The Egyptomania of the Victorian Era: a Steampunk Perspective – Or “Are you my mummy?

The Victorian era was a time of great exploration as well as innovation, which is why it is so popular with the Steampunk genre. Napoleon’s contribution to exploration and science is often overlooked by modern ‘pop-culture’ historians, but his Egyptian Campaign from 1798 to 1801 created a fad for all thing Egyptian. The impact of this Egyptomania has lasted right up to the present, but its strongest influences were during the Victorian era.

However, Egyptomania did not mean that artefacts were treated with respect. Indeed, Capitalism and commercialism will often find a way to make economic gains without showing any sympathy or sensitivity to the historical significance of what the culture they are plundering. The Victorians, with their hearty belief that they could do no wrong, were soon making money by methods we would find horrific by today’s standards.

Martin Drolling’s ‘Interior of a Kitchen’ – painted with Mummy Brown

Mummy Brown Paint: In previous blog articles, I have detailed how painters often use quite lethal and toxic substances in their quest for the perfect pigment. But I don’t think anything can beat Mummy Brown for its historical significance; it was a tint between burnt umber and raw umber, and it was one of pigments favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites. And it was made from actual mummies. Mummy Brown paint was originally made from white pitch, myrrh, and the pulverized remains of Egyptian mummies, both human and feline. Just to set modern-day artists’ minds at rest, the modern equivalent that is sold as “Mummy Brown” is composed of a mixture of kaolin, quartz, goethite and hematite. This change in composition is because the popularity of the pigment took a dive when artists found out that – for once – the name written on the jar wasn’t poetic licence but an actual description of the contents.

Mummies as Fertilizer: In 1888, a local farmer hit the mother lode (pun intended). Due to the popularity of making offerings to the cat-headed goddess Bast, as well as to both Osiris and Isis, many cats and kittens were killed and converted into mummies. (Being the animal worshipped by thousands isn’t always the high life as advertised.) Once people figured out there was very little in the way of gold or other precious items to be found with these mummies, hundreds and thousands of these mummified felines were converted into fertilizer to be used both in Egypt and abroad, particularly England. The rest were sold to tourists as cheap souvenirs. As previously mentioned, some of the mummies ended up in the Mummy Brown pigment.

Yep. You read that correctly. The Victorians fertilised their roses with priceless historical artefacts. It is the equivalent of using cash to light a cheap cigar. If you want to read more about this heinous crime against archaeology, try:

Mummy Unwrapping Parties: These parties are subject to several misconceptions in popular culture. The Victorians didn’t buy mummies and unwrap them at social events, giving away any amulets discovered as party favours. For one thing, unwrapping a mummy makes a dreadful mess and can actually be hazardous to your health without proper precautions; very few fashionable society matrons would agree to risk having smelly bitumen and dust spread over her carpets, and possibly killing her guests. It would simply ruin her social standing. For another, those amulets were just a bit too valuable to hand away as presents.

Mummies were purchased to be unwrapped. But they were unwrapped in somewhat more academic settings, for the most part. They were unwrapped in university lecture theatres, not parlours. These unwrapping ceremonies were fashionable, particularly when Egyptomania was at its peak, and well attended by academics and the curious alike. Human beings seem to be fascinated by death and the grotesque, from the Egyptians right up until today.

Mummies as fuel: Again, there is a kernel of truth here surrounded by a lot of pop culture mythology. Mark Twain is responsible for most of the ‘wrong’ facts. Mummies were never used to fuel locomotives.

“The fuel use for the locomotive is composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose, and . . . sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, ‘D–n these plebeians, they don’t burn worth a cent–pass out a King!’” – Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad

 Victorian England never used mummies for fuel. However, in Egypt, with its lack of trees to supply fuel, it isn’t too much of a stretch to believe that mummies were burnt for warmth (though the thought of eating a meal cooked over a mummy is revolting to me). Bones do burn beautifully, that is the origin of the word ‘bonfire’.

Mummy Paper: This is another urban legend, based in America in Victorian times, but it easy to see how it might have originated. The very best quality paper is made from rags. Paper was invented by the Egyptians, using papyrus – hence the name. Mummies were in great supply, and unwrapping them resulted in lots of ‘waste’ in the form of linen ‘rags’. It is easy to see how such a story might have gained credence. However! These rags were heavily impregnated with bitumen and other less pleasant substances, and were too frail for use in making paper. As well, there are no existing records of paper mills buying mummies, or photographs of mummies or mummy wrappings at any paper mills.

Still, as a writer, the thought of mummy paper is rather interesting, if gruesome. Imagine if someone had painted on mummy paper using Mummy Brown paint.

4 Deathhacks for an Egyptian Mummy The ground up remains of Egyptian mummies got a reputation for possessing superior medicinal properties in the Middle Ages. Medieval doctors and healers believed that the chemicals used by ancient Egyptians in the embalming process gave the remains medicinal value.  They used mumia, the powder made from mummies, in medicinal preparations.   Doctors and pharmacies sold mumia as late as 1908. Picture of a container of mumia.

Mummies used in Pharmaceuticals: As crazy as this might sound, this is completely true. Many medical practitioners believed the chemicals used to preserve mummies had beneficial properties, and used mumia, the powder made from mummies, in medicinal preparations. Doctors and pharmacies sold mumia as late as 1908. Wikipedia states that ‘additional by-products of mummies include the distillation of the bodies to produce aromatic oils, such as olibanum and ambergris, which can be made into machine oils, soaps or even incense.’ I so do not want to wash or perfume myself with the remains of people; I’m pretty sure that’s morally and ethically evil, as well as sounding gruesome.

The best thing about being a writer is that you can use historically incorrect information and turn it into golden prose. Every single one of these mummy-inspired industries could be the base of a Steampunk narrative, with Gothic overtones. Personally, I am using this premise as the basis of the wealth of my villainous family in my Steampunk work-in progress. How is that for layering their characterization? If a reader can’t ‘spot the villain’ after discovering how they earn their mess of pottage, they aren’t keeping up.



Filed under Historical Personage, History, Steampunk, Steampunk Genre, writing

4 responses to “The Egyptomania of the Victorian Era: a Steampunk Perspective – Or “Are you my mummy?

  1. I have heard the myth about locomotive fueled with mummies. Rather disapointed to learn that it was untrue (and from the pen a Mark Twain, too. The villain! (The *lovable* villain, I should say.)
    As to the quality of the fuel – it would be fantastic!
    But, as in burning firewood collected off a beach, the high salt content would rapidly rust out the innards of a locomotive.

    For a long time I thought they used potassium nitrate (saltpeter), but I’ve just checked Wikipedia and that is wrong.
    If they *had* have done so, the mummies would literally be explosive! – Now there’s a plot-point.

    • There are so many exciting plot points in this research, there has just about a new novel ready and waiting just here! And trust Twain to come up with such a Steampunk concept as mummy-fueled locomotives. With extra explosions!

      Sometimes though, you just can’t make this stuff up. Mummy Brown paint is nearly as exciting as poisonous Paris Green pigment. I can see a whole Steampunk novel inspired by artists…

    • Actually, ‘Egyptomania’ is a ready made title.

  2. Reblogged this on Cogpunk Steamscribe and commented:

    This goes well with today’s post.

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