The History of Mummies: Mummies as Medicine and the Business of Bodies

History is filled with optimistic, life-affirming currents. This article will focus on the opposite, on one of history’s more gruesome trends. Anyone who is made uncomfortable by the mention of unsavory or sacrilegious things being done to the dead should probably give this article pass. This topic can veer into sensationalism, though I will do my best to avoid such. Overcorrecting for this could lead to uninformative euphemism, and there is little value in that either. Without further ado, here is an account of the history, sale, and uses of mummies and their body parts.

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Napoleon in Egypt

Due to the Nile and its generous coast along the Mediterranean, Egypt has long been of strategic interest to both its neighbors and countries abroad. This was true in antiquity, the Middle Ages, and still to this day. So strong was the country’s allure that many rival powers attempted to conquer it, and those who succeeded adopted the culture of its rulers rather than supplant it with their own. Among the foreign powers who tried and failed was the French Empire. While Napoleon Bonaparte secured a number of military victories there in 1798, these would not last long, and by 1801 the French ruler was forced to cede Egypt back to the Ottoman Empire. This was a blow to French economic interests in the region, though culturally it produced somewhat of a renaissance in Europe, a renewed interest in Egypt, specifically of its ancient history. This academic passion for another culture might seem positive at first, but it was a mixed-bag at best. The Rosetta Stone was rediscovered on Napoleon’s campaign, inspiring the creation of the field of Egyptology, though it also led to an encore of one of Europe’s grimmer traditions.

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Mumia: Sales of Mummies

The sale of mummies does not have a clear starting point. Exportation of mummies to Europe dates back to at least the eleventh century, though local sales might have predated this. Part of what makes the date hard to pin down is the shifting definition of what constitutes a mummy, or mumia, over time.

The word mummy comes to us from two related Persian words: mum and mumiyâ, transliterations of wax and bitumen respectively. Those who traded mum, or mumiyâ, spoke a variety of languages including Persian, Arabic, Latin, and later English. As demonstrated in the children’s game telephone, messages are prone to being unintentionally altered when transmitted from person to person. This is the case with words as well. There are reasons for this transformation beyond linguistic telephone, but for now another question is more pressing. What exactly is bitumen?

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Among the natural historians of antiquity, one of the best known is Pliny the Elder. This Roman naturalist wrote extensively about what he saw and heard of the world. One of the many subjects he wrote about was medicine, and the different practices of the various places he had knowledge of. Pliny’s account of bitumen as a medicinal ingredient is likely the first well-known written record that European audiences would have encountered. In his account, Pliny described various places, many of them water sources, where bitumen would bubble up from the earth. He detailed how each variety of the viscous black substance was unique and could cure different ailments. Some came from the Dead Sea, another type from a lake in Judea, and there was a source even as far away as Sicily. Pliny writes that the Greeks grouped these substances together under the term pissaphaltum, while the equivalent Latin name was bitumen. While Pliny’s account is what survives, modern English opted for the Greek derivation, giving us the word asphalt.

Yes, in ancient times people used asphalt (or pitch more broadly) to treat a variety of illnesses. Cataracts, toothaches, dysentery, and a whole host of other issues called for bitumen as a curative. At least one of these prescriptions was well-founded though. Pliny details a recipe that sees the physician mixing bitumen and flour to create a plaster for staunching bleeding wounds, and this did work when done correctly. Now that we know what mumia / bitumen is the question becomes how did people go from treating wounds with asphalt to buying human remains from their local apothecary?

Native traditions of folk medicine were practiced in Europe before, during, and after its Roman occupation. Colonization did not eradicate these customs but displaced them to varying degrees by systems of medicine imported from the Mediterranean and Middle East. Even after the Romans were forced to retreat from Europe their successors still took many of their cues from the culture that supported their former occupiers, and this included the Greek, Roman, and Arab medical treatises they relied on. Among these texts was Pliny, and other authors who praised the healing properties of mumiyâ, or bitumen. Part of the shifting definition of what constitutes mumia begins here, when a foreign audience lacking regional context for what bitumen is encounters the term. It is difficult to avoid changing the meaning of words in translation, though Europeans of the Middle Ages were not solely to blame for their confusion.

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The Mummy Trade  

During the period when Egyptians mummified their dead, the embalming process involved removing the deceased’s organs from their body. To replace this mass and help preserve the remains, the deceased’s cavities had a mixture of resin and preservative spices placed inside them. This resin was a lustrous black, and thus resembled bitumen. They even had similar viscosities. When reading somewhat sparse, translated descriptions of bitumen, or mumiyâ, European buyers could easily believe that this is what the ancients were writing about, especially if the substance was separated from the disinterred corpse. Originally, bitumen had been procured from natural sources like the Dead Sea. This changed when local merchants in Egypt fell victim to same linguistic mix-up as their European counterparts, mistaking asphalt for the resin used in embalming. This misconception over mummies being filled with bitumen was widespread during the early Middle Ages, and even continues to this day, with some articles on this topic unintentionally repeating it.

Locals in Egypt and Syria, as well as European agents, would ransack tombs and other burial places for mummies to supplement their stock of “bitumen”. As one would expect, these practices were illegal, and this uptick in ransacking did not go unnoticed by public officials. In the sixteenth century laws were enacted in Egypt specifically targeting looting for the purposes of extracting mumia. Exports of mumia, early on as “bitumen” and later on as whole bodies and individual parts, centered around Cairo and Alexandria, with most of the these grisly wares being shipped to England, Germany, France, and Spain. It was not uncommon to see mumia stocked in London apothecaries into the mid-eighteenth century.

Medical Uses of Mummies

In the Victorian era (1837-1902), modern medicine was ascendant in its legitimacy as scientific practices like empiricism had and continued to prove themselves. Older ways lingered, though, and while not as widely favored as before the Enlightenment, folk medicine, alchemy, and sympathetic magic yet held sway among sections of the masses.

As a general idea, sympathetic magic in not unique to Europe, there being equivalent practices and ideas across the globe. Broadly speaking, sympathetic magic is the idea that objects, especially animate ones, have essences or attributes that can be conferred to other objects. When discussing animals in this light, this conferral usually takes the form of ingesting the creature’s flesh or blood. An example might be that eating beef will make one strong like a bull. Obviously, this transfer of essence or attribute is grossly overstated, yet there is a scientific grain of truth to some of it. Consider nutrients. When a person consumes meat, the animal’s flesh is broken down in their digestive system and some of its amino acids are conferred to the consumer, which can then aid in building muscle among other things. While overblown, there is some reason to this strain of magical thinking.

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Combining sympathetic magic with other veins of alternative healing gets us, along with general linguistic confusion, on the path to the misconception that human remains could have curative properties. Over time this tangle of misunderstandings grew, and the believed efficacy of bitumen went from natural sources to “bitumen” taken from bodies to the bodies themselves. Gradually, people began to think that the desiccated remains were what made the “bitumen” inside them medicinal, and this perceptual shift led to a market shift. People no longer bought and sold mumia the embalming material, they bought and sold mumia, the corpses that had healing powers to confer. This popular misperception is how the English language goes from having no special name for ceremonially prepared Egyptian corpses to calling them mummies.

And what did they use mummies for? The ancient practices continued largely unchanged when mumia still meant the resin taken from corpses. After confusion and the market morphed the term people mainly used the skin, muscles, and sometimes the bones (this latter body part being mostly used by sellers to cut the more valuable soft tissues). Before medical trials were standard, both professionals and everyday people relied more heavily on the wisdom of their elders. Medical texts prescribed grinding the flesh into powder and ingesting it to obtain its healing properties. Some sources advised adding ground mumia to wine or another liquid to make it go down easier and because alcohol was a traditional vehicle for medicine given its antibiotic properties (this was widely known even though the specific reasons were not understood). Balms and other ointments were also made with powdered mumia for topical application, the intent being to lessen the symptoms of skin conditions like leprosy.

While many did (and still do) have an overabundance of faith in unverified authorities, there were both average people and medical professionals who opposed the use of mumia. Of the latter group, one such physician was the Frenchman Ambroise Paré, who lived during the sixteenth century. After trying out mumia prescriptions on a few of his patients, Paré saw that it had no positive effects on their health and several negative ones. Whether it was an objection based on empirical evidence, a general disgust over the use of corpses as medical ingredients, or both, the cult of mumia never included every European. Rather than being a fringe vestige of the Dark Ages, mumia was well-thought of within many European medical circles until the middle of the eighteenth century. This reality challenges the high-minded idealism often purported of the Enlightenment.

To fuel all of this medical cannibalism—which by the Renaissance was no longer a confused exchange of “bitumen” but an openly acknowledged trade of bodies on both sides of the Mediterranean—mumia traders had to begin fabricating mummies. Previously, only ceremonially prepared corpses were subject to grave robbing, but to keep up with demand from Europe, those in the trade began digging up ordinary paupers and those who had died of disease. These bodies would be left out under the sun or buried in hot sand to quickly desiccate them. Following this the traders would stuff them with pitch or tar, and then wrap them in linen. Criminals who had just been executed were another prime target of the local agents and foreign merchants who engaged in the production of fictive mummies. Occasionally, even animals were employed in this regard, with dried flesh from camels and ibises being passed off as genuine mumia. Some European sources even encouraged this behavior, and by some contemporary observers, these were not fabrications but actual mummies, with some going so far as to write down mumia recipes that stipulated the preferred ages and genders of the bodies.     

Again, this industry continued into the mid-eighteenth century, and while mumia’s shine among medical professionals had waned by this point, one could still find it in certain catalogues and apothecaries. Medicine, however, was not the only European trade to abuse mummies.

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Mummies: Uses Beyond Medicine

Mummy brown was a pigment used mainly for painting. As is to be expected with its inclusion here the key ingredient was ground up mummies. This non-medical mumia was combined with white pitch and myrrh to produce a highly transparent brown that was suited to depicting glazed earthenware, varnished wood, and various skin tones. While the pigment had its proponents among artists (Eugène Delacroix being the most famous), the majority of contemporary art critics found mummy brown lacking. They questioned its quality and thought its elaborate, macabre origin was all flash and no substance. Colormen, professionals who made and sold paints and other pigments to artists, began stocking mummy brown in the sixteenth century, and would either purchase ground remains or body parts to grind themselves when needed. Changing mores and supply issues caused the sale of mummy brown to peter out around the same time as medical mumia.

Another major reason that Europeans imported mummies was to display them. Following Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, European interest in the region and its heritage resurged. Rather than an innocent curiosity, this often took the form of commercial extraction of the country’s dead. Tourism boomed, and those travelling from abroad were not content to leave what they saw where it was. This desire for souvenirs was met by local vendors who would disinter bodies to be sold to wealthy tourists, and bodies were even moved around to popular destinations and passed off as having originated from those places. But what did people do with these bodies?

Some kept them in private collections. Others held unwrapping, or unrolling, parties where as a parlor amusement those in attendance would watch as the host or someone else undid the mummy’s wrappings. Enthusiasm for such events was so high that whole mummies were imported for just this purpose. Public displays along a similar line were also popular. In the age where operating theaters sold tickets, people would pay to see unwrappings that also doubled as autopsies. These events billed themselves as entertainment and education, with some even promising to teach those in attendance about Egypt’s past. Many of these public displays played out in front of full houses.

While a generous reading might point out that the intention of such events was academic, they were undeniably destructive. Times change, but these practices are not so far behind us as some might like to believe. To this day mummies are a frequent feature in natural history museums. Many question the legitimacy of their procurement and the ethics of their display. Knowledge and understanding are noble things to strive for, but the ends do not always justify the means. The extraction of one culture’s heritage for the dubious betterment of another’s is an argument one can put forward, though it is generally an unconvincing one. Beyond medicine, art, and education, there was one other major commercial use for mummies. During the Industrial Revolution, a time when more and more people were leaving the agriculture sectors of their economies, one of the ways this demographic shift was accounted for was through improved farming techniques and crop yields. Fertilizer was (and still is) a mainstay in increasing agricultural output, and among those on offer were the mummified remains of humans and animals, most of which were imported by Britain and Germany.

If there is any lesson to be taken from all of this, perhaps it is that we should be more skeptical of simple histories. Uncritically glowing accounts of past triumphs ought to perk our ears. History is layered. For every humanitarian achievement, be wary of the failures and injustices swept into their shadow.  

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Works Cited

Dawson, Warren R. “Mummy as a Drug”. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine vol. 21,1 (1927): 34-39, National Center for Biotechnology Information, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2101801/?page=1, Accessed 26 Sept. 2020

McCouat, Philip. “The Life and Death of Mummy Brown”. Journal of Art in Society, artinsociety.com, 2013, http://www.artinsociety.com/the-life-and-death-of-mummy-brown.html, Accessed 27 Sept. 2020

“مومیا”. en.wiktionary.org, Wiktionary, en.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D9%85%D9%88%D9%85%DB%8C%D8%A7#Persian, Accessed 27 Sept. 2020

“Street vendor selling mummies in Egypt, 1865”. Rare Historical Photos, rarehistoricalphotos.com/egyptian-mummy-seller-1865/, Accessed 26 Sept. 2020

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