burial, which was often in an elaborate pyramid or tomb. The tomb would have contained furniture, food, riches, and prayers that would keep the deceased busy and happy in afterlife.

Symbolism of The Wrapping Process

The wrapping of the dead body held great symbolism. That is because covering or hiding holy objects was a significant part of Egyptian religion in defining sacredness. Thus, through the embalming process, the body became a holy image. At the bandaging of each limb, the priest read specific holy spells to protect and reanimate it in the Hereafter. The bandaging ritual was one of the most magically powerful moments in the process of mummification. Most bandages were actually re-used clothes or linen sheets, often bearing laundry marks giving the name or titles of the deceased.

 

    The Canopic Jars

Ancient Egyptians paid much attention to the preservation of the dead body’s viscera. The manner of treatment each internal organ of the body received varied according to the Ancient Egyptians’ perceptions of their significance. The brain was discarded, because its function was not understood. The heart was considered to be the physical “centre” of the individual and the location of the intelligence. Sometimes the heart was removed and some other times it was deliberately left in place within the chest while other organs were extracted during the mummification. The liver, the lungs, the stomach, and intestines were taken out of the body and washed in a kind of white wine, then placed into canopic containers. The organs which were extracted during the mummification were the liver, the lungs, the stomach and the intestines. The kidneys were less frequently preserved as well. The reason behind the selection of these particular organs is not fully understood. Each of the organs was also regarded as an independent embodiment of the deceased himself, and this is reflected in the manner of their treatment. The visceral packages were treated as miniature mummies, separately preserved and encased in containers which have affinities with full-sized coffins. Occasionally, they were even wrapped in the shape of a mummy and provided with small masks in precise imitation of the type placed over the head of the corpse. To the Egyptians, canopic jars were not just objects preserving people’s organs. Rather, they played a sacred and vital role in the afterlives of different mummies. In Ancient Egyptian times, it was believed that if you could steal an internal organ from a canopic jar in a mummy’s tomb, the thief who stole the organ could cast evil spells. This was believed because the organs were thought to be sacred and very powerful. Examination of the viscera of mummies indicates that in many cases they were preserved in a similar manner to the body itself. Prior to being wrapped in linen, they were dried with natron and coated with resin. The degree of success achieved in the preservation of these fragile organs varied. On the Other hand, there were some vases in which the principal internal organs of a deceased person were placed. These vases are called the “Canopic Jars”. The Ancient Egyptians do not seem to have had a specific term for these containers. They are referred to in inscriptions simply as Qebu en wet (“Jars of Embalming”). The term ‘Canopic’ is a misnomer but the correct one is ‘Viscera Jars’. The word ‘Canopic’ came from ‘Canopus’ which was a locality in the Nile River Delta, at one of the Nile branches. Scholars said that god Osiris was worshiped at Canopus in the form of a human-headed jar with small feet, a thin neck, a swollen body and a round back. The very early Egyptologists saw a connection between that object and the actually unrelated visceral jars discovered in the tombs, and began calling them “Canopic”. Obviously, the name stuck and eventually was used to describe all kinds of receptacles intended to hold viscera removed during the mummification process. It was important to the organs be protected in order to ensure their continued usefulness to the deceased. Their safety was entrusted to four divinities: Imesty (Mesta) (a human who could claim protection from goddess Isis), Hapi (a baboon who protected the lungs with goddess Nephthys), Duamutef (a jackal or dog who protected the stomach with goddess Neith), and Qebehsenuef (a falcon who protected the intestines with goddess Selket), collectively know as the “Four Sons of Horus”. Each jar was provided with a cover which was made in the shape of the head of a very ancient deity mentioned in the pyramid texts, to whom it was dedicated. These deities were thought to support the deceased king, joined his limbs together, washed his face and open his mouth. Containing the stomach and large intestines, Imesty jar was covered by the man head of Mesta, representing the South. Containing the small intestines, Hapi jar was covered by the dog head of Hapi, representing the North. Containing the heart and lungs, the jar of Duamautef was covered by the jackal head of Tuamautef, Representing the East. Containing the liver and gall bladder, the jar of Qebhsennuf was covered by the hawk head of Qebhsennuf, representing the West. The Four Sons of Horus were themselves guarded by four goddesses, two of whom were Isis and Nephthys. These two goddesses were considered protectors of the dead as they played an important role in the resurrection of the murdered Osiris. They protected Imesty and Hapy, while Duamutef and Qebehsenuef were guarded by Nieth and Selkis. These four goddesses are often mentioned in inscriptions on the sides of coffins and canopic chests. No inscriptions states which organs were supposed to be protected by which deity. The only evidence for this comes from examinations of the contents of undisturbed canopic jars and (for mummies of the 21st to 22nd Dynasty) identification of organs found inside the body accompanied by wax or resin figures of the Sons of Horus. Generally speaking, this evidence indicates that Imesty protected the liver, Hapy the lungs, Duamutef the stomach, and Qebehsenuef the intestines. However, only minorities of burials have yielded evidence of this, and there are a number of exceptions to the above pattern, suggesting that variant traditions may have been operating at different periods or indifferent parts of Egypt.

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