Europeans were so fascinated with Egyptian mummies and thrilled at the chance to buy them that they were destined to do something weird with them. Not only did they end up eating ancient Egyptian mummies, but they also began to party with them, unwrapping them in public or even at private social gatherings. What you may not have realized is that eating ancient Egyptian mummies was once a European remedy.
Mummies get their name from the Arabic term mumiya or mummia, which not only means an “embalmed corpse” but also refers to pissasphalt, a natural substance that has been used in Islamic medicine for many generations. Europeans learned about using mummia as medicine during the crusades and started treating it as medicine. Soon, it was being shipped all across Europe to be used to cure serious diseases.
The Story Behind Mummia Being Used as Medicine
Bitumen looked a lot like pissasphalt and was used for the ancient Egyptian mummification process. It wasn’t long before Europeans started to call it mummia and soon they began to think that mummia referred to the real mummies as well. This chain of events meant that from the 12th to the 17th century Europeans would buy mummies and grind them into powder for use as medicine.
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Mummia was consumed with honey to make it more palatable to swallow or directly applied it over a wound to cure any injury. They counted on it to heal or cure many diseases, and different parts of the mummy were believed to cure different ailments. For instance, if people are having skin problems, they were supposed to grind the mummy’s skin and ingest it. Grinding up mummy skull was considered a cure for headaches.
Hence, it is said that the Europeans were taking part in their own form of cannibalism and continued to do so for centuries. This habit of eating human remains was particularly popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, whereby Europeans treated the human remains as integral medicine for curing almost all diseases. But apart from that, they also had some spiritual beliefs related to consuming mummies.
Europeans believed that the human body possessed the spirit of that person. So, eating human remains would give them their strength as well. At that time, certain individuals including scientists, priests, and even Royalty, consumed medicines made out of human blood, fat, and bones. This led to grave robbing became a prominent issue around the region, and high prices were paid for the body parts that came from Egyptian mummies.
The mummy remains were crumbled and ground into powder form to mix with chocolate and alcohol. It was said that such combinations were medicinal, and that these mortal mixtures could also cure internal bleeding and headaches. Mummia lost its favor as medicine in the 18th century, when people finally understood that it’s consumption was curing nothing at all. Nevertheless, it was still included in some medical catalogs that date back to 1928.
Even after the downfall of human corpse consumption, there is still archival evidence of a few cases of consumption of corpse medicine. In 1847, an Englishman was advised to combine the skull of a young woman with molasses or treacle to heal his daughter’s epilepsy. In his Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, Richard Sugg explained that the man fed the concoction to his daughter but it had no effect and did not cure her epilepsy. The last use of human corpses for a medicinal use, according to Sugg, took place in 1908. When human blood was swallowed “at the scaffold.”
What Stopped Europeans Doing Weird Things With Mummies?
Medicine was not the only bizarre way in which Europeans used mummies. Mummies were also ground up and blended with chemicals to create a special paint known as mummy brown, used by artists between the 16th and 19th centuries. It was popular due to its particular quality which helped for creating tinted shadows or glass effects in Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Mummy brown paint, which was made using the powder of real mummies, was still available for purchase till the 1930s.
Common sense finally won the day when Europeans began to realize that not only were mummies useless at healing disease, but that it was also pretty disgusting to use human remains for pointless placebos and brown paint. This new consciousness combined with a lack of supply as people began to understand the historic and archaeological value of Egyptian mummies.
Ancient Egyptian mummies are not a renewable resource. It therefore became increasingly difficult for Europeans to get their hands on mummies for their weird experiments and to create mummia. Gladly, the practice of using mummies for these odd objectives came to a grinding halt, affording archaeologists the opportunity to learn more about our past through the study of mummies.
Blood transfusions, skin grafts, organ transplants, and other such treatments are all used in medicine today, but they are all scientifically proven methods for healing medical conditions. Meanwhile, eating ancient Egyptian mummies, in any shape or form, has never been a helpful way of healing disease. Their use as a cure shows the extremes humans can go to without access to true scientific knowledge.
Top image: Europeans once used mummia, made of ancient Egyptian mummies, as a cure for disease. The Ahmose Mummy at Luxor Museum in Egypt. Source: Tim Adams / CC BY 3.0
By Bipin Dimri
Carr, M. 12 October 2014. “Mummies and the Usefulness of Death” in Science History Institute. Available at: https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/mummies-and-the-usefulness-of-death
Dolan, M. 6 May 2012. “The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine” in Smithsonian Magazine. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-gruesome-history-of-eating-corpses-as-medicine-82360284/
Sugg, R. 2015. Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. Routledge.
White, F. 17 June 2014. “5 surprising facts about historical figures” in History Answers. Available at: https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/people-politics/5-surprising-facts-about-historical-figures/