The Curious History of Mummies as Medicine: When Physicians Used to Prescribe Mummies

The Chronicles of Yesterday
Mummy man with hair in style of Hadrian wood, cartonnage gold Manchester MuseumPhoto bycommons.wikimedia

The history of medicine is adorned with strange practices and outlandish avenues to health. Indeed, much of our understanding of medicine is relatively modern, being discovered and formulated across the last two centuries.

Before germ theory and evidence-based medicine arose, most doctors and healers relied on treatments that we consider unorthodox. An example of such a treatment can be found in bloodletting, which was supposed to restore balance in the body’s four senses of humor.

Of course, we know now that bleeding a sick person will likely worsen their condition. However, it took us centuries before we realized the theory of the four senses of humor was bogus, and people were routinely bled as a cure for their illnesses! Despite the counter-productive nature of bloodletting, it is not nearly as shocking as some other popular treatments.

Today, we’ll be looking at the practice of eating mummies to cure various ailments, a technique that was in vogue until the 17th Century!

A Mummified Meal

From the 12th to the 17th Century, Europe was enveloped in a craze surrounding mummies and their purported health benefits. It was said that consuming certain parts of these mummies could relieve various illnesses.

A viral treatment in mummy medicine was ingesting the black, sticky substance found in mummified corpses, mistakenly thought of as bitumen or asphalt. The Europeans thought bitumen had remarkable healing properties, a notion propagated from ancient Rome.

Specifically, Pliny the Elder (roman author) thought bitumen could cure many diseases and recommended ingesting bitumen mixed with wine to soothe a stubborn cough. Bitumen was a scarce resource in Europe, and Egyptian mummies proved to be gold mines for savvy investors.

Called Mumia in Europe, it became a staple of apothecaries throughout the continent. Of course, the black substance people were eagerly ingesting wasn’t bitumen; it was likely discolored organic matter of blood, flesh, and other assorted gross stuff. Regardless, Mumia wasn’t the only mummy bit Europeans were crazy for. They would also consume ground-up skulls and wear mummy teeth around their necks!

Medical Musings of the Mummy

All this begs the question: why in the world would they do this? Humans have a strong taboo against cannibalism, and these treatments qualify as that! The average person likely went along with these treatments because of the unquestionability of medical authorities in Europe.

Furthermore, the working class was deemed stupid, and their objections would be considered rude. Most had to accept what leading doctors of the time were saying lest they risk not being treated.

However, the doctors of the time did have specific ideas as to why consuming mummies was a good idea. Firstly, they ascribed to the homeopathic principle of “like cures like.” Have a headache? Consume some powdered skull. Want to be physically fit? Drink the blood of a recently deceased young man. It would be this idea that drove much of mummy medicine.

However, some treatments seemingly had little to do with the ailment. Those incongruent methods were justified by the second line of reasoning: the power of the soul. In medieval Europe, the soul was a genuine part of physiology. It was believed that the soul controlled many bodily functions, and good health meant a healthy soul.

It was thought that consuming mummies could imbibe the powers of the deceased’s soul into the person, effectively curing any ailment. Indeed, consuming mummy bits began to be advertised as a panacea in Europe!

Macabre Medicine

Europe’s obsession with corpses and the dead in medicine did not end with mummies. Initially, Europeans were cautious about the cadavers they consumed. Concerns about counterfeit mummies and fake Egyptians were rampant.

The medicinal benefits may not have been realized if the corpse had not been a real mummy. Slowly, this apprehension around non-mummy corpses began to fade. This was partly due to how expensive authentic mummy bits quickly became.

Europe had a demand for mummy parts that dead Egyptians could not satisfy. Hence, rising prices in mummy medicine gave rise to more inclusive forms of corpse medicine, where one need not have been preserved for millennia to be consumed.

All sorts of gnarly practices began to take Europe by storm, most borrowed from ancient Rome, which was a real pioneer in this business. One such practice was drinking fresh blood, a rather difficult-to-obtain commodity. After all, somebody had to die for fresh blood to be available. As such, it was costly and scarcely available.

However, the poor could still get their hands on this elixir of life. They would gather below an execution with a cup and hope to catch a few blood gushes from the executed criminal. Belief in the power of blood was so strong that even authentic scientists were taken in by it.

Revered chemist Robert Boyle, whom you may know from Boyle’s law, thought blood was the cure for various disorders. The belief came from ancient Rome, where physicians recommended gladiator blood as the medicine of choice for many ailments!

Surprisingly, the likely reason for corpse medicine going out of vogue was ideology, not evidence. Though it would be apparent to anyone paying attention that these treatments did not work, the Enlightenment would cause corpse medicine to be shunned.

An increasing emphasis on gentility and humanity meant that consuming people was horrifying. If nothing else, one can be thankful that we don’t have to chow down on some mummy bits every time we feel under the weather!

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