(ORDO NEWS) — Why did people think that cannibalism was good for health? The answer to this question allows you to look into the most abstruse nooks and crannies of European history, at a time when Europeans were obsessed with Egyptian mummies.
Driven first by the belief that crushed and tinted human remains could cure bubonic plague to headaches, and then by Victorian macabre notions of after-dinner entertainment, the bandaged corpses of ancient Egyptians were the subject of a fascination from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.
The belief that mummies can cure diseases has led people to swallow something terrible for centuries.
The mummy, a product made from mummified bodies, was a drug used for centuries by the rich and the poor, available from pharmacies and made from the remains of mummies brought from Egyptian tombs to Europe.
By the 12th century, apothecaries were using crushed mummies for their otherworldly medicinal properties. For the next 500 years, mummies were used as medicine.
In a world without antibiotics, doctors prescribed crushed skulls, bones, and flesh to treat ailments ranging from headaches to reducing swelling or curing the plague.
Not everyone was convinced of this. Guy de la Fontaine, the royal physician, doubted the mummy was a useful medicine and saw fake mummies made from dead peasants in Alexandria in 1564. He realized that people can be deceived. They didn’t always consume genuine ancient mummies.
But the fakes illustrate an important point: there was a constant demand for dead flesh for medical use, and the supply of real Egyptian mummies could not satisfy it.
Pharmacists and healers continued to dispense medicines from mummies well into the 18th century.
Not all doctors believed that dry, old mummies are the best medicine. Some doctors believed that fresh meat and blood had the vitality that the long dead lacked.
The assertion that fresh is best convinced even the noblest nobles. King Charles II of England took medicine from a human skull after a seizure, and until 1909 doctors often used human skulls to treat neurological conditions.
For the royal and social elite, eating mummies seemed like the right medicine, as doctors claimed the mummy was made from pharaohs. The royals ate royal food.
Dinner, drinks and shows
By the 19th century, people no longer used mummies to treat illness, but the Victorians held “unwrap parties” in which Egyptian corpses were unwrapped for entertainment at private parties.
Napoleon’s first expedition to Egypt in 1798 piqued the curiosity of Europeans and allowed 19th century travelers to bring back to Europe whole mummies bought off the street in Egypt.
The Victorians held private parties celebrating the unwrapping of the remains of ancient Egyptian mummies.
Early mummy-unwrapping events had at least the semblance of medical respectability. In 1834, surgeon Thomas Pettigrew unwrapped the mummy at the Royal College of Surgeons. In his time, autopsies and surgeries were performed in public, and this unfoldment was just another public medical event.
Soon even the pretense of medical research was lost. By this time, the mummies were no longer medical, but exciting. The host of the dinner, who could entertain the public during the unfolding, was rich enough to own a real mummy.
The thrill of seeing the dried flesh and bones that appear when the bandages are removed has driven people to these unfoldings, whether in a private home or in the learned society theater. Strong drinks meant the audience was noisy and appreciative.
Mummy-unwrapping parties ended with the turn of the 20th century. Macabre thrills seemed in bad taste, and the inevitable destruction of archaeological remains was regrettable.
Then the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb sparked a craze that defined Art Deco design, from door motifs in the Chrysler Building to the shape of a clock designed by Cartier.
The sudden death in 1923 of Lord Carnarvon, the sponsor of the expedition to Tutankhamen, occurred from natural causes, but was soon explained by a new superstition – the “curse of the mummy.”
In 2016, Egyptologist John J. Johnston performed the first public unwrapping of a mummy since 1908. Part art, part science and part show, Johnston created an immersive recreation of what it was like to be present at the unwrapping of a mummy in the Victorian era.
It was as tasteless as it could be, from the Bangles song “Walk Like an Egyptian” played over the loudspeaker to the gin treats.
The mummy was just an actor wrapped in bandages, but the event was a heady sensory mix. The fact that it took place at St. Barth’s Hospital in London was a contemporary reminder that mummies cross many realms of experience, from the medical to the macabre.
Today, the black market for smuggling antiquities – including mummies – is worth about US$3 billion.
No serious archaeologist would unwrap a mummy, and no doctor would offer to eat it. But the mummy’s lure remains strong. They are still being sold, they are still being exploited and they are still a commodity.
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