Golden-Tongued Mummies Might Have Talked With Ancient Gods
Two golden-tongued mummies have been unearthed in Egypt. The discovery of these body modifications may help us understand how ancient people communicated with their gods.
If ancient Egyptian mummies weren’t already mysterious and intriguing enough, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities announced this week that two golden-tongued mummies—one male, one female—had been unearthed at a site in Mimya, Egypt. This dehydrated couple joins another golden-tongued mummy, from the Taposiris Magna Temple in Alexandria, whose existence was revealed back in February. As strange as they may seem, the discovery of these valuable bodily modifications may help answer the question: how did ancient people talk to the gods?
The 2,500-year-old mummies were found as part of an excavation led by the University of Barcelona. Their tombs were found in El Bahnasa or, as it was known in antiquity, the city of Oxyrhynchus. The tomb of the male is particularly important because it was still sealed. Esther Pons Mellado, one of the co-directors of the archaeological mission from the University of Barcelona, told the National, that it is extremely rare to find undisturbed tombs.
The limestone tomb included a scarab amulet, canopic jars used as part of the mummification process, 400 small earthenware figurines, and the golden tongue, which was still in the mummified man’s mouth. The identity of the male has not yet been determined but archaeologists are hopeful that when the accompanying inscriptions are deciphered, they will have a better sense of who he once was. The quartz tomb of the woman had been disturbed and, as a result, the items inside were in poor condition. Her golden tongue, however, was still lodged in her mouth. A third smaller golden tongued amulet, once the property of a 3-year-old child, was also discovered.
While the Egyptian Ministry’s statement did not specify the purpose of these golden tongues, the ministry had previously stated (with respect to the temple tomb) that golden tongues were meant to enable the deceased to speak to the god Osiris in the afterlife. They were, in our modern parlance, a kind of prosthetic or technological device that could enable the wearer to be understood by the gods. In ancient Egyptian theories of the afterlife, in which the righteousness of the deceased was assessed by the gods after death, the ability to converse with one’s judges would have been especially important.
Though the newly discovered prosthetic tongues are garnering a lot of attention, their existence in Greek and Roman era Oxyrhynchus is well known. An excavation report published by the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1891 notes that some “mummies fell to powder on being touched, and nothing of interest was found in them except another gold tongue-plate.” It would be a mistake to say that gold tongue leaves were common (these are costly items, after all) but they weren’t unheard of.
Tongues aren’t the only body parts that receive some technological enhancement in the mummification process. Artificial eyes made of calcite or linen often replaced the soft tissue in the first millennium BCE. Though these additions are often assumed to be cosmetic, they may have been a kind of replacement for organic eyes in the afterlife. Eye loss was relatively common in antiquity and a variety of diseases and conditions could cause blindness. In some burials gold eyelid covers were found. Perhaps these inorganic items were supposed to serve as functional substitutes in the afterlife. In his book on Ancient Egypt, Scott Steedman writes that “pieces of gold leaf were placed over tongues, eyes and other body parts… in the belief that these would restore various functions in the afterlife.”
Interestingly, prosthetic tongues do not need to be magically transformed to become functional. The 16th-century barber-surgeon Ambroise Paré, the first doctor to identify “phantom limb” phenomenon, describes an “artificial tongue” that could “supply the defect of speech when the tongue was cut off.” The technology was accidentally discovered, he tells us, by a peasant man who had lost a great deal of his tongue and was drinking from a wooden bowl when he realized that he could make sounds. Beginning with individual letters he relearned how to speak. As Katie Chenoweth writes in her extraordinary book The Prosthetic Tongue, for Paré the artificial tongue was thought to restore the entire faculty of speech and language.
In the case of the golden tongue leaves, the tongues might be more about bodily enhancement than about repairing a broken faculty. Communication between deities (assuming you believe in them) and human beings is difficult. For starters, if deities “speak” in a language, which language is it? For those who made the gold tongues the Egyptian language had gone through multiple periods of transition that were accompanied by two different scripts (hieroglyphics and hieratic, a kind of cursive shorthand). Demotic, a cursive form of Egyptian, had been flourishing in the region for 200 years, which was around the time that Greek arrived in the Nile Delta. On purely a local level, which of these languages would the gods speak? How do gods communicate?
Moreover, given that language is inherently limiting, many people hypothesized that gods spoke using symbols or signs. That might mean using written symbols, but it might also mean any aspect of human experience. Nature, weather patterns, the constellations, the human body, and even coincidences were all ripe for interpretation. And because these symbols or signs weren’t governed by syntax or a narrow range of meaning they had a kind of richness and flexibility appropriate for a powerful deity. Speculation about the ways the gods communicated had consequences: if a deity can speak to us using weather patterns, how do we understand them and how do we speak back?
Viewed in this context, perhaps human beings just need a little help communicating with the gods. The golden tongues are technological enhancements that allowed deceased people to speak the divine language. Not only would this modification assist them when they came to judgment before Osiris, the god of the dead, it would allow them to participate in postmortem society more broadly.