Mummies & manias

Mummies of Antinoopolis: Leukyone and the “Byzantine Lady”, on the rotunda floor of the Guimet Museum, 1909 (Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine – diffusion RMN: Mémoire database, 284_62, photo n° 68L04036)

The 19th century is never a disappointment when it comes to originality. Here are a few anecdotes recently unearthed that revolve around the oddities that could be provoked by the cleverly staged exhibition of the Egyptian mummies of Antinoopolis at the Guimet Museum:

The cult of mummies

The first of these episodes is found in the press, and mentions the fervour aroused by the museum’s collections:

In these already scorching days, I would point out the Guimet Museum as one of the coolest places in Paris.1 Nobody ever comes there. A humorist would add that all these funereal knick-knacks that make up the macabre and charming exhibition make you feel a little chilly.

We know with what art of staging Mr A. Gayet presents his fragile debris wrapped in strips that he plucks from the sands of Antinoopolis.

Each mummy has its own distinct personality, marked by the objects that surrounded it in the tomb. One is the Spinner and the other the Priestess or the Magician, and this one a Byzantine lady. Thus they gain curious people, friends and even devotees. The Byzantine Lady is always surrounded by flowers. It is a young actress who trusts her superstitiously and comes to bring her a bouquet every time she has obtained something, through her intervention, she imagines.

Céli (de), Georges, “Figure d’hypogée”, La Gazette de France, 1st June 1913.

The archaeologist and the medium

How could it be otherwise when the very inventor of these remains attached to his publications the report of a séance?



Albert Gayet in Egypt in the 1880s (picture: Wikimedia Commons)

After having described the discovery of a mummy that he seems to instinctively associate with magical practices and interpreted accordingly most of the artefacts alongside, he adds:

All this, I had laboriously cleared up, from the comparison of texts, from the critical study of ancient paintings, from the data provided by the Greco-Latin authors; but, one point remained obscure, which escaped all my research. The role of the mirror, or, to put it better, its mode of use. I then thought of resorting to the opinion of one of the masters of occultism, and asked him to come and carry out various experiments. Unfortunately, given the present state of the glass, none of them had yielded any conclusions. And I was despairing of being able to present, if not some indication, at least an acceptable hypothesis, when, on leaving, my interlocutor said to me:

‘I will send you Mr X…. he is one of my best pupils. No one can match him in psychometry, and you will only have to put each object in his hand; his nervous sensitivity is such that he sees all the events in which they have been involved.’

I waited curiously for several days for the visit of the mysterious disciple of the Master. At last a note arrived, giving me an appointment. At the appointed hour I found myself in the presence of a man with a full face, the face as if contracted by a feverish tension. The mobile eyes, of a light blue, had above all an extraordinary brilliance; and certain sudden movements, denoted an overexcitement, which made of him a captivating personality.

‘Yes’, he said, as he approached me, ‘it is true, that I have the gift of seeing, and the land and the facts that have taken place in it, at the most remote period, provided I touch an object which comes from it, and which has been associated with it. My first vision is that of the last stage travelled; then, insensibly, I go back to the origin. Matter lives: it keeps, glued to its surface, the atoms that have been fixed there, as a result of successive contacts. These atoms also retain their own life. Each molecule, in turn, is revived. So much for the principle of vision. How is it that everyone is not gifted to perceive it? This is due to a cause that you probably know. The brain cell vibrates at a rate of fifty-four pulses per second. At this rate, vision cannot be revived. To people who, like me, have more than a hundred brain pulses, it is enough to apply a fragment of some kind to the forehead, for the thought to identify the living atoms on the surface. Shall we begin?’

I took some of the persea leaves, which had covered the dead woman; her mirror; her parchment with the magic characters, and then, settling myself at a table, opposite my visitor, I waited, with a notebook in my hands, ready to write down every word.

This waiting was not long; and, after blowing on one of the leaves, to revive the dust, staring at it, and applying it to his forehead, Mr X… dictated these impressions to me, which I relate, keeping them in the exact form, in which they were stated:

‘It is very hard, because of centuries of contact with the corpse… this leaf is all impregnated with it… it will take a moment to go back beyond. Ah, I see a flat country, with a blue sky, of incomparable clarity… There are mountains… On a hill, dominating the sea, a house with a white terrace, with painted frescoes all around, and columns, forming an advanced verandah. There are two entrances; the main one on the left, on the mountain side. Oh, those mountains; they are pink and lilac! As you enter the house, it is paved with mosaics. No doors; curtains alone separate the various rooms; yellow, with polychrome designs. Others have red stripes on the edges and are studded with sun signs.

In the middle of one of these rooms, there is a group of five people, squatting on a mat, around a large vase, made of brown earth, with a very wide shape. These people belong to different races, one is white, the other red, with prominent cheekbones. Ah! here is a white woman; her hair is blond, very well arranged, mixed with pearls… On her chest she wears a necklace of oblong sapphires.

Everyone has left… In front of the house, on the sea, glides an extremely elegant boat, with sails embroidered with gold, which look like bird’s wings. At the stern is a sort of red velum, supported by sculpted columns. It is a pleasure boat, loaded with dancers and musicians. I see the golden harps; the top looks like a hawk’s head. Ah, the shore is the scene of wild incursions. Here are men, wearing a sort of red Phrygian cap, armed with bows and spears. In the mountains, terrible fights are going on: they are slaughtering each other with round clubs, bristling with iron spikes. On the hill, there is now a group of priests in white robes. They stretch out their hands over the combatants. One has a diadem, in the shape of a bird; the others wear crowns of branches. Behind them, an altar, topped by a statue. What a slaughter! Ah!’

A tiredness, almost a suffering, was visible on Mr X…’s features. I took from his hands the leaf which did not give me the magic secrets. After a few minutes of silence, I gave him back the mirror, and anxiously waited.

The first sensation quickly reassured me. No sooner had he taken the mirror in his hands than his features contracted, a convulsive fluttering of the eyes betrayed a deep emotion; and the gaze experienced a difficulty in fixing itself on the mirror.

‘There are images of the invisible floating on this glass, it is an occult object,’ he said, in a low voice. Then, as if to defend himself, he put his thumb on the narrow lens, but a violent spasm made him twitch; and his chest bent over in a painful collapse. For a few seconds he closed his eyes; then, with an effort, he finally applied the ivory box to his forehead; but a painful gasp raised his chest. ‘It is magic’, he said at last. ‘I am in a sepulcher, with white walls, covered with low vaults, on which run hieroglyphic inscriptions. In the middle, a cauldron is placed on the ground, on a fire, which is well lit. All around, forming a circle, are five people. A woman, extremely young, with her hair spread over her shoulders, is dressed in a blue dress, with black embroidery, where I can see cabalistic signs. All the attendants are holding a mirror, similar to this one, and are staring at the centre. Ah!… There is blood spilt everywhere… It is a sacrifice… No, it is more than a sacrifice, it is witchcraft. Blood is put into the cauldron. There are bird’s hearts everywhere, pierced with a long needle… But in this vault there are no doors or windows! So where are all these people coming from now? Ah, by a sort of low corridor, which leads into the mountain and ends in a temple. I can explain everything. It’s a scene of corrupted initiation. On the ground, the faithful attend a permitted rite. Others descend through the underground, to indulge in forbidden scenes of magic. Blood! Blood spilt everywhere! Oh! It’s frightening!’

Once again I interrupted the vision; it seemed to be becoming too painful. I was sure, moreover, of the role of the mirror, and knew that it had been associated with magical operations. It did not matter, for the moment, what details of the scenes it had witnessed.

One last piece remained to be experimented with: the parchment, covered with cabalistic signs. I had recognised in it solar figures; the formula found at the head of the Hebrew texts of the Bible; a group of linear hieroglyphs, where it seemed possible to read the word Per, – opening, beginning. Without saying a word, I handed it to Mr X…, who remained silent for a moment, in a state of new confusion, and who finally said:

‘There is a man, covered with a coat of mail, passed over a red tunic, leaving his shoulders free, who is tracing, on a parchment similar to this one, mystical signs. There is embroidery around his cloak, in the middle of which I can see birds’ heads. Near him, in a corner, is a naked sword with a handle forged in the shape of a cross. A head adorns each of the pommels. Ah, human heads are piled up in a corner of the room! The man stops writing and stands on guard. The room fills with people, belonging to different races, just as earlier in the vault… The desert, now!… Broken columns… Here I am in an underground temple… Ah! At the feet of a statue, a group of women again… Scenes of sacrifice. Men’s throats are slit, one by one, and their blood is carried away in the cauldron…!’

And the scene resumed, similar to that of earlier; I put an end to these terrible evocations. When, a few days later, I saw the Master again, and told him how struck I had been by the incredible precision of the landscapes described by Mr X…, who had never seen the desert of Antinoopolis, whose slightest sinuosities he had described to me, he replied, with a smile: ‘And the scenes are just as faithful, don’t doubt it for a moment.’

Gayet, Albert, Fantômes d’Antinoë. Les sépultures de Leukyoné et Myrithis, Paris, société française d’éditions d’art, 1904, p. 52-58.

It is in fact an edition of two lectures given in November 1902 and 1903, following the exhibition of the contents of the tombs of two mummies at the Guimet Museum (I am not certain that the lecture itself took place at the museum; in any case, there is no mention of it in the press or in the museum’s publications). This perhaps explains the non-academic content of this curious investigation and the dramatic tone, at the expense of a rational analysis of the remains. However, this lightness also explains the mistrust that Gayet’s discoveries and their staging have aroused in other Egyptologists…2

A waistcoat of strips

The last story is found in the press of the time, and uses the meditations generated by the exhibition of the mummies of Antinoopolis as a pretext for an anecdote on an unexpected use of archaeological remains:

It is known that the Guimet Museum has been enriched with precious Egyptian discoveries thanks to Mr Gayet, a scholar and tireless explorer who is endlessly excavating the cemeteries of the world’s oldest countries.

Among other interesting documents, he has brought back the burials of the courtesan Thaïs and the anchorite Serapion, people who died two thousand five hundred years before our era.

It is all very well to be a vaudevillian, but one cannot help but throw oneself into a vague reverie when contemplating the remains of beings who lived in such a distant time.

(…)

As much as possible I avoid thinking about what I will become after I die, as the thought is not otherwise uplifting, even on days when one has not been in touch with the Grand Prix winner.

It would, however, be a vague consolation, oh, extremely vague! to tell myself that if I could be made into a mummy that would withstand the work of the centuries, the discovery of my person would well embarrass any Mr Gayet of the future!

When they found a body with such pure lines, a face with such a meditative and intelligent air, they would wonder whether I would not have been in my time a historian, a statesman, or a great captain.

And this misunderstanding would make me laugh from my mummy skin – with a still very vague laugh, of course.

* * *

It is not the first time, moreover, that I have been given to dream before an exhibition of mummies.

I remember that the late Charles Edmond, the eminent librarian of the Senate, a distinguished playwright, d’Ennery’s collaborator in several famous dramas, had brought back from a long and studious excursion to Egypt a whole cargo of human relics.

He had invited us to go and see his finds, and I remember that M. Henri Rochefort and I took advantage of the invitation.

(…)

To leave us a souvenir of this curious and interesting visit, I remember that Charles Edmond, who was kindness itself, gave Mr Rochefort and me a gift of strips that had encased mummies.

I then had a baroque idea, and I believe that Mr Rochefort also had it: that of having a waistcoat made for me out of these pieces of cloth.

The strips, indeed, were of fine cloth, yellow, as we know, and playing exactly like nankin.

My tailor, astonished, asked me where this cloth, which he did not know, came from.

‘It was a foreign merchant who sold it to me’, I told him.

‘You would be kind enough to give me his address, if I were in need of a little reassortment.’

‘It’s that I can’t remember where he lives; he must even have moved extremely by now!’

The tailor nevertheless made me a waistcoat which I wore for a long time and which has been the admiration of my friends and acquaintances.

Blum, Ernest, “Journal d’un vaudevilliste”, Le Gaulois, 20 juin 1901.

This post was translated into English from the French original Momies et manies, 31 August 2019.

  1. This precision has not lost its relevance. []
  2. Calament, Florence, La révélation d’Antinoé par Albert Gayet. Histoire, archéologie, muséographie (Bibliothèque d’études coptes 18), Le Caire, Institut d’archéologie orientale, 2005, vol. 1, p. 179 et 182-184. []

Thomas Lebée

Chargé de travaux dirigés (École du Louvre) ; documentaliste scientifique au département des antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines (musée du Louvre)

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