Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Under Wraps: Mummies Reanimated

Under Wraps: Mummies Reanimated
By Juan Carlos Mallory

The tabloid couldn't have had a more suggestive cover illustration: the parchment-skinned head of a South American mummy, millennia-old mouth gaping wide in mockery of a smile, vacant eye sockets staring out of the page. The title caption stated something about "the mummy's curse" or some equally attention-grabbing statement, but the story could not have been more compelling. The tabloid spun a yarn about archaeologists having discovered a cache of mummies in northern Chile's Atacama Desert, the driest point on earth, or at least in the Americas, where the intervals between rainfall can be measured in centuries. As the intrepid scholars re-enacted a scene straight out of an Indiana Jones script, one of the mummified bodies, presumably that of an ancient tribal shaman, made an audible cracking noise as its desiccated mouth opened into an evil smile. Locals believed that the spirit of a sorcerer, kept in abeyance by whatever nameless spells had been uttered over his unholy body, had finally been unbound and was responsible for the series of calamities which had befallen the area as well as the archaeologists.

So much for the tabloid. A superficial investigation of archaeological discoveries in northern Chile at the time (Schobinger, 1997; Allison, 1986) demonstrated that a major discovery involving ancient mummies had indeed taken place in 1983 near the city of Arica--could this have been the cache of bodies that included the tabloid's grinning evil shaman?

Mummies Reanimated

On both sides of the Atlantic, mummification was the province of medicine-men or priesthoods, who were also associated with the use sorcerous practices for the benefit of the tribe or kingdom. In Chile, the sorcerer was both feared and treated as an outcast, being forced to dwell alone in caves or remote locations (a fate reserved nowadays for paranormal researchers!). However, sources indicate that he was served by a retinue of acolytes whose services were seemingly repaid by being endowed with the power to change shape into animal form, enabling them to spy on those who might have unwittingly offended their masters. According to Rollo Ahmed's The Black Art, the Chilean sorcerers themselves could morph into nocturnal "birds" and engage in a number of vampiric practices--cattle mutilation being foremost among them. This is a sobering thought in the light of the "Chupacabras" epidemic that this South American country has experienced since 2000.

The Egyptian sorcerer-priests, in spite of their greater refinement and knowledge, were no less ruthless than their Chilean counterparts. During the mummification process, aside from the usual chants and spells involved with the embalming and which have survived down to our time, the sorcerer would allegedly whisper magical commands into the mummy's ear so that it would obey the living sorcerer in the afterlife, performing a number of duties in the Land of the Dead.

Even more frightening to the living is the prospect of mummies being reanimated: whether accomplished through sorcerous means (such as incantations, the use of an amulet, etc.) or through sheer accident (the opening of the mummy's sarcophagus leads stirs it out of its ages-old slumber), this possibility has become another staple of popular entertainment.

Yet such incidents appear to have transpired in real life.

In his book The Way out World (Prentice Hall, 1961), radio personality "Long" John Nebel takes a break from discussing the colorful and controversial characters who paraded before his microphone to discuss an incident involving a Buddhist monk named Aung Lin in the jungles of Sri Lanka. According to the story, Aung Lin served in a monastery located on the outskirts of a small village, which was the only human settlement for many miles around. As time passed, the monk heard his brethren discussing the dark, sordid tales regarding a renegade monk who lived alone at the edge of the forest. The villagers lived in fear of this rogue personage and avoided him as much as circumstances allowed.

As chance would have it, Aung Lin and his fellow cenobites were heading back to their monastery one day when they saw the rogue monk heading toward them in the opposite direction--an event which caused the other Buddhist monks to flee. Aung Lin, being remarkably self-possessed, stood his ground and actually engaged the rogue monk in conversation, who in turn invited him back to his cottage.

The bedraggled hermit's dwelling was even less savory than the man himself, and conversation did not exactly flow. Nebel remarks that Aung Lin was taken aback by the evil on the elderly monk's features, which "looked as though he had been immersed in evil for so long that it had had its effect upon his face." The younger monk readily understood the fear he inspired among the villagers and other monks, and was beginning to share their misgivings.

Among the tales circulated regarding his erstwhile host was the one involving the mummy of a small child: at some point during his journey down the Left-Hand Path, the rogue monk had disinterred the corpse of a 2 year-old child and mummified it through a procedure akin to the tanning of leather. Through a liberal use of necromancy, the monk was able to summon forth spirits to "animate" the small mummy, which performed all types of nefarious deeds ranging from theft to murder. Once its deeds were finished, the rogue monk would banish the spirits and the miniature mummy would become another dusty object among his belongings. Aung Lin was apparently able to catch a glimpse of the tiny monster one night as he strolled down a path--a small leathery figure holding a knife in its hand, on its way to perform its master's dark bidding.

Closer to us in both time and space we have the equally disturbing story involving a diminutive mummy venerated by certain segments of the population of Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Inca Empire.

The mummy, known variously as the Niño Compadrito (literally, the "godfather child") or "Mario", is a controversial object whose worship has been proscribed by the Peruvian government. According to anthropologist Flor Galindo, the figure was concealed from 1958 to 1976 to avoid its seizure. The Catholic Church has openly declared the figure to be "satanic", given that it is allegedly capable of exacting retribution or "wreaking punishment" from worshippers who stray from the fold.

The Niño Compadrito was apparently found under Cuzco's Calle de Montero and kept in the family of Juan Letona de Muñoz. Specialists suggest that the diminutive figure is that of an ape or an unknown creature. Readers can let their imaginations soar with this last observation.

Although clearly different in appearance and purpose, both Aung Ling's story of the mummified child and the Niño Compadrito share a common denominator: the belief that spirit forces (not necessarily the body's original occupant, can be conjured by a canny necromancer and ordered to take up residence in the vessel prepared for them.

A third case will bring us even closer to home: in 1967, a young woman named Leah Marsten, a teachers' aide living at home with her mother near Athabasca, Canada, claimed having seen a crude, animated "doll" emerge from under her bedroom dresser and stand squarely in front of her, about to pounce. Overwhelmed by the feeling of fear emanating from the figure, Ms. Marsten fled her room and was later found in a near-hysterical state. Police officers could not find anything at the site. Could the crudeness of Leah Marsten's would-be assailant perhaps be due to the fact that it had been "tanned" much like the Sinhalese mummy seen by Aung Ling? It need not be said that the cultural differences between Sri Lanka and Canada are immense, but could the reanimation of the mummified dead perhaps be a common secret to sorcerers of all continents?

Mystery of the Canarian Mummies

Spain's conquest of the Canary Islands in the 15th century set the precedent for the conquistadors' behavior when they reached the New World in the wake of Columbus' three caravels. This volcanic archipelago, located off the African coast, was inhabited by the enigmatic people known as the Guanches. The island group was well-known to ancient seafarers under a variety of names, such as the Satyrides, since they were believed to be the home of the mythical Satyrs. The historian Plutarch refers to their inhabitants as "Atlanteans", unleashing a controversy which rages to this very day over whether the Canaries are a remnant of the submerged island kingdom.

The Guanches lived in a Neolithic paradise where instruments of bone and sharpened stone were still used, and pottery was available in its most rustic manifestations. Some anthropologists believe that these original Canary Islanders may have been the last surviving members of Cro-Magnon man, to judge by contemporary chroniclers, who described them as being fair haired and much taller than the Spanish explorers (the monks Boutier and Le Verrier claimed having seen nine-foot tall specimens). Yet for all their rough ways, the Guanches built crude step-pyramids without the benefit of metal tools and mummified their dead. A dead Guanche chieftain was embalmed but never buried--it was his "duty" to stand by the new chieftain to offer advice to the newcomer, and perhaps even discourage would-be usurpers with the threat of revenge from the hereafter.

Spanish author and filmmaker Juan G. Atienza's Los Supervivientes de la Atlántida (Martinez Roca, 1978) states that many scholars old and new believed that the Guanches had learned their mummification techniques from Egypt, but that in fact, the methods were radically different. "[Scholars] have resorted to historical possibilities to suggest, on the one hand, an Egyptian influence in the Guanches ritual custom of mummifying their dead, and on the other, the possibility of a remote Cro-Magnon migration to the Canaries from the Basque Country and the Cantabric Corniche, approximately."

But if the Guanches didn't get their techniques of dealing with the dead from Egypt, and were certainly too far from the Chilean mummy-makers (in both time and space) to learn from them, then who?

Perhaps the answer lies in the mummies which allegedly can be found in our own country, in Death Valley's Panamint Mountains.

A number of renowned authors of the paranormal, such as Brad Steiger and Vincent Gaddis, have written about the legends that point to the existence of a lost civilization, known as the Shin-au-av by the Piutes. A prospector, after accidentally plummeting down a mine shaft, found himself in a tunnel leading to a series of chambers containing hundreds of leather-clad mummies spending the rest of eternity surrounded by stacks of gold bars and bins filled with gold.

Those Cursed Mummies

Mummies and the curses attached to them are such a staple of modern culture that their discussion could well be the subject of a doctoral dissertation. Since Lord Caernarvon died under suspicious circumstances in 1922 after opening King Tut's tomb, a number of theories have been put forth to solve the riddle of the "mummy's curse", ranging from actual spirits guarding the dead pharaoh's tomb to a slow death by radiation poisoning due to the presence of pitchblende (a source of uranium) in the sarcophagus.But not all curses appear to be attached to the human remains of Egypt's mighty rulers. Some of the lesser artifacts in their burial chambers appear to hold mysteries of their own.

In his book Strange Encounters (Ace,1968) John Macklin cites the case of one Richard Crocker, a Londoner who was fond of spending his lunch hours combing through antique shops. One afternoon in March 1958, Crocker ventured into a certain West End antique shop and peered into a brightly colored wooden box. To his surprise, it contained five delicately carved statuettes which turned out to be Ushtabi dolls, figures employed in ancient Egyptian funeral rites. Not interested enough to make a purchase, Crocker left the figures behind and returned to work.

Upon returning home, he discovered that his baby daughter had suddenly taken ill. The man became uneasier still when he learned that the girl had become sick at around the same time of day he had handled the Egyptian statuettes. His daughter made a swift recovery and no further thought was given to the matter...until a year later when Crocker saw another Ushtabi doll on display in another antiquarian's storefront. Gripped by a sense of foreboding, the man rushed back home, only to learn that the
little girl had taken ill exactly the same way as before. "After that," writes Macklin, "Richard Crocker is hoping that he will never see another of the dolls.
And he has wondered what disaster would have happened if he'd bought one."

The now world-famous "Ice Princess", the mummmy of an Inca maiden sacrificed at the summit of the Peruvian mountain known as Nevado de Ampato, near the city of Arequipa, has also attracted considerable controversy as a "cursed" mummy. Her remains were found by U.S. archaeologist Johan Reinhard and taken out of Peru for research purposes.

However, the city of Arequipa began to experience a string of calamities shortly after she was taken out of the country: two air traffic accidents, one of which made headlines around the world and left nearly two hundred dead, a mid-air collision between two helicopters and the collapse of a high-voltage cable during a fireworks display, killing thirty onlookers. The word spread around southern Peru that the "wrath of the gods" had been unleashed due to the maiden's removal, and local brujos hastily convened to pray for divine forbearance. Despite their fervent orisons, local authorities were advised to seek the return of the "Ice Princess" post haste.

But rather than risk public ridicule by citing the reasons given by the brujos, local leaders chose to cite financial reasons. "If the mummy were here, we might get some tourists," said Antonio Jiménez, mayor of Cabanaconde, a hamlet in the foothills of the massive Nevado de Ampato. Others cited the fact that museums around the world were charging an admission to see their "ancestor" and that the mountain people were not benefitting from it at all.

Neither were the museums. Perhaps Mayor Jiménez would have been startled to read that the "Ice Princess" had been de-accessioned (removed from display) from the Everhart Museum. Museum authorities cited the need to comply with the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act of 1992, which mandates the immediate return of Native American human remains to their respective tribes for immediate burial. Thus, the Everhart collection had a mummy that could neither be photographed nor displayed, and which further had to be repatriated: what greater curse than bureaucratic entanglements?

Peru's mummies appear to be unusually troublesome. Curtis A. Rowlett, writing in Strange Magazine (Spring-Summer 1992) mentions a curious personal experience involving a 1989 conversation with a man who had turned down an offer--extended by a Peruvian aviator--to visit a cave in the vicinity of the Nazca Plains which allegedly contained five small glowing mummies. The aviator had remarked about the hazards involved in touching the mummies: those who did so developed sores on their hands "or anyplace else that came in contact with the mummies."

Could Some Mummies be Alive?

In February 1954, Chilean muleteer Luis Gerardo Rios and his nephew Jaime were transiting the slopes of the towering El Plomo mountain at an elevation of 16,400 feet above sea level. Their high-altitude journey took them through an ice field where their eyes caught the alluring glint of gold through the Andean snow. Digging for more of this godsent wealth, the two men were startled to find a body near the treasure trove: the frozen body of an 8 year-old boy whose black hair was coiffed into a complicated hairdo. The child was in a kneeling position with his hands on his knees--the prayerful stance of the ancient Incas.

Realizing the opportunity at hand, Rios and his nephew decided that the frozen mummy could in fact represent a much greater windfall to them than the baubles that had been left in the snow alongside him. They carefully extracted the Inca boy from his ice chamber and took him down to Piedra Numerada, a cavern located at a more accessible altitude of thirteen thousand feet, storing the mummy while plans were made to contact Greste Mosny, curator of the Museum of Natural History in Santiago de Chile. A reasonable price was reached, but the anthropologist and her staff demanded to see the mummy before turning over a fortune in escudos to the mule driver. A month and a half after the discovery was made, specialists from the museum laid their eyes on the most perfect specimen they had ever seen, being so impressed that they agreed that any amount disbursed would indeed be a paltry sum for the purchase.

But something very odd had happened in the meantime.

According to Rios, the muleteer, the frozen eight year-old had weighed 114 pounds when removed from the dizzying heights where he was buried. In the month and a half that transpired between discovery and final agreement with the museum staff, the mummy's weight had dropped to some fifty pounds. Rios remarked offhandedly that the mummified boy began bleeding from the ears and "dripping oil" as he was brought down the mountain. Spanish biologist García Beltrán noted that this was incontrovertible proof that the boy was indeed alive, and in a state of what we would nowadays call cryogenic suspension.

García Beltrán stressed the point that the Inca boy was not a mummy--he had not been embalmed in any shape or form. His facial features, skin, and internal organs suggest that he was merely frozen at an ideal altitude: high enough to avoid decomposition, but not so high as to have extreme cold ruin the body.

Museum authorities agreed with the biologist's conclusion after making a curious discovery among the funeral cache--a bag of coca leaves, suggesting that the boy had been made to consume the narcotic in order to fall asleep and slip painlessly into "suspended animation."

Experts wondered if the Incas had indeed mastered the technique of preserving bodies for centuries, perhaps in the hope future men might be able to reanimating them some day through the right combination of either potions or spells.

Journalist Osvaldo Murray suggests that the "death" of the Inca boy on account of improper handling may have been excusable, but the discovery of another frozen child, removed from its icy sepulchre without proper precautions, was tantamount to murder. Murray made reference to the 1985 case of a frozen boy found near the summit of Aconcagua, the loftiest Andean peak, by a team of Argentinean mountain climbers. Discovered at the same sixteen thousand-foot elevation as the Inca boy, the team brought their find down from the mountain, where it was taken to the city of Mendoza. Nothing further was ever heard about it.

The journalist believes that a careful investigation of similar altitudes throughout the Andean range might yield even more ancient bodies awaiting resurrection in an unlikely future...


On Saturday, March 3, 2001, the Venezuelan town of San Cristobal in the state of Tachira finally buried the mummified body of man who died some 40 years ago. His remains, which had been attributed magical properties and become a source of veneration for the locals, were buried in a family grave. No one appeared quite certain about who the man had been in life: the mummy went by the nickname Cánchica and was buried in 1961, only to be disinterred in 1981 and transferred to the local cemetery's ossuary. Given its remarkable state of preservation, the mummy was believed to be miraculous by some and diabolical to others. Cánchica's face was partly disfigured by the stones hurled against it by persons holding the latter belief.

Cuauhtemoc Guerrera, a forensic pathologist with the San Cristobal Central Hospital, explained Cánchica's mummification as being due to environmental factors, the material with which his coffin was built, and perhaps even the man's dietary habits. But his learned explanations did little to suppress the aura of superstition surrounding the mummy.

The living have always felt a morbid fascination for the dead, as exemplified by funeral customs going back to the Neolithic period, periodic exhumations to inspect the body's progress, and the "Days of the Dead" held in many cultures. But perhaps no other aspect of lifelessness has intrigued us more than mummies and the complex, often downright bizarre practice of mummification--a strangeness that has imbued it with negative associations.

Whether swathed in bandages or left out in the sun to dry, mummies have been a constant reminder of the human need to believe in an afterlife. Popular culture embraced mummies in the 1920's with the discovery of the Pharaoh Tutankhamen's tomb and the subsequent "curse" attached to said find, immortalized in dozens of motion pictures in several languages. More recently, audiences have thrilled to the computer-generated exploits of The Mummy (1999) and a recent episode of the popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show introduced us to Empada, a Peruvian mummy-turned-exchange student who, like all the undead, must kill to stay alive.

While reams of paper have been churned out regarding the likelihood of "mummies curses" or their utter implausibility, there are nonetheless certain instances in which someone or something appears to be occupying these lifeless husks...