Mummies as Medicine: Medical Cannibalism

October 08, 2020 11:27 AM | Sarah Halter (Administrator)

by Haley Brinker

The idea of drinking human blood or consuming bones might sound like something out of a horror movie to people today, but it was a fairly common practice during the early modern period of history. It actually goes back even further. Medical cannibalism can trace its roots all the way back to ancient Rome, where spectators of gladiatorial fights would drink the blood of fallen gladiators in an attempt to cure them of their ills [1]. It was also thought that it this vital blood could cure things like epilepsy [4]. Now, some might say that this could just be a rare case; a few ancient vampires among a sea of ‘normal people.’ They would be wrong. Medical cannibalism was incredibly widespread. (Image: "Cannibalism in Russia and Lithuania 1571")

The popularity of medical cannibalism hit its peak in the 1500s and 1600s [2]. The practice of consuming body parts in various, creative ways was everywhere in Europe during this time. Egyptian mummies were thought to be incredibly powerful, so the grave robbers went to Egypt to steal them [1]. Now, any movie archaeologist or horror movie enthusiast would eye this practice warily; these robbers were begging to be cursed by the spirits of the former pharaohs. However, such reports can’t be located. Not all people believed that mummies needed to be Egyptian in order to be medicinally powerful. Many thought it just needed to be the mummified cadaver of any “healthy man” [5]. However, there was such a high demand for body parts from mummies that it created a black market of sorts, with industrious would-be grave robbers creating mummies of their own [3]. Like Ina Garten, they believed in the power of homemade. With this can-do attitude, they made local mummies by robbing the graves of local poor people or criminals, sometimes even just using animals and passing them off as human remains [3].

With medical cannibalism being so popular, it, of course, had its famous supporters throughout history. King Charles II was a believer in the power of human remains’ ability to cure the medical maladies of the living. He believed in a medicine called “spirit of the skull,” which contained real skull [1]. In fact, he wanted to make it so badly that he paid six thousand dollars for the recipe, which he referred to as “King’s Drops” [3]. Another enormous fan of consuming literal human body parts in order to cure common ailments was the 17th century brain scientist Thomas Willis. He believed that one could cure excessive bleeding by mixing together the tantalizing concoction of human skull powder and delicious chocolate [2]. Who doesn’t love a little chocolate when they’re feeling down?

The 16th century German and Swiss physician, Paracelsus, preferred the power of more “fresh corpses” [1]. Now, while it seems that he was a vampire, working to create an army of other vampires, that is, unexcitingly, not the case. More affluent would-be blood drinkers could go to their local apothecary to acquire the hemoglobin they so desired [2], while those of less wealth and status would simply attend a public execution and kindly ask for a cup of the deceased criminal’s blood from the executioner himself [1]. Paracelsus believed that when someone died suddenly (i.e. a hanging, an execution, etc.), their “vital spirits” could “burst forth to the circumference of the bone” and the living could use their highly powerful body parts to heal their ailments [3].

The list of supporters didn’t end there, either. Marsilio Ficino, an Italian scholar from the 15th century believed that the elderly should “suck the blood of an adolescent” who was in good spirits and of sound body to regain some of their former vigor [3]. Saint Albertus Magnus stated that a distillation of blood could “cure any disease of the body” [3]. Elizabeth Bathory’s belief in bathing in the blood of young women doesn’t seem so far-fetched now, does it? Heinous? Yes. A horrific crime of tremendous magnitude? Absolutely. A belief system totally out of line with the times? Nope.

Bones and blood weren’t the only ‘useful’ remedies at the time. The practitioners of medical cannibalism were what some might call… creative. Blood was thought to be the “vehicle of the soul,” so it was thought to be especially powerful [4], but how to deal with the pesky taste of drinking warm, human blood? Marmalade! Blood marmalade to be precise. A Franciscan apothecary in the 1600’s had a delightfully descriptive recipe to create the culinary confection that is blood marmalade [1]. Step one (the most important step, as we all know) was to find a donor with the following traits: “warm, moist temperament, such as those of a blotchy, red complexion and rather plump of build” [3]. It is quite difficult to pin down exactly what a ‘moist’ temperament is, but I’m sure those at the time had someone in mind as soon as they read the recipe. Bones were allegedly useful as well. It was believed that ‘like treated like,’ so skull powder was a great cure for any ailments of the head [3]. Even objects near the cadaver could hold power. A moss that grew on skulls was called usnea, which literally means “moss of the skull,” was thought to prevent nosebleeds by simply holding it or shoving it right into your nose [1].

As stated previously, bones and blood weren’t the only parts of the body that could ‘cure.’ Human fat was thought to have all sorts of medicinal properties. For instance, fat could prevent bruising of the skin [3]. The fatty fun doesn’t stop there, though. It was believed that the magical properties in human fat could be used to create something called a ‘Thieves Candle.’ This human-fat-containing candle was thought to be able to “paralyze enemies” [2]. Fat was so important to medicine that the local executioners would directly deliver the fat from executed criminals right to the apothecaries around town [3].

While this practice of consuming human remains was widely practiced and incredibly popular at this time, it didn’t prevent white Europeans from condemning tribal practices involving cannibalism with extreme revulsion. Puritans didn’t support belief in “transubstantiation” in Catholicism [5]. They believed that transforming bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ and then consuming it was a form of cannibalism [2]. Cannibalistic ritual practices performed by Native Americans were seen as ‘barbaric’ and used as an example of why they should be subjugated by the Europeans [3]. It is an interesting juxtaposition due to the fact that Native American cannibalistic practices were social and sacred and were done in order to “reintegrate the deceased into the tribe” [3] On the flip side, Europeans often didn’t know whose remains they were consuming. Often, bodies used for medical cannibalism belonged to those on the lowest rungs of the societal ladder: the poor, the disenfranchised, the ‘other.’

Using ritual cannibalism as a stick with which to beat down those that the Europeans deemed ‘less,’ was very common. During the subjugation of the Irish by the English, Irish skulls were unburied and sent to German pharmacies and apothecaries to be ground into powder and sold as a commodity [3]. Joseph Hall, a past bishop of Exeter, did a fiery sermon referring to the Turkish people as “bloody, man-eating cannibals, mongrel troglodytes feeding upon bloody carcasses” [3]. Bishop Hall was apparently fine with his own people consuming bones mixed with chocolate and alcohol or smearing a little blood marmalade on crusty bread, but not with social, religious rituals of respect done by non-white, non-Protestant individuals.

While the practice of medicinal cannibalism gradually dwindled, a book published in Germany in the early 1900s noted that a pharmaceutical company was still offering “genuine Egyptian mummy” in its catalog [5]. The human body is still used in medicine today, however these practices, such as blood transfusions and organ donations, are far more medically sound and don’t require any visits to the local executioner.



Bibliography

[1] Sugg, R. (2008). The art of medicine, Corpse medicine: Mummies, cannibals, and vampires. The Lancet, 371(9630), perspectives. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(08)60907-1

[2] Dolan, Maria. “The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution, May 6, 2012. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-gruesome-history-of-eating-corpses-as-medicine-82360284/.

[3] Lovejoy, B. (2016). A Brief History of Medical Cannibalism. Lapham's Quarterly, 9(5).

[4] Himmelman, P. K. (1997). The Medicinal Body: An Analysis of Medicinal Cannibalism in Europe, 1300-1700. Dialectical Anthropology, 22(2).

[5] Gordon-Grube, K. (1988). Anrhropophagy in Post-Renaissance Europe: The Tradition of Medicinal cannibalism. American Anthropologist, 90(2).


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