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Anthropology of Food
Cannibalism has been a topic of morbid fascination, condemnation, and strong subject of academic and moral argument. Medicinal cannibalism and corpse medicine became a pervasive occurrence in early modern Europe and America. Egyptian mummies pulverized into powder, human flesh of those recently executed and tragically died, fat, blood, skull and moss of the dead man’s skull were in high demand by physicians and their patients. Paracelsian chemists and physicians (a notorious medical movement in the late 16th and 17th century based upon theories and therapies of Paracelsus) made very careful removal and use of the entire human corpse. Thomas Willis, Robert Boyle, Charles II of England and a host of affluent gentry and aristocrats actively participated in this practice, along with the lucrative underground world of executioners, merchants, and grave robbers. This essay delves into the facts of medicinal cannibalism, purposed body parts, and healing practices.
In order to understand Medicinal Cannibalism, it is important we first understand what cannibalism is; Cannibalism is the intake or consumption of one’s own species. Medical Cannibalism or the proper term iatric cannibalism is the ritualistic eating of human flesh for purpose of healing the human body. The consumption of mummies and human tissue became a infamous pharmaceutical drug used widely all over the Europe, and were still sold at highly regarded German pharmacies as recent as 1908, and continued to be practiced in the Pacific Ocean islands as late as the second half of the 20th century.
Medical Cannibalism was commonplace and hit the peak of popularity during the 16th and 17th centuries. Many European royals, scientists, and clergy commonly ingested medical potions containing human blood, fat, bodily secretions, and bones believed to cure everything from cuts and bruises to seizures.
So Jesus said to them. “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…” -John 6:53
In order to gain an understanding about the history of medical cannibalism, we need to explore the Christian followers and their gruesome healing practices. In the Christian faith, the correlation between the deceased and the godly has been a elemental part of ceremony and worship.
Very early on, flocks of faithful worshippers prayed over the dead martyred saints believing the saint’s physical remains provided a spiritual connection between man and God. Their decaying bodies and their bodily composition (such as blood, flesh, organs, bones, and secretions) believed to have holy powers to provide miracles of healing and the escape of spiritual and mortal death. These theft and vandalism of these bodies grew so widespread eventually, requiring relocation of the bodies to secure resting places.
Stories of these healing miracles continued to be reported by those who prayed or touched these saints’ corpses: Saint Catherine of Siena’s mummified head displayed at the Church of San Domenico in Siena, Italy and is believed to have healing powers. Catherine of Siena was believed to have had performed a healing ritual for a nun dying from breast cancer described as “twice forced herself to overcome nausea by thrusting her mouth into the putrefying breast… and drank her pus.” (Sugg, 2012) In central Italy, the faithful would pour olive oil over the martyred Saint Felix’s through holes in the tomb and collect the oil that had run over his decaying body to anoint the sick. (Sugg, 2012)
By the Middle Ages, Christian Europe was no longer satisfied consumption of dead saints, but had grown to also hunger for human bodies.
For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement byt the atonement by the life. -Leviticus 17:11
Human blood believed to contain the essence of spirit and life and through consumption; the blood’s life essence is transferred. Regarded as the greatest scientist of his time, Saint Albertus Magus (1206-1280), prescribed ‘a most precious water’ containing the distilled blood from a healthy man. He declared “any disease of the body, if it be anointed therewith, is made whole and all inward diseases by the drinking thereof. A small quantity thereof received, restoreth them that have lost all strength: it cureth the palsy effectuously, and preserveth the body from all sickness.” (Sugg, 2012)
In 1483, King Louis XI ailing and struggling to live, drank the blood of small children: “Every day he grew worse, and the medicines profited him nothing, though of a strange character; for he vehemently hoped to recover by the human blood which he took and swallowed from certain children.” (Himmelman, 1997) In 1492, Pope Innocent VIII near death after a violent stroke drank blood drained by his personal physician of three young boys causing their death as well as the unsuccessful healing of the pope resulting in death.
The scientific approach to medical practice during the Renaissance triumphed over the faith-based healing of the past creating great advancements in chemistry. biology, and medicine. Oddly enough, medicinal cannibalism reached the peak of popularity and the art of alchemy.
“Decay is the beginning of all birth-and of all health” -Paracelsus
Alchemic philosophy of corpse medicine was uncomplicated: through decomposition, old matter transformed into raw material once again. Refinement of human organic matter is the base of the ‘essence of life’.
Theophorastus Bombastus von Honenheim (1491-1541)
Early literature is full of revelations pertaining to the potent medicinal power in the beneficial healing of an individual’s ailments. The text and medical studies of medicinal cannibalism and corpse pharmacology, reveals the commonplace practice of ingesting human bodily matter and reveals a culture preoccupied.
According to early literature (980-1037), the ingestion of mummies was the preparation that could cure epilepsy, nausea, colds, and the antidote of poison. By the late sixteenth century, the ingestion of mummies became a renowned pharmaceutical drug used widely all over the Europe, and were still sold at reputable German pharmacies as recent as 1908.[i] Further, ingestion of human bodies was practiced in many of the islands in the Pacific Ocean until the second half of the twentieth century. The question necessarily occurs: what’s good about it? Ingestion of human bodies is not necessarily an appealing notion even to the people in the sixteenth century. When one is prescribed a half a pound of mummy dust by a doctor as a remedy for a cold, it sounds like the risk isn’t worth taking, for one could ask many questions such as, ‘For how long do I need to take it?’ or more obviously, ‘Does that work?’ and so on. Dwelling deeper, can one consume another being of the same species? What would its moral implication be? Apparently, these are types of questions that were asked and have been asked by those who promoted medicinal ingestion of flesh as well as the deliberate act of cannibalism. In this paper, I will examine the types of cannibalisms as well as ways to prepare human flesh, discuss the theoretical and practical implications of cannibalism and briefly touch upon the alleged relationship between cannibalism and witchcraft in early modern Europe.
If you haven’t read much about ancient Egyptian mummies, you may be shocked to learn that in centuries past, they were ground up into a fine powder dispensed by pharmacists to be topically applied or orally ingested as a treatment for ailments as diverse as upset stomach, gout, and epilepsy. Mumia (or mummia) was 1st prepared in the 12th c., was in common use by the 15th c., and reached great popularity by the 17th c. “Mummy is become merchandise, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsams,” wrote Sir Thomas Browne in 1841. Mummy powder was in such demand that the supply of ancient Egyptians slowed and contemporary corpses were substituted. Mumia was still available as recently as the early 20th c. Fast forward to 2012, when scientists are again looking to mummy as a cure. They fear that our (over)use of antibiotics has ravaged our intestinal flora, which in turn has changed our metabolism, damaging our immune system and contributing to obesity. Cecil Lewis of the University of Oklahoma is comparing the bacteria in the poop of ancient mummies – who lived before the age of antibiotics – to our own gut bacteria so they can figure out what has changed. “My first hypothesis would be that chlorinated water and antibiotics fundamentally changed human microbiomes,” says Dr. Lewis, who adds, “It’s too early to tell if it’s a good idea to repopulate our guts with bacteria. But it’s certainly an important idea that requires investigation.” And presumably a more sophisticated method than ingesting mumia… 1st image) An apothecary vessel inscribed “MUMIÆ” once contained powdered mummy and is now a specimen in the pharmacy collection of the Museums für Hamburgische Geschichte, 2nd image) Alisa Eagleston and Elizabeth Cornu, conservators from the San Francisco Fine Arts Museum, cover the 2,500-year-old mummy of an Egyptian man named “Irethorrou” after being scanned at the Stanford Medical Center.
These are some of the many posts I have written about ancient Egypt, if you care to read on: Ancient Egyptian perfume, Rediscovery of ancient Egypt, Raiding ancient Egypt, Ancient Egyptian finds, The nurse and the sphinx, Mummy toes, Ramesses’ repatriation, Mummies guarded, The mummies in question, and Egyptian obelisks elsewhere.
Noble’s new book,Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture, and another by Richard Sugg of England’s University of Durham,Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians, reveal that for several hundred years, peaking in the 16th and 17th centuries, many Europeans, including royalty, priests and scientists, routinely ingested remedies containing human bones, blood and fat as medicine for everything from headaches to epilepsy. There were few vocal opponents of the practice, even though cannibalism in the newly explored Americas was reviled as a mark of savagery. Mummies were stolen from Egyptian tombs, and skulls were taken from Irish burial sites. Gravediggers robbed and sold body parts.
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Dolan, M. (2012). The Gruesome History of Earing Corpses as Medicine History . Retrieved from Smithsonianmag.com: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-gruesome-history-of-eating-corpses-as-medicine
Gordon-Grube, K. (1993). Evidence of Medicinal Callnibalism in Puritan New England: ‘Mummy’ and Related Remidies. Early American Literature , 28, p. 185.
Himmelman, P. (1997). The Medicinal Body: An Analysis of Medicinal Cannibalism in Europe, 1300-1700. Dialectical Anthropology , 22, p. 183.
Noble, L. (2011). Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.
Peters, H. (1899). Pictorial History of Ancient Pharmacy: With Sketches of Early Medical Practice. Chicago: G.T. Engelhart & Company.
Sugg, R. (2012). Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine From the Renaissance to the Victorians. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis.
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[i] Shirley Lindenbaum, “Thinking about Cannibalism” Annual Reviews vol. 33 (2004): 475-498. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25064862 (accessed January 20, 2010).