Why did people think cannibalism was good for their health? The answer offers a glimpse into the craziest holes 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 everything from bubonic plague to headaches, then by the macabre ideas Victorians had about after-dinner entertainment, the bandaged corpses of ancient Egyptians were the subject of fascination of the Middle Ages. until the 19th century.
The belief that mummies could cure disease drove people for centuries to ingest something that tasted awful.
Mumia, the product made from mummified bodies, was a medicinal substance consumed by the rich and poor for centuries, available in apothecary stores and made from the remains of mummies brought to Europe from Egyptian tombs.
By the 12th century, apothecaries were using crushed mummies for their otherworldly medicinal properties. Mummies were a prescription drug for the next 500 years.
In a world without antibiotics, doctors prescribed crushed skulls, bones and flesh to treat illnesses from headaches to reducing swelling or curing the plague.
Not everyone was convinced. Guy de la Fontaine, a royal physician, doubted mumia was a useful medicine and in 1564 in Alexandria saw forged mummies made from dead peasants. He realized that people could be scammed. They didn’t always eat real old mummies.
But the forgeries illustrate an important point: there was a constant demand for dead flesh for use in medicine, and the supply of real Egyptian mummies could not meet this.
Pharmacists and herbalists still dispensed mummy medicines until the 18th century.
Not all doctors thought that dry old mummies were the best medicine. Some doctors believed that fresh flesh and blood had a vitality that the long-dead lacked.
The claim that fresh was best convinced even the noblest of nobles. England’s King Charles II took medication made from human skulls after a seizure, and until 1909, doctors used human skulls to treat neurological disorders.
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To the royal and social elite, eating mummies seemed like a royally appropriate medicine, as doctors claimed that mumias were made from pharaohs. Royalty at royalties.
Dinner, drinks and a show
By the 1800s, people no longer consumed mummies to cure disease, but Victorians hosted “unpacking parties” where Egyptian corpses would be unpacked for entertainment at private parties.
Napoleon’s first expedition to Egypt in 1798 aroused European curiosity and enabled 19th-century travelers to Egypt to bring back to Europe whole mummies bought from the streets of Egypt.
Victorians held private parties dedicated to unpacking the remains of ancient Egyptian mummies.
Early unpacking events had at least a veneer of medical respectability. In 1834, surgeon Thomas Pettigrew unwrapped a mummy at the Royal College of Surgeons. In his day, autopsies and surgeries were done in public and this unwrapping was just another public medical event.
Soon even the pretense of medical research was lost. By now mummies were no longer medicinal, but exciting. A host who could entertain an audience while unwrapping was wealthy enough to own an actual mummy.
The thrill of seeing dried flesh and bones emerging as the bandages came off meant that people flocked to this unwrapping, whether in a private home or the theater of a learned society. Liquor meant the audience was loud and grateful.
The Curse of the Mummy
Mama’s unwrapping ended when the 20th century began. The macabre sensation seemed in bad taste and the inevitable destruction of archaeological remains seemed deplorable.
Then the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb sparked a craze that shaped Art Deco design in everything from the motifs of doors in the Chrysler Building to the shape of clocks designed by Cartier. The sudden death in 1923 of Lord Carnarvon, sponsor of Tutankhamun’s expedition, was of natural origin, but was soon attributed to a new superstition – “the curse of the mummy”.
In 2016, Egyptologist John J. Johnston staged 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 a Victorian unwrapping.
It was as tacky as possible, with everything from the Bangles’ Walk Like an Egyptian playing on a loudspeaker to the crowd munching on pure gin.
The mummy was just an actor wrapped in bandages, but the event was an intoxicating sensory mix. The fact that it took place at St Bart’s Hospital in London was a modern reminder that mummies traverse many fields of experience, from the medical to the macabre.
Today, the black market of ancient smuggling — including mummies — is worth about $3 billion.
No serious archaeologist would unwrap a mummy and no doctor suggests eating one. But the mummy’s temptation remains strong. They are still for sale, still operated and still a commodity.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.