In their search for better ways of curing the human body, healers throughout history have tried some bizarre and, by modern standards, often disturbing and unethical means of dealing with disease. One of the most unsettling is the practice of prescribing mummy powder — for health.

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Pictured is an apothecary vessel for mumia at the German Pharmacy Museum, in Heidelberg.
Image credit: Zinnmann, 2014.

At present, as we search for pathways to wellness that suit our needs and lifestyles, we often come across practices that seem bizarre at best and downright dangerous at worst.

From the spurious yoni eggs to the supposed cure-all drug that was banned by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as potentially life threatening — plenty of so-called wellness products end up raising eyebrows, and with good cause.

And if 21st-century “wellness” territory can sometimes prove weird or even unsettling, it is no wonder that medical practices of hundreds of years ago are strange to navigate.

Trepanation, drilling into the skull to relieve migraine or “release demons,” was a crude precursor to modern neurosurgery.

But the twilight of medical care features some even more chilling practices. One of these is ingesting mumia, mummy powder, or other human remains for the sake of health.

In this Curiosities of Medical History feature, we look at when, how, and why healers thought that prescribing mummy powder would be a good idea.

The practice of prescribing human remains or their byproducts for healing goes back hundreds of years.

In a chapter of Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture, Louise Noble, a senior lecturer at the University of New England, in Armidale, Australia, points out that some of medicine’s most important forebears, Galen and Paracelsus, advocated the medicinal use of human remains.

Galen, a Roman physician and philosopher who lived in the second century, “admits the curative effect on epilepsy and arthritis of an elixir of burned human bones,” Noble writes.

And Paracelsus, a Swiss alchemist and physician who lived from 1493–1541, “observes that the noblest medicine for man is man’s body and promotes the medicinal power of mummy, human blood, fat, marrow, dung, and cranium in the treatment of many ailments,” she adds.

Between at least the 12th and the 17th centuries — and well into the 18th century, according to Noble — mumia was widely used as a drug in European countries.

But what was mumia, or “mummy,” in medical parlance of the time? In early medical writing from the Middle East, the word, or rather its variant, mumiya, referred to a natural mineral pitch.

However, in time, it took on a set of different meanings for the thinkers and physicians of Europe.

According to an 18th-century pharmaceutical treatise by Dr. Robert James, the term could refer to various substances extracted from embalmed human remains:

“Under the name of mummy are comprehended, first, the mummy of the Arabians, which is a liquament, or concreted liquor, obtain’d in sepulchres, by exudation from carcases embalm’d with aloes, myrrh, and belsam. […] The second kind of mummy is the Egyptian, which is a liquament of carcases, season’d with pissasphaltus. A third substance, which goes by the name of mummy, is a carcase torrified under the sand, by the heat of the sun: but such a one is seldom to be met with in our country.”

Dr. James also described the end product as a “resinous, hardn’d, black shining surface, of a somewhat acrid and bitterish taste, and of a fragrant smell.”

Not all mumia substance was equal, though, as Dr. James’ florid description suggests. Sometimes the word referred to a resinous liquid allegedly leaked from cadavers: the “concreted liquor.”

Other times it referred to “mummy powder,” finely ground bones and other remains, or “a carcase torrified under the sand,” as he puts it in the treatise.

And in other cases, mumia referred to bitumen, a substance used by the Ancient Egyptians in embalming — what Dr. James called “pissasphaltus.”

Dr. James also explained what kinds of ailments mummy might treat. He listed its various uses as:

  • a blood thinner — “Mummy resolves coagulated blood.”
  • a painkiller — “said to be effectual in purging the head, against pains of the spleen”
  • a cough suppressant — “effectual against […] a cough”
  • an anti-inflammatory — “effectual against […] inflation of the body”
  • a menstrual aid —”effectual against […] obstructions of the menses
  • a means of promoting wound healing — “of service for consolidating wounds”

But other parts of human remains could come in handy, too. In his treatise, Dr. James also recommended a cadaver’s skin for “difficult labours, and hysteric affections,” fat to ease pain and “mollif[y] the hardness of cicatrices,” and bones to treat “catarrh, flux of the menses, dysentry, and lientery [diarrhea].”

Yet, according to Richard Sugg, Ph.D., a lecturer at the University of Durham, in the United Kingdom, not everyone was a fan of the mummy cure, even when this “medicine” was in its heyday.

As he explains in an article in The Lancet, some 16th- and 17th-century physicians were particularly concerned that many of the “mummy” drugs were not the real deal — not extracted from real Ancient Egyptian mummies — but counterfeits procured from the cadavers of more recently executed criminals.

“Referring to counterfeit mummy […] the French royal surgeon Ambroise Paré lamented in 1585 that ‘We are … compelled both foolishly and cruelly to devour the mangled and putrid particles of the carcasses of the basest people of Egypt, or such as are hanged’,” Sugg cites.

In the West, the history of mummy cures, corpse medicines, and medical cannibalism is deeply rooted in social inequality and racial stereotyping — but also in a vastly different perception of human remains, compared with how most Western societies view them today.

Noble notes that ancient Romans believed that “blood drunk hot from a gladiator’s wounds could cure epilepsy.” As most gladiators were slaves, the notion of drinking their blood emphasizes the wide social divide: Those without citizens’ rights provided both gruesome entertainment in the arena and a medicinal ingredient that would otherwise be off-limits.

Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries, apothecaries and physicians — or rather, hired body snatchers — might steal fresh, unclaimed cadavers of executed criminals, and some of those bodies might become the source of medicinal extracts.

Noble also reports Dr. Paré’s disapproval of just such practices, outlining his “condemnation of French apothecaries […] who, in the absence of superior mummy, were ‘sometimes moved … to steal by night the bodies of such as were hanged and embalming them with salt and in an oven, so to sel them thus adulterated instead of true mummie’.”

Sugg, meanwhile, points out that “For a long time, charges of cannibalism were used as an effective slur against tribal peoples in the Americas and Australasia.” Yet for centuries, Europeans had no qualms about consuming human remains for health — particularly if those remains came from ancient tombs in the Middle East.

While this practice began to die out in the 18th century, Egyptian mummies remained at the center of an intense European trade for another hundred years or so — as mummy brown, a pigment obtained from mummified remains, continued to be popular with painters in the West.

Finally, however, medicinal cannibalism fell out of fashion completely, partly thanks to shifting attitudes toward human remains, which by the 20th century, had become decidedly less palatable to the public at large.

“What can we learn from the surprisingly neglected history of corpse medicine? We can reasonably infer, for one thing, that it was not merely scientific evidence that finally banished mummy from mainstream medical practice. It seems to have fallen victim, in part, to a more general ideology of progress and enlightenment, as well as to a new kind of gentility, in which the human body (living or dead) far more easily provoked disgust. “

– Richard Sugg, Ph.D.

Some aspects of medical history may now seem shocking and repelling, but reckoning with them means reckoning with societies’ shifting attitudes toward good health and illness — and who can benefit from healthcare.

Going forward, reflecting on these darker and more unusual sides of medical history may inform a more equitable and comprehensive understanding of health practices.

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