A while back I shared a viral little pic about how people used to eat mummies. For someone who studied Egyptology, this was sort of a commonly known thing. Hilariously and sort of morbid, but yeah commonly known. Then so many people started responding to this share in disbelief. So I figured, this is an amazing and weird story from history, so why not talk about it?! So friends, saddle on up, and pour yourself some ginger lemon tea if you’re queasy – it’s story time!
Now when I tell you that back in the 16th century, you could roll up to your local apothecary’s office and the weekly special is powdered or broken up pieces of Egyptian mummies. Of course, being the educated, well-read person you are, you stock up because you need these human remains to cure you of any future wounds, coughs, cataracts, toothaches, leprosy, epileptic episodes, or even to straighten out any eyelashes that are aesthetically unappealing to you.
How did this idea come about you ask? Where is the science behind the consumption of mummified human remains for medicinal purposes? How can one justify the stealing of a mummy from its final resting place? Glad you asked because the answer is all about misinterpretation, something common in weird moments in history.
It all starts with a black, sticky resinous substance called bitumen. In ancient times, natural bitumen, also known as asphalt, was used as an adhesive and for things like waterproofing as far back as the 5th millennium BC. Sumerians used it for mortar between bricks, to stick ornaments and things on statues… the possibilities were endless!
This sticky black goo wasn’t useful for just construction and crafting, it could also save your life! Traditional Persian medicine in the middle ages touted that poultices of bitumen could accelerate healing with broken bones, help with respiratory diseases, contusions, and even gastro-intestinal issues.
Even earlier than that, Pliny the Elder wrote about bitumen in his work Natural History, saying bitumen could stop bleeding, heal wounds, drive away snakes, treat leprosy, cataracts, epilepsy, gout, fever… if you mixed it with soda it could soothe a toothache…bitumen mixed with wine could calm a cough and help with diarrhoea and a poultice of bitumen and barley flour could draw together severed muscles. And that’s not even the entire list! Miracle drug? Hit me up!
Bitumen was also used by the ancient Egyptians during the mummification process. Their primary source for this natural bitumen was the Dead Sea. Here’s the fun fact though: the Persian word for bitumen/asphalt is mumiya, derived from the word mūm which means wax. This lead to the romans using the latin word Mumia for a drug, and lead to the English word for, you guessed it: Mummy. The Baghdad physician named Rhazes in the 11th century is credited for the earliest use of the word mumia to mean a bituminous substance.
So you can see that Bitumen had been established as a handy medicinal ingredient for many centuries all over the world. It was trusted, widely used and therefore very well known. Now at some point throughout history, this natural bitumen started becoming associated with another black sticky substance that was found in the tombs of Egypt. The pharmacist Rhazes had not really defined which mumia he was talking about in his works (ie. the natural tar kind or the dead body kind) and so when his works were translated in the 12th century by Gerard of Cremona, mumia was translated as "the substance found in the land where bodies are buried with aloes by which the liquid of the dead, mixed with the aloes, is transformed and it is similar to marine pitch.”
And it wasn’t just Gerard, Constantinus Africanus wrote similar things, and his views were used by Matthaeus Platearius of Salerno who wrote that “Mumia is a spice found in the sepulchers of the dead”. This became a widespread faulty definition, with many other works by Arabian scholars writing about bituminous mumia being translated incorrectly.
Associating mummified bodies with medicinal bitumen like this went on for centuries! We’ve got the physician Matthaeus Silvaticus, from the fourteenth-century who identified the bitumen iudaicum of the Dead Sea, and wrote that mumia "is that which is found in the tombs of those embalmed in which the fluid of the corpse dissolves with the aloes and myrrh with which the body is preserved."
So all these guys are talking about mummy goo essentially. This weird excretion from the bodies of ancient Egyptians that was given its elevated status because it contained fluids from the body all mixed up with these other herbs and things.
Mummy of Seti I
These people weren’t crazy to think this. Famous writers like Pliny, Strabo and Diodorus all wrote about bitumen being used during the mummification process, though people like the aforementioned Diodorus and Homer, who described the embalming process in detail never mentioned it. These were all authoritative figures though, so if they wrote it, it was considered to be true and wasn’t questioned. Many mummies are very dark in colour and sometimes black, so it did also strengthen the argument that bitumen was used in mummies and that you would be able to find it within these ancient dead people and that it would be just as effective medicinally as its natural counterpart. Some studies were finally done on this in modern times to see if bitumen was in fact used in mummification, and there is no evidence of it on remains and fabrics until the New Kingdom, with increased used in the Ptolemaic and Roman eras as it was a cheap material and became very popular for poorer people. The reason earlier bodies were so dark is because they were preserved with other resins and materials that naturally turned black with ageing.
The knowledge of Mumia as a cure-all drug came to Europe during the Crusades when European soldiers came into contact with it. The demand for mumia increased significantly after the 11th century, but as natural bitumen supply from the Dead Sea and Persia was limited from about the 12th century onward, a different source was needed, and so they turned to the magical tombs of Egypt.
So with all of this, people started using mummies as an alternative to natural bitumen when they couldn’t get their hands on it. This lasted throughout most of the medieval period and I’m not even sure if I should mention when we finally stopped consuming them.
We have writings from people visiting Cairo and describing that you could buy mummies on the street just for this purpose! Another physician from Baghdad by the name of Abd Allatif wrote that a large amount of this substance could be found in the heads and bellies of these corpses, and that you could purchase it for a very reasonable rate. He said that bones were so impregnated with the mumia that they themselves were part of the drug. He confirmed that mumia from bodies could be used in the stead of natural bitumen when it could not be procured.
The demand for this magical healing goo grew and grew over the centuries. Seeing this business opportunity, people in Cairo during the 1400s were stealing bodies from tombs in order to boil them down and selling the oil that floated to the top to Europeans for a super high mark-up. Soon, they weren’t just using the black goo found inside the mummies, but the entire body itself. Fresher bodies that were desiccated in the desert during sandstorms were also being ground and sold as mumia because the dry sand was supposed to have purified them.
People in the 16th centuries began to visit Egypt more, and they would write about the mumia trade and all they would see on the streets. In 1580 one English gentleman wrote that the people of Egypt: "dayly digged the bodies of auncient men, not rotten but all whole ... and these dead bodies are the Mummie which Phisitians and Apothecaries doe against our willes make us to swallow.” The exportation of mummies was actually forbidden at this time, but as we know with most of European relations with other continents, where there’s a will, there’s a way and thousands and thousands of pounds of mummified human remains were making its way into European pharmacies and apothecaries.
Mummies were held in such medical esteem that mumia was said to ward off almost all diseases. Imagine hearing about this wonder drug, of course people would go to extremes in order to get some for themselves.
The demand for Egyptian mumia eventually got so high, that real mummies couldn’t meet it. This means that there was a whole market for fraudulent mumia manufacturing! They were embalming bodies with inexpensive asphalt. And the bodies they were using were those who were sentenced to death, slaves, people who had died from leprosy or plague, even bodies that were half rotten! Pretty much any body they could get their hands on to make a quick buck off of was used for fake mumia production.
Eventually, scholars and physicians started to question the medicinal benefits of human consumption during the Renaissance, with many of them revisiting those ancient authors and their writings as well as the Arabian physicians and realised that the mumia people were actually referring to was the original natural stuff. The thing is, mumia was already so indoctrinated into society as a medicinal drug. Shakespeare had even mentioned it in his writings so you can see how ingrained into society it was
There was finally a significant decline in the 18th centuries as scepticism in its effectiveness rose and medical opinion was turning against the substance. It was still widely consumed though, and you could purchase mumia until 1924 from a pharmaceutical company called Firma E. Merck in Germany, where a kilo would cost you 12 gold marks.
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Looking to Find out more?
Dannenfeldt, K. H. (1985). Egyptian Mumia: The Sixteenth Century Experience and Debate. Sixteenth Century Journal, 16(2), 163. doi:10.2307/2540910
Scholz-Böttcher, B. M., Nissenbaum, A., & Rullkötter, J. (2013). An 18th century medication “Mumia vera aegyptica” – Fake or authentic? Organic Geochemistry, 65, 1–18. doi:10.1016/j.orggeochem.2013.09.011
Richard Sugg of England’s University of Durham, Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians,
Dannenfeldt, Karl H. (1959), "Egypt and Egyptian Antiquities in the Renaissance", Studies in the Renaissance
The Significance of Petroleum Bitumen in Ancient Egyptian Mummies
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The Curative Role of Bitumen in Traditional Persian Medicine
Mahdi Shahriari* , Farzaneh Zare**, Majid Nimrouzi*** Acta Med Hist Adriat 2018; 16(2);283-292 https://doi.org/10.31952/amha.16.2.6
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By Cathy Cobb, Harold Goldwhite
MERCK Group: Powdered Mummies Used as Medicine