- Medicine was pretty disgusting until they found out about germs and stuff.
When you have a headache, you’ll probably reach for some ibuprofen or aspirin. But in the days long gone, we didn’t know how to make industrial medicines.
So, sometimes people turned to imaginative cures for basic illnesses. Like ground-up Egyptian mummies.
No, we’re not kidding. The embalmed corpses of Ancient Egyptians were all the rage in late medieval and Renaissance medicine, and the cannibalistic practice lasted all the way to the 18th century.
But why? What in the world convinced people that potentially 3000-year-old could cure them of anything?
It’s time for us to fire up the Oddee-brand time machine and go take a closer at one of Europe’s most bizarre and disgusting traditions.
Lost in Translation
First things first — how did Europeans get the bright idea that consuming mummies could be medicinal? The reason is as stupid as the mummy-eating practice was macabre.
It was all because of a translation error.
You see, traditional Islamic medicine during the Middle Ages commonly used something that Middle Eastern apothecaries called mumiya. Today, we call this substance bitumen — otherwise known as asphalt.
Yes, they consumed asphalt as medicine. Hey, at least it’s not pieces of dead corpses.
Today we refine asphalt from oil, but in the oil-rich areas of the Middle East, it can occur naturally. And let’s be honest — before modern medicine put things in order, people ate anything and everything to try and cure illnesses. So, in this context, eating bitumen isn’t all that weird.
The thing is, mumiya was also known and used in Europe. In Latin, which was spoken throughout the continent, its name turned into mumia.
Remember that, because it’ll be important soon.
During the Crusades in the 11th to 13th centuries, European knights and soldiers rampaged through the Middle East. But by that time, there had been a new linguistic development — from the Latin mumia, many European languages had gotten the word “mummy.”
That’s partly because Egyptians used bitumen, or mumia, in the embalming process. And as injured crusaders asked locals for medicine in the Middle East, they received mumiya.
When they finally returned home and wanted more of the medication they’d come to rely on, its name got lost in the translation. The crusaders, and everyone they talked to, thought they’d been consuming mummies.
Never underestimate the importance of good translation.
Mummy for What Ails You
From there, the mummy craze kicked off. By the 1100s, apothecaries and snake oil salesmen throughout Europe prescribed Ancient Egyptian corpses for anything from headaches to the plague.
Maybe you’re hoping that people were eating just the bandages of the mummy or something. But nope — bones, skulls, and withered dead flesh were the main ingredients of the bad medicine.
Of course, mummies aren’t exactly a plentiful resource. Despite an active, large-scale mummy smuggling industry, supply couldn’t meet demand.
So, naturally, unscrupulous mummy vendors turned to counterfeit products. On the lighter side of the scale, dried camel meat got passed off as mummy flesh.
But then there’s also the more gruesome side of things. Spanish royal physician Guy de la Fontaine noted on a trip to Egypt that some mummy suppliers sold deceased slaves and other people as mummies.
You’d think this revelation would’ve outraged European doctors. But nope — some of them started swearing by the healing properties of freshly harvested bones and skulls.
Others wanted to boost mumia sales to the royalty since kings usually had more money than peasants. So, they started claiming their mumia was made from Pharaohs and sales skyrocketed.
Apparently, the royals wanted to eat other royals. It’s a king-eat-king world out there.
Eventually, people realized that eating mummies didn’t do jack for your health and the cannibalistic practice stopped. But it took them a while to figure that out — apothecaries sold mumia well into the 18th century.
What’s Behind Bandage Number One?
Our story could end here. But unfortunately, European high society wasn’t yet done desecrating the mortal remains of Ancient Egyptians.
In 1799, Napoleon’s expedition into Egypt discovered the Rosetta Stone, which finally allowed Egyptologists to interpret hieroglyphics. This kicked off a Europe-wide interest in Egyptian history.
In Victorian England, this interest took on a macabre form. The English started hosting “unwrapping parties.”
These gatherings were exactly what they sound like. The hosts would serve food and get appropriately drunk on fine wine until the night’s piece de resistance — unwrapping the bandages of a genuine Egyptian mummy.
What better way to spend a night with friends than to defile someone’s corpse. At least they weren’t eating the mummy anymore — as far as we know.
As the 20th century rolled in, unwrapping parties went out of fashion. Finally, Ancient Egyptians get to rest in peace.
That is, until someone finds them and carries them off to a museum.