“Mummy”: The strange story of mummies as medicine

Certain aspects of the history of medicine may seem shocking and repugnant today, but to take them into account is to take into account the changing attitudes of societies towards health and disease. and people who can benefit from health care.

In their search for better ways to heal the human body, doctors throughout history have tried bizarre and, by modern standards, often disturbing and unethical methods. One of the most troubling is the practice of prescribing mummy powder for health.

Today, as we search for pathways to wellness that suit our needs and lifestyles, we often come across practices that seem bizarre at best and downright dangerous at worst. And if the territory of 21st century “wellness” can sometimes be strange, even unsettling, it’s no wonder that medical practices from hundreds of years ago are strange to contemplate.

Trepanation, which involved piercing the skull to relieve migraines or “release demons,” was a crude precursor to modern neurosurgery.
But the twilight of medical care presents even scarier practices. One of them is to ingest mummy, mummy powder or other human remains in the name of health. Here’s when, how, and why healers thought prescribing mummy powder would be a good idea.

A carcass liquid

The practice of prescribing human remains or their by-products for healing dates back hundreds of years. Some of the most important ancestors of medicine, Galen and Paracelsus, advocated the medicinal use of human remains.

Galen, a Roman physician and philosopher who lived in the second century, “admits the curative effect on epilepsy and arthritis of an elixir of burnt human bones”.
And Paracelsus, a Swiss alchemist and physician who lived from 1493 to 1541, “observes that the body of man is the noblest of remedies for man and promotes the medicinal power of mummy, human blood, fat , marrow, manure and skull in the treatment of many ailments”. Between at least the 12th and 17th centuries and well beyond the 18th century, the mummy was widely used as medicine in European countries.

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But what is the “mummy” in the medical language of the time?

In early medical writings from the Middle East, the word, or rather its variant, mumiya, referred to a natural mineral pitch. However, over time it took on a series of different meanings for European thinkers and physicians. According to an 18th century pharmaceutical treatise written by Dr. Robert James, the term could refer to various substances extracted from embalmed human remains:

“Under the name of mummy are understood, first, the mummy of the Arabs, which is a liquid, or a concretionary liquor, obtained in the sepulchres, by exudation of the embalmed carcasses with aloes, myrrh, and belsam. […] The second kind of mummy is the Egyptian, which is a liqueur of carcasses, seasoned with pissasphaltus. A third substance, which bears the name of mummy, is a carcass roasted under the sand, by the heat of the sun: but one rarely encounters it in our country. Dr. James also described the final product as a “resinous, hard, black, shiny surface, somewhat acrid and bitter in taste and fragrant in smell.” However, not all mummy substances are created equal, as Dr. James’ flowery description suggests. Sometimes the word referred to a resinous liquid that would have escaped from the corpses: the “concrete liquor”.

Other times he meant “mummy powder”, finely ground bones and other remains, or “a carcass roasted under the sand”, as he puts it in the treatise. In other cases, mummy refers to bitumen, a substance used by the ancient Egyptians for embalming, which Dr. James calls “pissasphaltus”.

The mummy and other remains as a panacea

Dr. James also explained what kinds of ailments the mummy could treat. He lists its various uses as follows:

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– blood thinner – “The mummy resolves clotted blood. »
– an analgesic – “it is said to be effective in purging the head, against pain in the spleen”.
– an antitussive – “effective against […] cough “.
– an anti-inflammatory – “effective against […] inflation of the body”.
– a menstrual aid – “effective against […] menstruation obstructions.
– a means of promoting wound healing – “useful for consolidating wounds”.

As an article in The Lancet explains, some 16th- and 17th-century physicians were particularly concerned that many mummy medicines weren’t the real thing, that is, they didn’t were not extracted from real Egyptian mummies, but forgeries obtained from more recently executed criminals. In 1585, Ambroise Paré, French royal surgeon, complained about the counterfeiting of mummies: “We are … obliged, both foolishly and cruelly, to devour the mutilated and putrid particles of the lowest people of Egypt, or of those who are hanged”.

A controversial practice

The ancient Romans believed that “blood drunk hot from the wounds of a gladiator could cure epilepsy.” As most gladiators were slaves, the idea of ​​drinking their blood underscores the extent of the social divide: Those without civil rights provided both gruesome entertainment in the arena and a medicinal ingredient that would otherwise been prohibited.

Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, apothecaries and physicians or rather could steal the fresh and unclaimed bodies of executed criminals, and some of these bodies could become the source of medicinal extracts.

For a long time, accusations of “cannibalism” have been used as an effective slur against the tribal peoples of the Americas and Australasia. Yet for centuries, Europeans had no qualms about consuming human remains for their health, especially if those remains came from ancient graves in the Middle East.

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Although this practice began to die out in the 18th century, Egyptian mummies remained at the center of an intense European trade for another hundred years. For mummy brown, a pigment obtained from mummified remains, continued to be popular with painters in the West.

Eventually, this form of medicine fell completely into disuse, in part due to changing attitudes towards human remains, which by the 20th century had become significantly less acceptable to the general public.


Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture

Mummy as a Drug

Corpse medicine: mummies, cannibals, and vampires


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