Mummy’s hung in for a long time


I must have wondered a few times why the word for an embalmed body, “mummy”, is the same as a term of maternal address but I haven’t ever looked it up, either in a real or a virtual tome.

I was glad, then, to find it explained as a side note in a book about a shipwreck in 1629, Batavia’s Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History’s Bloodiest Mutiny, by historian Mark Dash (good name, surpassable only by the name Mark Hyphen).

The book, which is riveting, very well told and often horrifying, tells of the Batavia, a ship built by the Dutch East India Company (the Verenigde Oost-indische Compagnie, abbreviated to VOC) and sent on its maiden voyage to the East Indies — a voyage on which it sank. 

It struck a reef off the coast of Australia, being somewhat off course, and the 280 or so survivors of the wreck made it to a group of coral atolls known as Houtman’s Abrolhos. 

There, unfortunately, they fell victim to the “mad heretic” of the title, Jeronimus Cornelisz, a probable psychopath, who set himself up as the ruling Caligula of the islets and encouraged his underlings to murder more than 100 of the survivors. He wanted to reduce the number of people who needed food and water, supplies of which were running low.

The most senior officer of the ship, in the meantime, had made it all the way to the Dutch colony of Batavia, in a longboat holding 48 people, and within a short time had been given another ship in which to return to the Abrolhos to rescue any survivors — and retrieve as much as possible of the 60 000 guilders’ worth of coin and treasure (more than $3-million in today’s money) that had gone down with the ship. 

This the VOC particularly demanded. He got most of the hoard back, amazingly (with the help of six divers), and rescued the survivors. He put Cornelisz on trial and hanged him alongside some accomplices right there on the Abrolhos.

The link to “mummy” is that Cornelisz was, by trade, an apothecary — the pharmacist of the 1600s. His job was mixing the medications then used, usually rather spurious old remedies, of which “mumia”, the root of “mummy”, was one. Others were fascinating concoctions such as theriac, a cure for poisoning, on which Venice had a monopoly. It was mixed in a public ceremony, almost a festival, in Venice every year (see The Diary of John Evelyn, first published in 1818) and acquired the name “Venice treacle”.

Mumia was believed to come from embalmed corpses’ bone or tissue, but it seems more likely to have been the bitumen used in mummification by the ancient Egyptians. The word for this goo was ultimately transferred to the embalmed body itself.

According to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, “mummie” is first recorded in English in 1392, derived ultimately from the Persian “mumiya”, for bitumen, and, behind that, “mum”, meaning wax (also used in embalming). By 1615, a bit over 200 years later, “mummy” was being used in English to mean an embalmed body. So now I know.

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Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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