Wherein Europeans for centuries knew powdered human corpses give you the energy and strength to walk like an Egyptian…a living one.
I’ve never understood people who play with their children by pretending to eat them: “Oh, you’re so cute I could eat you up! I’ll just nibble those little toes…nom nom nom!” I’m always relieved when they don’t continue, “Now I have cute baby meat between my teeth! I’ll just use your adorable exposed bones to pick them clean…flossy flossy flossy!”
To be honest, I’m not actually worried these people are going to devour their children (at least not without some fava beans and a nice Chianti). At the same time, Western societies have not always been thoroughly opposed to cannibalism—in fact, for several centuries a well-stocked apothecary knew that powdered human flesh is good for what ails ya.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Get the Mummy
This subheading is obviously wrong, because doctors knew to get the mummy to cure a wide array of ailments. The use of powdered mummy didn’t begin as a craving for human flesh from gaggle of proto-zombies, but instead from a long-standing use of bitumen (a sticky crude oil) in ancient near Eastern medicine. Soldiers during the Crusades learned to use bitumen for healing cuts and broken bones and brought its use to Europe, where soaring demand soon outstripped the limited amount available through natural sources where bitumen bubbled up from the ground.
A medieval Arab writer, Abd’ el-Latif al-Baghdadi (1162-1231), knew that bitumen was used in mummification, and confused this natural substance with the black sludge oozed from mummified bodies. He thus wrote, “In the belly and skull of these corpses is also found in great abundance called mummy” (the Persian word for bitumen is mum or mumiya, the root for the word “mummy”). While the two substances are different, el-Latif promoted the misunderstanding that they were the same, and mummies were therefore seen as a good source of mumia when the natural mineral wasn’t available.
This misunderstanding was compounded when other writers came to believe not merely that mummies oozed mumia used in mummification, but that the corpses produced the substance: thus, when the black sludge extracted from mummies was insufficient to meet demand, the corpses themselves were ground into powder. When European mumia consumption quite literally ground through the available Egyptian and Turkish mummies, some apothecaries began using the dehydrated remains of local people, such as the corpses of executed criminals, to provide the powder.
Why, you might ask, did people turn to cannibalism—even if in powdered form—to cure diseases? The basic principle was “like cures like:” ailing body parts were best treated using similar body parts. Doctors therefore prescribed powdered skull—as well as the moss that grows on top of buried skulls—for problems with the head (King Charles II of England routinely drank “The King’s Drops” of powdered skull and alcohol); human fat for skin diseases and gout; and some who couldn’t afford powders would drink fresh blood (a 1679 recipe describes how to make blood marmalade).
Maria Dolan notes that corpse medicines declined—but did not completely disappear—during the 18th century. She adds:
In 1847, an Englishman was advised to mix the skull of a young woman with treacle (molasses) and feed it to his daughter to cure her epilepsy. (He obtained the compound and administered it, as (Richard) Sugg writes, but ‘allegedly without effect.’) A belief that a magical candle made from human fat, called a ‘thieves candle,’ could stupefy and paralyze a person lasted into the 1880s. Mummy was sold as medicine in a German medical catalog at the beginning of the 20th century. And in 1908, a last known attempt was made in Germany to swallow blood at the scaffold.
Fine Young Cannibals
It’s easy for us to scoff about medicinal cannibalism, “My family hasn’t chowed down on human flesh in years…well, except for Great Uncle Larry that one Thanksgiving…and he isn’t invited anymore.” At the same time, some modern “alternative wellness” practices are not as far removed from such treatments as we might like.
As my one—and, you’ll be glad to know, only—example, I give you the “penis facial” (and in the name of all that’s holy, do not perform an Internet search for that). The practice doesn’t necessarily involve whatever images popped into your head when you read the name—it uses a synthetic version of an epidermal growth factor found in circumcised foreskins to increase skin elasticity and smoothness. Still, it’s rooted in the “like cures like” principle: a substance found in a newborn’s skin will give youthfulness to the skin of aging Hollywood types. As Kate Beckinsale wrote, “After a long flight I do like to lie down and be covered in a mask of liquefied cloned foreskins – frankly who doesn’t?”
As wacky as that is, it’s probably more scientifically sound than drinking bleach to kill the coronavirus.
Image: Apothecary vessel of the 18th century with inscription MUMIA (Source).