“With the scraping sound of stone on stone, the lid of the ancient sarcophagus slides open. Inside, you see the gliterring burial relics of the Ancient Sorcerer-King. Based on the way he is suddenly strangling you, he is not happy about being disturbed.”
Every DM worth their dice knows what a sarcophagus is. It’s a big stone box you store a linen-wrapped CR6 undead encounter in. Right? Basically a big stone coffin. But the word sarcophagus is Greek, not Egyptian. And if you know what the word sarcophagus actually means, you wouldn’t expect to find a mummy inside.
See, sarcophagus comes from the Greek words sarkos (flesh) and phagus (to eat). Yep, a sarcophagus was a flesh eater. Actually, if you really want to get technical, a sarcophagus was made out of limestone or lithos sarcophagus, which means flesh-eating stone. The Greeks discovered that if you put a dead body inside a limestone box, the flesh would eventually disappear. Because obviously, the stone ate it. See? The limestone was really good for decomposition because it was so porous.
Meanwhile, the Egyptians, who are famous for their sarcophagi (or at least the contents), discovered nothing of the sort. In the most ancient of ancient Egyptian times, they didn’t have much regard for the dead. They tossed them in shallow pits and buried them. But the hot, arid conditions and the dry sand leached all of the moisture out of the bodies and preserved the flesh. Clearly, this meant that you shouldn’t just casually toss away the body after death because you might need it later.
And so, the Egyptians developed two habits. Elaborate burial rites and tombs as signs of status and wealth. And mummification. While the first mummies were naturally occuring, the Egyptians perfected the process of preservation. They learned that if you removed the organs (except the heart, which was the seat of emotion and intellect and therefore probably needed in the next life) and flushed the body with spices and oils, then you dried out and wrapped the thing up, it would stick around. Then you boxed it up in layered coffins, stuck it in a stone sarcophagus, and you really could take it with you. Fun fact, Egyptian priests often wove medallions and amulets into the linen wrappings to ward against evil spirits.
So, now you know why we call it a sarcophagus. But why the heck do we call them mummies?
See, there was this black, tar-like substance called bitumen. Honestly, tar-like isn’t quite accurate. The stuff was tar. Well, a type of tar. You could find it oozing out of the some of the mountains in the Middle East. And this stuff was great. You could use it as caulking, as a waterproof lacquer, as an adhesive, or make cement out of it. Some Native Americans even used the stuff to glue arrow and spearheads in place. They also thought this stuff was great for what ailed you. It was highly sought after, especially by Eurpoeans, for its supposed medicinal properties (hint: there really weren’t any). It was also great for sealing caskets and embalming mummies. And the Persians had their own word for this stuff: mumya (sometimes written as moomia or moom). And now you know why they are called mummies and also why mummies are so damned flammable.
But the Greeks didn’t call it mumia. They called it asphalt. And the best source for the stuff in the ancient world was a place the Greeks called Palus Asphaltites (Asphalt Lake) and we call The Dead Sea. And now we’re back to the Greeks and the dead. So we’ve come full circle.
So, what can you do with this in your game? Well, lots of things. Now you know that mummies contain black tar, but that every mummy also has a heart in its chest and blessed amulets in its bandages. You’ve got to be able to do something neat with those facts. Still beating heart of a mummy? That’s got to be an ingredient for something. But you also know about this miracle stuff called bitumen, pitch, or asphalt. It was the wonder product of its day and it had so many uses. Surely you can do something with that. No? Still not impressed? How about this. Another source of bitumen was a place in Persia called Mummy Mountain. So, picture a mountain oozing flammable, black tar and imagine it is a literal mummy mountain. All the seekers of this black wonder goo who fall into the tar become undead tar mummies that prey on anyone who gets too close. How’s that?