Driven first by the belief that ground-up and tinctured human remains could cure anything from bubonic plague to a headache, and then by the macabre ideas Victorian people had about after-dinner entertainment, the bandaged corpses of ancient Egyptians were the subject of fascination from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.
Mumia, the product created from mummified bodies, was a medicinal substance consumed for centuries by rich and poor, available in apothecaries’ shops, and created from the remains of mummies brought from Egyptian tombs back to Europe.
By the 12th century apothecaries were using ground up mummies for their otherworldly medicinal properties. Mummies were a prescribed medicine for the next 500 years.
In a world without antibiotics, physicians prescribed ground up skulls, bones and flesh to treat illnesses from headaches to reducing swelling or curing the plague.
Not everyone was convinced. Guy de la Fontaine, a royal doctor, doubted mumia was a useful medicine and saw forged mummies made from dead peasants in Alexandria in 1564. He realised people could be conned. They were not always consuming genuine ancient mummies.
But the forgeries illustrate an important point: there was constant demand for dead flesh to be used in medicine and the supply of real Egyptian mummies could not meet this.
Apothecaries and herbalists were still dispensing mummy medicines into the 18th century.
Not all doctors thought dry, old mummies made the best medicine. Some doctors believed that fresh meat and blood had a vitality the long-dead lacked.
The claim that fresh was best convinced even the noblest of nobles. England’s King Charles II took medication made from human skulls after suffering a seizure, and, until 1909, physicians commonly used human skulls to treat neurological conditions.
By the 19th century, people were no longer consuming mummies to cure illness but Victorians were hosting “unwrapping parties” where Egyptian corpses would be unwrapped for entertainment at private parties.
Mummy unwrapping parties ended as the 20th century began. The macabre thrills seemed in bad taste and the inevitable destruction of archaeological remains seemed regrettable.
Today, the black market of antiquity smuggling – including mummies – is worth about US$3 billion.
No serious archaeologist would unwrap a mummy and no physician suggest eating one. But the lure of the mummy remains strong. They are still for sale, still exploited, and still a commodity.