The Horrible Truth About Ancient Egyptian Doctors & The Poor
Here's a classic internet joke for you. The setup is the following faux inspirational quote: "No matter how big your house is, how recent your car is, or how big your bank account is, our graves will always be the same size. Stay humble." Then, as a punchline, someone counters by posting a photo of the pyramids.
It's true—the ultra-wealthy have outsize legacies after they die, just as they have outsize fame while alive. Possibly, the original quote was trying to piggyback off the idea that when you die, you can't take your wealth with you. And yet even that's untrue, depending on what you believe. Many cultures have had the tradition of grave goods, in which tombs contain possessions that can accompany the dead in the afterlife. The ancient Egyptians went this route at some periods of their history, burying kings with all sorts of useful doodads.
"Still," says the imaginary source of our inspirational quote. "The fact is, all our lives come to an end. And if we go somewhere after that, that happens to all of us, rich or poor." This too may be untrue. Sticking with our ancient Egyptian counterexample, the poor were even stripped of their afterlives for the benefit of the rich.
To go on after you die, said some ancient Egyptians, you needed morticians to prepare your body ritually. They needed to preserve your organs separately from your body, particularly your most important organ, the heart. (The brain had no known function and could safely be discarded.) However, it seemed morticians only preserved the hearts of the rich. They extracted the hearts of the commoners, and placed a jeweled surrogate heart called a heart scarab, but they destroyed the original organ.
Here's the disturbing part, though. It's not that the rich received special treatment because only they could afford it. That would be pretty normal and no worse than the rich getting better treatment while alive. Instead, it seems that the embalmers, who weren't paid by the deceased's estate, put plenty of effort into preparing the bodies of the poor. They put effort into extracting their hearts and destroying them, and they wrote down instructions, warning each other to keep this two-tier system a secret.
The goal? To destroy the poor souls, to ensure the rich an afterlife free from overcrowding.
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Top image: Hunefer/Wiki Commons