Medieval Europeans ate ground mummies stolen from Egypt to treat headaches, swelling, and the plague

Why did people think cannibalism was good for their health? The answer offers a glimpse into the craziest corners of European history, at a time when Europeans were obsessed with Egyptian mummies.

The idea was originally fueled by the belief that crushed human remains could cure everything from bubonic plague to headaches.

Europeans ate mummy powder to try to cure common ailments


Europeans ate mummy powder to try to cure common ailmentsPhoto credit: SWNS: South West News Service

It was then carried by the macabre notions that Victorian people had about after-dinner entertainment.

The bandaged corpses of the ancient Egyptians fascinated people from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.

mummy craze

The belief that mummies could cure diseases drove people to eat for centuries tasted awful.

Mumia, the product made from mummified bodies, was a consumed medicinal substance since centuries of rich and poor, available in pharmaciesand created from the remains of mummies brought back to Europe from Egyptian tombs.

By the 12th century, pharmacists were using ground mummies for their otherworldly medicinal properties. Mummies were a prescribed medicine for the next 500 years.

In a world without antibiotics, doctors prescribed ground-up skulls, bones, and flesh to treat diseases headache to reduce swelling or cure the pest.

Not everyone was convinced. Guy de la Fontainea royal physician, doubted that mumia was a useful medicine and saw fake mummies made from dead peasants in Alexandria in 1564.

He realized that people could be deceived. They didn’t always consume actual ancient 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 it.

pharmacists and herbalists were still dispenses mummy drugs to the 18th century.

Mom’s medicine

Not all doctors thought dry old mummies were the best medicine. Some doctors believed that fresh flesh and blood had a vitality long dead lacked.

The claim to be fresh convinced even the noblest nobles best. Englands King Charles II took medicine made from human skulls after a seizure, and by 1909 physicians frequently used human skulls to treat neurological disorders.

For the royal and social elite, eating mummies seemed to be a must royally appropriate medicine , as doctors claimed, Mumia was made by pharaohs. Royalties ate royalties.

Dinner, drinks and a show

By the 19th century, people no longer consumed mummies to cure disease, but the Victorians held “unpacking parties” where Egyptian corpses were unwrapped for entertainment at private parties.

Napoleons first expedition to Egypt in 1798 piqued European curiosity and allowed 19th-century travelers to bring whole mummies to Egypt back to Europe Bought From the street in Egypt.

Victorian instead private parties dedicated to unpacking the remains of ancient Egyptian mummies.

Early unpacking events had at least a semblance of medical legitimacy.

1834 the Surgeon Thomas Pettigrew unwrapped a mummy at the Royal College of Surgeons.

in his time autopsies and operations took place in public and this unboxing was just another public medical event.

Soon even the pretense of medical research was lost.

Mummies weren’t medical anymore, they were exciting. A host who could entertain an audience while unpacking was wealthy enough to own an actual mummy.

The thrill of seeing dried flesh and bones emerge as bandages unraveled meant that people flocked to these unwrapping works, whether in a private home or the theater of a learned society.

Strong drink meant The audience was loud and appreciative.

The curse of the mummy

By the early 20th century, the mummy unwrapping parties ended.

The macabre thrills seemed tasteless and that inevitable destruction of archaeological remains seemed unfortunate.

Then the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb fueled one insanity that shaped art deco Design in everything from the motifs of the doors in the Chrysler Building to the Shape of watches designed by Cartier.

The sudden death in 1923 of Lord Carnarvon, sponsor of Tutankhamun’s expedition, was of natural causes, but was soon ascribed to a new superstition – “the curse of the mummy“.

Modern mummies

In 2016, Egyptologist John J. Johnston hosted the first public unpacking a mummy since 1908.

Part art, part science, and part show, Johnston created an immersive recreation of what it was like to witness a Victorian unboxing.

It was as tasteless as possible, with everything from Bangles’ Walk Like an Egyptian playing out of loudspeakers to the visitors bragging about pure gin.

The mummy was just an actor wrapped in bandages, but the event was an intoxicating sensory mix.

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The fact that it took place at St Bart’s Hospital in London was a modern reminder that mummies traverse many realms of experience, from the medical to the macabre.

Today the black market of antiquities smuggling – including mummies – is a value $3 billion.

No reputable archaeologist would unwrap a mummy and no doctor would suggest eating one. But the allure of the mummy remains strong. They are still for sale, still being exploited and still a commodity.

This article was originally written for The conversation by Marcus Harmes, Professor of Pathways Education at the University of Southern Queensland.

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