Why did Europeans massively eat Egyptian mummies?

(ORDO NEWS) — In the 12th century, a creepy practice appeared among Europeans: they ate mummies. Physicians of the time issued them for a remedy. Mummified bodies were sold in pharmacies: they were simply broken into pieces or ground into powder.

As a result, mummy-eating became so popular that Europeans no longer cared whether the bodies they chewed were actually mummified.

But why did people even believe in the medicinal value of mummies? The answer comes down to a series of misunderstandings.

Since ancient times, people have used bitumen – a product of the weathering of oil – for a variety of purposes. Waterproof dishes were made from it, arrowheads were fastened with it, and fragments of mosaics were even glued to it. This natural hydrocarbon has been used in construction in the Middle East.

Bitumen is mentioned in the Book of Genesis as one of the materials used in the construction of the Tower of Babel.

Ancient people also used bitumen to protect the trunks and roots of trees from insects and to treat a variety of human ailments. This substance becomes viscous when heated, but hardens when dried, making it useful for stabilizing broken bones and creating poultices for rashes.

In his 1st century text Natural History, the wise Roman Pliny the Elder recommends using bitumen with wine to treat chronic coughs and dysentery, or combining it with vinegar to dissolve and remove gore. Other uses for bitumen included the treatment of cataracts, toothache, and skin conditions.

In his 1st century pharmacopoeia, Materia Medica, a Greek physician Dioscorides wrote that bitumen from the Dead Sea is best suited for medical bodies. Later it turned out that the bitumen also has antimicrobial and biocidal properties, and the Dead Sea bitumen contains sulfur, which also has a biocidal effect.

Linguistic subtleties

In different cultures, bitumen was called differently: in Sumer it was designated by the word “esir”, and the Arabs who lived on the territory of modern Iraq gave it many names – “sayali”, “zift” and “kar”. The 10th-century Persian physician Rhazes was the first known person to use the word “mumia” for bitumen. Thus, he emphasized the stickiness of the substance, since the word “mum” in Farsi means wax. The word was picked up by the more famous Persian physician Avicenna, who used the designation “mumia” in the 11th century to describe the medicinal bitumen.

Some doctors, on the contrary, believed that fresh meat and blood had a vitality that the long dead lacked. The statement that “fresh is better than ancient” convinced even the most distinguished nobles. King Charles II of England took medication made from human skulls after an epileptic seizure, and until 1909 the use of human skulls to treat neurological conditions was fairly common.

By the 19th century, Europeans had largely abandoned the use of mummies for medicinal purposes, but Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798 revived interest in them. Travelers were able to bring whole mummies to Europe, which were sold right on the streets of Egypt.

Since then, “parties” with unwinding bandages on mummies have become a new unusual entertainment for aristocrats, for which tickets were even sold. Such shows usually ended with popular science lectures.

“The work of unswaddling has begun. The top envelope of the coarse linen bandages had been cut open with scissors. A faint smell of balsam, spices and aromatics filled the room, reminiscent of the smells of a pharmacy. Then the end of the bandage was found, and the mummy was placed straight up so that the unwinder could move freely around it. And then two white eyes with black pupils sparkled with their artificial life. These were enameled eyes, which were usually inserted into carefully made mummies,” the writer Théophile Gauthier described the show at the Paris Exhibition in 1855.

Today, no serious archaeologist will hurriedly unwrap a mummy, and no doctor will offer you to eat it, but interest in them has not dried up. Mummies can still be bought, and the antiquities smuggling black market (which includes the sale of mummies) is valued at three billion dollars.


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