Make mummy of my flesh and sell me to the apothecaries.
James Shirley (1596-1666), Bird in a Cage
Here we are speaking of Egyptian mummies ground up and sold for medicine.
But there's more--much more than that!
The idea that human remains make useful medicine is as old as medicine itself . . . or at least, as
old as the Ebers papyrus of Egypt, which dates back three and a half thousand years; among other
things, the Ebers papyrus recommends taking the brain of a man, dividing it in two parts and using
it to treat diseases of the eyes; half was to be applied in an ointment with honey every morning,
and half was to be dried and applied every evening in powdered form. The papyrus also gives
human milk as an ingredient in recipes against eye-problems. Human brains distilled--they were
marketed under the name of "Golden Water"-- used to be sold as a medicine against epilepsy (by
Europeans, quite recently); human blood, drunk hot, was used for the same sickness (by the
Romans, much earlier). Paracelsus prescribed menstual blood (he called it "Maiden's zenish") as
an application against gout, and like many other physicians, he thought that epilepsy should be
treated with human remains. His recipe recommended taking three human skulls, from men who
had died violently and not been buried, distilling them with musk, castoreum and honey, and
adding a few drops of oil of vitriol along with liquor of pearls . . . ! When you consider that
castoreum was another name for beavers' testicles, you realize you're talking about a very exotic
Skulls were distilled. Brains likewise, along with human hair, and human blood, and human
urine. Spirits of human gall used to be employed as an eardrop, to treat deafness. Dried and
powdered human heart was used against epilepsy, a disease of many hideous medicines. Human
saliva was considered sovereign against poison, against snakebite, against the bites of wild dogs,
against ophthalmia, and for the removal of warts.
The trade in medicinal mummy involved, of course, actual Egyptian mummies. Embalmed human
bodies. They were collected and shipped across the Mediterranean, to be sold as a
pharmaceutical: mummified human remains were a staple of apothecaries' shops from the twelfth
to the seventeenth centuries. Nor were they unknown to medicine before the twelfth century.
They are referred to in the works of Avicenna (A.D. 980-1037); from his writings, we know he
used them to treat paralysis, skin eruptions, abcesses and diseases of the spleen and liver. Nor
was this the only reference to the mummy trade. The French military surgeon Ambroise Pare
(1509-1590) argued against the substance's widespread use; Paracelsus, a little earlier (he lived
1492-1541), devised both a popular Balsam of Mummy and a Treacle of Mummy.
Parkinson (Theatre of Plants, 1640) wrote an account of the Virtues of Mummies: "It is the very
body of a man or woman, brought chiefly from Egypt or Syria (no other part of the world so
good). True mummy must be embalmed in the Egyptian fashion and not after the manner of the
Jews." The "manner of the Jews" was a trade in substitutes, an answer to the widespread
demand for medicinal mummy. A physician to the king of Navarre--Guy de la Fontsine was his
name--gave details; he recounted a buying trip to Alexandria, scouting out a likely supply. There
he visited a Jew's shop and viewed the merchant's stock: some forty mummies, every one of
which had been prepared by the proprietor. To do so, the merchant had collected the corpses of
slaves and other persons, opened them and filled them with bitumen, bandaged them and dried
them in the sun till they became reasonable facsimiles of the genuine thing. All of his stock had
been mummied within the previous four years . . . Both Jewish and Christian merchants merrily
manufactured their own mummies. Any dessicated human body was fair game; as late as the 19th century,
for instance, corpses found in the deserts of Persian Khorasan were gathered and their
flesh sold for medicinal uses under the name of mummy. A seventeenth-century source advised buyers on ways to
distinguish true mummy from false: that best was fine, shining and black, not full of bones and
dirt; it was of good smell, and when burnt it did not stink of pitch. Such was proper for
contusions and to hinder blood from coagulating in the body. Caveat emptor!
The pharmacopoeias of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries give the chief preparations of
mummy. It could be made into a tincture, an elixir, a treacle and a balsam. To make balsam of
mummy, take half a pound of mummy tincture, add four ounces of Venice treacle, Salt of Pearl
four drachms, coral two drachms, two ounces of Terra Sigillata and one drachm of musk; mix and
digest half a month; the result possesses such "piercing qualities that it pierceth all parts, restores
wasted limbs, heckticks, and cures all ulcers and corruptions." Pure mummy was given as a
powder or as a bolus, in doses of two drachms, in the treatment of vertigo, palsy and epilepsy; it
was also applied externally to wounds and thought to prevent mortification.
Such was European mummy. In Asian tradition, mumia or mummy is also a medicine, but of a
different sort. Here is its derivation: the English word mummy springs from the Persian and
Turkish moum, meaning literally a soft clammy substance of the consistency of balsam. A related
word is the Persian-Urdu mom 'bee's-wax'. From these roots come the Arabic mum 'wax' and
mumiya 'an embalmed body' and the English mummy 'preserved human body'.
One link between waxy balsamic substances and embalmed human bodies probably comes from honey itself, which was used to preserve the dead, in classic Greece and by the ancient Scythians and, probably, others. Also, we know that old Greek and Roman historians thought Egyptian mummies were embalmed in bitumen. (Diodorus Siculus and Strabo both mention the subject.) Arabic natural scientists read the works of the Romans and the Greeks, and wrote in their turn that mummies were embalmed with bitumen. Hence the Arabic mumiya became the English mummy.
The Arabs and Greeks and Romans were wrong, as it happens. During the high era of Egyptian culture, embalming was a lengthy (and expensive) process involving natron, a natural salt composed mostly of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate. The organs were removed, the body was filled with natron, the flesh dried and then the corpse was treated with resin and wrapped in linen. But by Roman times, Egyptian civilization was a mere shadow of its former self and the old art of mummification had been lost. The dead were still embalmed, but it was mostly a matter of glazing the skin with resin; in effect, the bodies were varnished like furniture and then wrapped up in fancy linens.
But that's irrelevant; what matters here is popular opinion.
Bitumen for medicinal use was well-known all over the Near East in ancient times. There are
several kinds of bitumen, naturally occurring and easy to get and use. 'A soft clammy substance
of the consistency of balsam' is a fair description of some.
So . . . there was a Persian substance called mummy. It was mentioned in Thomas Herbert's
Travels in Persia, circa 1627, thus: About twenty farsangs (sixty British miles) west of Lar was a
town called Jaarown (or Jahrum); this was between Persepolis and Shiraz, and "In or near this
place is a precious liquor, or mummy, growing, Mumnaky-koobas they call it, which none
presumes to take, it being carefully preserved for the King's sole use. In June only it distils from
the top of those stupendous mountains, every year about five ounces. A moist redolent gum it is,
sovereign against poison; and (if we may believe them) a catholicon for all sorts of wounds
whatsoever, so as when other princes send Shaw-Abbas gold, pearl, or like costly presents, he
returns them a little of this balsam as a suitable requital." (P. 61-62.)
This mummy was a kind of bitumen exuded from rock, a medicine--catholicon is a term for a
universal medicine which could cure absolutely anything--and obviously much prized for its power
to heal. Fryer mentioned the same substance (vol ii, p. 356); of other Persian travelers, Stevens
called it momiya kani, mineral momia or 'mummy' and Kaempfer called it muminahi kodreti
(qudrati, 'God-given'). Teixeira added the term 'momnahy'.
William Crook, the nineteenth-century expert on Indian folklore, mentions the balsam of Lar,
thus: a natural balsam or bitumen, he wrote, distilled through the rock of a cavern in the province
of Lar. It was a medicine, so precious that the Shah kept it all for his own use. The governor
of Lar, under his orders, sealed the door of the cave three-hundred and sixty-four days of the
year, opening them just once yearly to harvest the balm. Its yearly yield was scarcely two
ounces. It cured all sorts of illnesses, especially fractures.
Crook continued: this sort of bitumen or rock oil, in India, was called Narayan Tel or Ram Tel,
'the oil of Vishnu or Rama' and it was fancied to cure wounds from all kinds of weapons. He
who possessed it was deemed invulnerable. Neither swords nor spears nor arrows could kill him.
Its name, momiai or mummy, which also meant embalmed corpses, again equated bitumen with
dead bodies. Thus a legend spread of its preparation . . . It was said that to make it, a young
boy--the fatter and blacker the better--was caught and a hole bored in the top of his head. Then
he was hung up by the heels over a slow fire, and the juices of his body dripping slowly into a pan
yields seven drops of precious momiai. Now, the concession for making momiai belonged to a
legendary bogey: the Momiai Sahib, an European gentleman in government employ. He enjoyed
the monopoly on momiai, and was permitted with impunity to entice away small boys, as many as
he can, harvesting seven drops of momiai per little lost boy, and the market demand for his wares
never flagged! The Momiai Sahib was armed with a magic stick of some sort, which compelled
small boys to follow him, and he kidnaped them away to some remote hill station where he could
work his evil ways unobserved.
William Crook noted down not only the urban myth of the 'Momiai Sahib'--for this is certainly an
urban myth in all its glory--but added the following true tale. The very black servant of a friend
of his came to him in all seriousness and said he had just escaped the Momiai Sahib. It had
happened at the new moon fair in Meerut, and the Sahib had just taken his magic wand from his
pocket and was about to use it, when the servant with great presence of mind held up his hands
and cried, "Enough! Enough!" Thus intimidated, the Sahib slunk away into the crowd and was
never seen again. His wand was a stick: dry, shriveled, and a span long.
Most boys in the plains villages of India--particularly very black, fat boys--believed implicitly in
the Momiai Sahib, who would steal them away to the hills and boil their essence out of the tops of
their skulls. They went in terror of him. Whenever a gang of urchins ran through a bazaar, all
that was needed to disperse them, was to whisper, "Momiai," in one's ear.
Surgeons and doctors were naturally suspected of being in cahoots with the Momiai Sahib.
When an anatomist set up a dissecting-room at one of the hill stations, all the coolies there struck
work in protest. Freemasons were also looked upon as suspects; they were considered sorcerers
and magicians anyway, their lodges were known as 'Ajaibghar, houses of mystery' and they were
considered likely collaborators in the momiai business.
Another substance--a solid resin like benzoin, the product of the tree Storax officinalis--was called
Silajit 'rock-conquering' and supposed to have properties like momiai. The claim also extended
to various sorts of bitumen. Bitumen was considered a strong nerve tonic, and popularly said to
be the essence of Abyssinian boys, boiled down over a slow fire. Others believed that true
bitumen came from Egyptian mummies, but when the source of mummies was exhausted, then the
merchants of mummy began to sell bitumen instead.
William Crooke, Religion and Folklore of Northern India (1926)
Dr. C.J.S. Thompson, Magic and Healing (circa 1943)