The Mineral Cocoon of a Pupal God

In the second volume of Didorus Siculus’ Library of History, he describes an ancient Ethiopian funerary practice I find fascinating. After someone died, they were first embalmed, then entombed in an effigy of gold, silver, or clay (depending on their resources), then encased in a block of glass and set upon a pillar. According to Herodotus, however, the dead were only embalmed and entombed in glass, like flies in clear amber. The idea of the mineral-effigy-as-armor came later — as an explanation for how corpses might have been protected from gross disfigurement when drowned in molten glass. Either way, if true, imagine what that landscape must have eventually looked like! A deathscape in the Ethiopian highlands functionally equivalent to Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field.

Elsewhere, I came across an intriguing, related tidbit as I tried to figure out what became of Alexander the Great’s corpse. Did you know his body was hijacked en route to Macedon from Babylon by Ptolemy I Soter? Alexander was originally buried in Memphis, but later exhumed and reburied in Alexandria. Now, get this. When he was first entombed, he was supposedly wearing a form-fitted, hand-hammered “coffin” of pure gold. This was removed at some point (NB: his tomb wasn’t just looted, it was robbed by queens and kings! Cleopatra, the last of Ptolemy’s pharaonic line, paid for her war against Octavian with gold from it; Caligula and Caracalla also helped themselves to objects on Alexander’s dead person) and his remains were re-encased in crystal or glass, like the mineral cocoon of a pupal god.

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