Hydriotaphia, Urn-Burial "Pharaoh Is Sold For Balsams"

Sir Thomas Browne

"Pharaoh Is Sold For Balsams"

Context: Browne, in this philosophical work, considers some burial urns of ancient and unknown origin which were dug up in Norfolk. He must have had a bit of the archeologist in him, since he later based another philosophical discourse on some urns found at Brampton. In any case, the urns serve only as a basis for his considerations of death and immortality. In Urn Burial he observes that these pathetic relics of men have survived but that all else concerning them is utterly forgotten. He notes that oblivion is the fate of all men–swift for most, postponed for a few. "Had they made as good provision for their names, as they have done for their Reliques," drily comments Browne, "they had not so grosly erred in the art of perpetuation. . . . Vain ashes, which in the oblivion of names, persons, times, and sexes, have found unto themselves, a fruitless continuation, and only arise unto late posterity, as Emblemes of mortall vanities; Antidotes against pride, vain-glory, and madding vices." Browne pursues the subject further: nothing on earth can survive eternity; even the greatest monument becomes dust at last. We, "being necessitated to eye the remaining particle of futurity, are naturally constituted unto thoughts of the next world, and cannot excusably decline the consideration of that duration, which maketh pyramids pillars of snow, and all that's past a moment." Browne's conclusion is that Christian immortality is the only kind for which we can hope. He describes man's inherent optimism and lists a few of the many ways in which men have tried to achieve some form of self-perpetuation beyond this life:

. . . Afflictions induce callosities; miseries are slippery, or fall like snow upon us, which notwithstanding is no unhappy stupidity. To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetful of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and, our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions. A great part of Antiquity contented their hopes of subsistency with a transmigration of their souls. A good way to continue their memories, while having the advantage of plurall successions, they could not but act something remarkable in such variety of beings, and enjoying the fame of their passed selves, make accumulation of glory unto their last durations. Others, rather than be lost in the uncomfortable night of nothing, were content to recede into the common being, and make one particle of the public soul of all things, which was no more then to return into their unknown and divine Originall again. Ægyptian ingenuity was more unsatisfied, contriving their bodies in sweet consistencies, to attend the return of their souls. But all was vanity, feeding the winde, and folly. The Ægyptian Mummies, which Cambyses or time hath spared, avarice now consumeth. Mummie is become Merchandise, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsams.