1001 Past Tales Mumia: Renaissance Cannibalism in an Apothecary's Formula

Mumia: Renaissance Cannibalism in an Apothecary's Formula

06/10/16 10:08:12 (15 comments)

by: Elena Vosnaki

It comes as a surprise to everyone I share this tidbit with that when Leonardo da Vinci was painting his Last Supper, people in royal courts and aristocratic houses used to partake of a different, yet oddly analogous, cannibalistic Eucharist: they consumed "mumia", the grounded powder coming off the smashed heads and bodies of embalmed mummies, usually coming from Egypt but not exclusively. 

Perish the thought that people actually consumed mumia internally, but this is what they did from at least 1000AD onwards: vital energy at its most macabre. Egyptology might not have been born, yet people knew these corpses were old. The ground matter of the corpses, black, firm and putrid smelling, defies modern logic, as do most arcane and animistic practices that come from the prehistoric world. Eating a worthy opponent or an ancestor is an ancient practice in order to graft their excellence unto the eater. In an even more sinister turn of events, like the one reported by Sinafasi Makelo, representative of Mbuti pygmies to the United Nations when people were hunted down and eaten like game animals, the eaten can be regarded as "subhuman" and their flesh considered to infer magical powers.  

What is it which serves the notion that the Other has powers of Magick [sic] which are covetable and claimed, even through cannibalism? It's as old as Cronus/Saturn eating his children. 

There is no conclusive psychological answer as of yet. Only theories are propounded. 

Goya's famous painting of Saturn devouring his kin

In the case of mumia, the reasoning of famine can be safely excluded. Anthropologist Marvin Harris, in his book "Kings and Cannibals", propounds the possibility that the Aztec diet of the MesoAmerican peoples was lacking in protein, so the alleged cannibalistic practices tied to human sacrifice there might act as the reward of an aristocratic diet. Mumia eating during Renaissance Europe nevertheless was both expensive and eaten in such quantities that it wouldn't justify sustenance for a healthy adult. Therefore the reasoning deviates in the other possible direction; that of inferring magical properties, of acting as a prophylactic amulet (of which we have repeatedly discoursed in the 1001 Past Tales series) and as a medicinal aid.

One fascinating explanation holds that a person's life span is predetermined (common in many folk tales across cultures, standing as a lantern whose oil is predetermined from birth) and therefore one's unnatural death would provide harvesting of the rest of his or her predetermined life...

Johann Schröder, a German pharmacologist of the 17th century, instructed that the "cadaver of a reddish man [...] of 24 years, who had died of a violent death, but not illness, [...] was to be hung up in a very dry and shady place." Then it should be cut into small slices, sprinkled with "myrrh and at least a little bit of aloeswood" and then soaked in wine for a predetermined set of days. The result would be as good smelling as "smoke-cured meat", "without any stench."

Yummy, no? 

Axung Hominis refers to human fat...for consuming (via wikimedia commons)

"You should choose that which is shining, black, bad-smelling and firm," instructs another arcane medical handbook which had been picked up by indie perfumer Mandy Aftel when she was researching the scent of "mumia" for her book "Fragrant" where it makes a tentative appearence, that most mysterious and most alchemical of ingredients ever entering a formula for wellness and invigoration and standing as a powerful aid against epilepsy (much like the Roman practice of drinking the blood of gladiators), ulcers, poisoning as well as a general panacea. 

Arabs and Europeans in Renaissance times and peaking in the 16th century actually did taste and smell ground, embalmed corpses dating from the ancient Egyptian kingdoms. None other than the infamous Catherine of Medici, patron to perfumer-poisoner Rene the Florentine, dragged from their native Italy to France when she was to marry the French king, was chronicled to have made a trip top Egypt in 1549 in order to loot through the tombs around Sakkara, seeking for medicine-sourcing materials coming from mummies. Her father in law, King Francis I of France, carried a sachet of powdered mumia on his person as a protection against ailments and bleeding; a consideration very pertinent in an era of stubbings as a matter of course (St.Bartholomew's Night would soon follow). He was not alone. 

King Charles II of England also favored distillate of human skull. His daily "king's drops" were prepared from such a distillate for which he had allegedly paid 6,000 pounds. 

In a similar vein, no pun intended, Pope Innocent VIII had three young boys bled when on his death bed and drank their blood. Unfortunately for all involved Hades wasn't in a good mood that day. 

Seeing as the consuming of corpses was thriving during the Crusades, mainly due to their reputation of stopping blood loss, even as western history is trying to erase the traces left in history, the synchronous secret Societies that emerged, such as the Knight Templars and their Free Masonry descendants (all the way down to the Yale Univesity Skull and Bones secret society), have been connected to the cannibalistic rituals of consuming glands, human fat and powdered skulls of the dead. 

It wasn't only kings and aristocrats cannibalizing either; priests and scientists ate mumia too, as evidenced in Richard Sagg's book "Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians".  As an archaeologist and historian myself I have come across various references of ceramic containers which were supposed to contain a powder coming from the grinding of actual embalmed corpses, often bearing the label "mumia" (or mumia), as well as written sources cataloguing it, none more recent than the medical supplies catalogue from the turn of the 20th century by E. Merck. 

But weren't people repulsed by smell and flavor alone? More than one might imagine. 

It's rather ironic that tar bubbling off the ground, that common material from which so many perfumery materials blossomed forth during the chemical advances that the late 19th century offered us, is, when dried, the very asphaltum (also known as carabe or bitumen of Judea) which was used to fool those pesky cannibals of the European courts...

photo of mummy seller by Felix Bonfis, via wikimedia commons

Ancient Egyptian mummification processes, as we have described in our article Ancient Fragrance Lore: from Egypt to the Eastern Mediterranean, often included asphaltum to fill the empty body cavities after the removal of internal organs. The black color of the mummies had excited the collective unconscious during less scientifically focused times, making both Arabs and Europeans of the Middle Ages believe that the black hue might even be superior for the preparation of pigments. The reason given, in one testimony chronicled in the book The Chemistry of Paints and Painting by Arthur H.Church is that the raw asphalt suffers compared to mummy pigment in that the latter has lost some of its volatile hydrocarbons in its chemical makeup, due to the heat it has been exposed to, and additionally offering more solidity and less fusibility seeing as the mummy asphalt results from grounding the bones of the corpse together. 

The smell of this asphalt wasn't particularly welcoming by any account, even though we have Plutarch's testimony of it being used in that sacred, fragrant concoction of the Ancient Egypts that is kyphi. It is reputed to be metallic and tarry with a touch of sulphur, an element connected to diabolical forces as we discussed in our previous article A Diabolical Whiff: Scents of Hell, so the preparation of asphalt mumia was used in incense blends that would be used in desctructive talismans and negative magick. It was used on the back of scurrying mirrors, if you're familiar with those. Could the cunning Catherine of Medici be therefore using mumia for her more sinister endavors? It very well could be.

Whatever the complicated reasons behind eating, smelling and talisman-holding of the ground mumia in the Arab world and Western Europe during the centuries spanning from 1000AD to 1900AD, the trend unquestionably waned upon the discovery that the high demand of the mumia resulted in the con artist trade of fake mummies; namely the steeping of slaves' corpses in asphalt, the drying and subsequent grounding of their body parts to be sold as Egyptian mumia...

In matters of life, vigor and health, death seems to be the perpetual, confusing, yet compelling historical response. 

Find all the author's historical articles in one place on 1001 Past Tales

 

Elena Vosnaki

Elena Vosnaki is a historian and perfume writer from Greece and a Writer for Fragrantica. She is the founder and editor of Perfume Shrine, one of the most respected independent online publications on perfume.

Her writing was recognized at the Fifi Awards for Editorial Excellence in 2009 and in 2011.

She is consulted as a fragrance historian & expert and has been curating fragrance installations at museum exhibits at the Milan Expo 2015 and elsewhere. She also contributes to publications around the world.

 

MEH



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saminlondon
saminlondon

Very interesting article. Thank you.

I've been told that the recipe for Guerlain's great Djedi originally included mummy resin, which would make sense when one bears in mind its associated mythology and the context in which the perfume first appeared.

Jun
17
2016
ranchorita
ranchorita

This essay is well-written and informative. As abhorrent as some of these practices may seem, looking frankly at the habits of our ancestors affords a metric for understanding the sliding scale of what human civilizations deem to be barbaric, sensible, and healthful. Thank you for this intriguing article.

Jun
13
2016
sweefa
sweefa

And let's not forget about the mummy unboxing - uhm unwrapping parties (thank God youtube wasn't a thing back then) No wonder mummy making became an industry.
The past is dark and full of terrors ;)

Jun
11
2016
highroller
highroller

As an historian especially of European interests, I found this article very interesting. There is always something new to discover while researching European History, and this is the first time in all my years spent engulfed in, and as a participant in, many History themed endeavors, that I have come across this haunting subject. I certainly won't be reenacting this Macabre of the Renaissance era. Thank you for sharing this unusual side of Renaissance History.

Jun
11
2016
Ferminadaza
Ferminadaza

Hmm...interesting, however why did I click on the title thinking that it would be a review of a perfume inspired by the imprisoned writer and journalist, Mumia Abu Jamal? I just imagined the title being this awesome cerebral symbolic message about the way our society cannibalizes it's free thinking intelligentsia.

The ultimate accompaniment to one's "Free Mumia" t-shirt scenting poetry readings and college protests everywhere with all proceeds going to activism, Mr. Jamal's legal fund, and a non-profit focused on supporting and educating young journalists.

Basically, the title for me was a fragrance Rorschach test of sorts, lol.

Jun
11
2016
the big totoro
the big totoro

Interesting and disgusting article, I enjoyed every minute of it but yes, it was also quite nasty.

Jun
10
2016
nostalgicnose
nostalgicnose

Fascinating article, again. Made me a bit nauseous but i loved every bit of it!

Jun
10
2016
Sherihan
Sherihan

الموضوع يخوف

Jun
10
2016
Anaïs Nin
Anaïs Nin

Thank you Elena for a fascinating article! I have wondered about things like this since learning about Erzsébet Báthory who believed that drinking the bloods of virgins will help her stay youthful and beautiful. Can't wait to read more from you!

Jun
10
2016
janeofdoe
janeofdoe

.......I'll take the reformulated version of anything, please. Lol! I mean. ...I'm a dark person, but damn!

Jun
10
2016
wesleyhclark
wesleyhclark

Oh, thank goodness. I thought this was an elaborate set up for somebody's ghastly idea of a new perfume release.

Jun
10
2016
samberg
samberg

Fascinating article, thank you.

Jun
10
2016
greydove
greydove

Wow, I'm reading about black goo and bitumens on fragrantica. My worlds are merging, lol! And as Dr. Gonzo says in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I'd try just about anything but I'd never in hell touch a pineal gland!

Jun
10
2016
PerfumeEmpress
PerfumeEmpress

Oh, how lovely. Eau de Cadaver. I can't wait.

Jun
10
2016
La DameDeNoir
La DameDeNoir

Very interesting article indeed. I have understood that actual mummy sought by apothecarists was the black, resinous substance that was found on the ancient corpses or inside them. I knew that it was believed to have healing properties, but not that it was used in perfumery, although that is not surprinsing considering that, at that period, perfume was often conected with medicine and prophylaxis. It seems that the general thought was that something which had endured so well the passing of the time -the mummies- could make the human life to last longer. However, there were physicians who comdemned the use of mummy in medicine, regarding it as a swindle and a superstition. The most famous of them was the French surgeon Ambroise Paré, considered by many the father of modern medicine.

The practise of consuming parts of human bodies, like blood or fat, was still prevailing in certain remotes parts of Euprope during the XX th century (the popular belief was that they had the ability of healing certain deseases, like comsumption), so we shouldn't be so shocked of hearing such histories about cannibalism and vampirism.

Jun
10
2016

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