Feeling ill? In 15th-century Europe, the remedy for your headache, stomach ailment, or cancer might come with a side of Egyptian mummy.
For centuries, embalmed bodies were prized across the continent not for their historical value, but for their purported medical benefits. Here’s the surprising reason that people once craved, and ate, mummies.
How did people start eating mummies?
The practice of consuming parts of ancient Egyptian mummies—and, later, embalmed corpses of all kinds—began in the 11th century. What started it all, writes historian Karl Dannenfelt, was a series of mistranslations and misunderstandings.
The gory story hinges on one word: mumia. Prized for its healing qualities, mumia was a substance found on a single Persian mountainside where it seeped from black-rock asphalt. Named after the local word for wax, “mum,” the substance was used for a variety of medical purposes and gained a reputation in the Arabic world as expensive, precious, and effective.
But when Western Europeans began encountering the Islamic world and translating its texts, a single mistranslation led to widespread confusion about the meaning of mumia. According to Dannenfelt, a variety of 11th- and 12th-century translators incorrectly identified mumia as a substance exuded from preserved bodies in Egyptian tombs.
Part of the confusion came from the word mumia’s similarity to the word mummy—and also the fact that some ancient Egyptian mummies were embalmed using asphalt. Scientists now know that only some mummies were made with that process. But Western Europeans, fascinated by ancient finds in Egypt, ran with the concept—and mumia became associated with embalmed bodies instead of precious asphalt from a Persian mountain.
Mistranslation and medical misunderstandings now combined with another fallacious, but longstanding, belief: that the human body contained properties that could heal other humans.
For generations, humans had practiced what is now known as medical cannibalism in a bid for better health. From the belief that gladiators’ blood could heal epilepsy to the use of human fat in homemade remedies, medical cannibalism was alive and well in medieval Western Europe. With the arrival of mumia, by then also called mummy, medical practitioners believed they’d hit upon a new source of healing products made from the human body.
Mumia was prescribed for everything from headaches to heart attacks—and a run on mummies followed. Suddenly, people were ransacking Egyptian tombs not just for jewelry or pottery, but for the bodies within, and canny salesmen began collecting and selling mummies. Demand quickly outpaced supply, leading to a brisk trade in fake mummies. Bodysnatchers and unethical tradespeople began turning fresh cadavers and the bodies of executed criminals, enslaved people, and others into “mummies” in an attempt to capitalize on the craze.
Bodysnatchers would “steal by night the bodies of such as were hanged,” wrote one observer, who noted the bodies were then embalmed with salt and drugs, dried in an oven, then ground into powder that apothecaries added to their home remedies.
Victorians and Egyptomania
Though skepticism about mumia grew throughout the centuries, the fascination with mummies only rose.
Egyptomania was so pronounced in England during the Victorian Era that mummy unwrapping became a popular pastime in lecture halls, hospitals, and even private homes in the 19th century as British men returned home from archaeological expeditions, colonial postings, or sightseeing tours with bodies they’d looted from Egyptian tombs.
Despite a ban on the export of antiquities, Europeans continued seeking out mummies both to satisfy their curiosity and provide components for medical remedies. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that the use of mumia finally died off.
Still, the world’s fascination with ancient Egyptian “remedies” remains. For proof, just look at the skin care shelf in your local store, where “magic” creams and other skin care items use ancient Egyptian motifs in their advertising material. We may no longer eat the byproducts of mummies to stay healthy, but the mystique of ancient Egypt remains as strong as ever.