MARK GREENER explains how a mistranslation probably led to the bizarre use of ground-up mummies in early medicine, in this, the first of a two-part examination into the uses of corpses and body parts in magical practice.
Consuming powdered Egyptian mummies as treatments for numerous diseases, poisoning, even broken bones, was commonplace across Europe between the 12th and 17th centuries. The tradition persisted in some places for even longer. As Egyptian mummies became scare, merchants substituted corpses mummified naturally and treated body parts from the more recently dead to resemble the Egyptian prototype.
Ironically, however, this widespread usage of ‘corpse medicine’ might have come about due to an error in translation. Warren Dawson – in a paper published in 1927 that remains worth reading – notes that ancient healers created considerable demand for the various types of Middle Eastern bitumen. Ancient Greeks, for example, used Babylonian bitumen to treat cataracts, leprosy and itch, and several other eye and skin diseases. Medicines containing bitumen also, they believed, alleviated gout and, taken with wine, cured coughs, shortness of breath, dysentery, rheumatism and various other ailments.
The Persian word for wax, which encompassed bitumen, is Mumia. Arabs adopted the word, which they mistakenly applied to the concoctions of resins Ancient Egyptians used to embalm their dead. We derived the term ‘mummy’ from Mumia. In turn, the medical properties associated with Mumia transferred to mummies. Ground-up mummy corpses began to appear on apothecaries’ shelves in various formulations, including balsams and treacles.
Over time, the term ‘mummy’ referred less to a bituminous or resinous preparation of a mummified Egyptian cadaver and more to a corpse’s tissue.
‘The alleged virtue of mummy – the original mumia – gave place to that of the flesh itself, that is to say to the flesh of any dead body, not necessarily that of an Egyptian mummy,’ Dawson remarks.
The mistranslation fed into already widespread folk-medical beliefs about corpses’ healing properties.
Mark continues his investigation into ‘corpse medicine’ and magic in his next article.