Why did Europeans eat Egyptian mummies?

Mummy from a mummy?

At the beginning of the XI century, Persian and Arab medicine were "head and shoulders" above European. In Europe, they were aware of this and tried with might and main to adopt the experience of their eastern colleagues. For this, the works of outstanding physicians were translated and studied in European universities and colleges. But sometimes "translation difficulties" became the cause of real historical incidents.

Once upon a time the work of the famous Arab physician and scientist Ibn Sina, who is best known in Europe by the name of Avicenna, fell into the hands of scholars from the University of Salerno (Italy). In his treatise, created in the middle of the same XI century, he described the effectiveness of the drug "mummy", or "mummy" for the treatment of a variety of ailments - from nausea to bruises, fractures, ulcers and tissue abscesses. However, Avicenna did not explain in his work the nature of the origin of this miraculous preparation.

The Arabs and Persians were well aware that the "mummy" was nothing more than natural bitumen. Translated from Arabic "mum" means "wax". Its main source was the Dead Sea. The Europeans had never heard of any bitumen, but a familiar word made them excited. It was then that the translators in Salerno added their first comment.

It sounded something like this: "The mummy is a substance that can be found in those parts where bodies embalmed with aloe are buried." Further, the flight of imagination of the translators described how exactly the miracle cure is formed. According to them, aloe juice, mixing with fluids from the body, over time turned into the very healing "mummy".


Almost all European translators of Arabic works on medicine, in which the "mummy" was mentioned, copied the way of its formation in an embalmed body as a carbon copy. This became the reason that already in the XIII century in Europe, absolutely everyone believed that the healing substance "mummy" can be found in tombs in Egypt. It had to be black, viscous and relatively dense.

"Mumiyny" market

In 15th century Europe, Egyptian mummies are officially recognized as a drug. The demand is growing every day, which provokes the activities of the tomb robbers. If earlier they carried out exclusively gold and precious stones from the crypt, now the embalmed bodies are becoming a real jewel.

The most severe damage is suffered by relatively fresh, poor burials. Oddly enough, bitumen is actually found in such tombs. The fact is that in the first centuries of our era, due to the fact that natural resin was several times cheaper than traditional means for embalming - gum and soda lye.

The bitumen was well absorbed into the tissues of the body. He mixed with them to such an extent that sometimes it was visually impossible to determine where the resin ended and the human remains began.

Already at the beginning of the 16th century, a specialized "mummy" market was formed in Western Europe. The embalmed bodies supplied to it were divided by merchants into three types.

1. Mumia vulgaris, or "common mummy." The cheapest segment of the product was available to almost all Europeans.

2. Mumia arabus ("Arabian mummy"). A product for wealthier residents of the Old World.

3. Mumia cepulchorum, or "mummy from the tombs." Now these mummies would be called the "premium segment" of the product.

The demand for all 3 species in Europe is growing steadily. The most popular are the "correct" ones - black as coal, mummies. Egyptians excavate dozens and hundreds of tombs every day, selling the embalmed bodies of their ancestors to mummy traders in Cairo.

At some point, the supply stops keeping up with the demand for mummies. An underground counterfeiting industry unfolds. Enterprising deals organize the production of mummies from the corpses of executed criminals. There are records of Dr. Guy de La Fontaine, who visited one of the major mummy traders in Cairo in the mid-1560s. The Egyptian confessed to the Frenchman that he was preparing this "remedy" with his own hands and was surprised with disgust to learn that Europeans, with their exquisite and refined taste, were eating "this muck."

Why did Europeans eat mummies

As paradoxical as it may seem, but in medieval Europe, eating parts of corpses for medical purposes was quite common. Thus, King Christian IV of Denmark took powder from the crushed skulls of criminals executed at his mercy as a medicine for epilepsy.

Francis I - King of France, always took a bag with a crushed mummy with him before going hunting. However, over time, both high-ranking patients and their doctors begin to understand that a remedy made from mummified bodies has no medical effect.


One of the founders of modern surgery, and the personal doctor of 4 French monarchs Ambroise Paré (1510-1590), frankly admits that he personally prescribed the "mummy" to the kings several hundred times. However, I have never observed any therapeutic effect of this drug.

By the end of the 17th century, European scientists were switching from skepticism to outright mockery of the "mummy." It is recommended only as bait for fishing. And even then after mixing the powder from the mummy with hemp or aniseed seeds. In the 18th century, European society recognizes that treatment with the "mummy" is nothing more than deception and charlatanism. However, Napoleon's conquering Egyptian campaign gave rise to a new "mummy mania" in Europe.

Parts of mummies as souvenirs in the 19th century

Europe at the beginning of the 19th century is experiencing a real boom in fashion for everything Egyptian. In addition to ancient papyri, jewelry and talismans in the form of scarab beetles, mummies become the most expensive souvenirs. Or fragments of them. On the Cairo streets of that time, whole bodies, or their parts, were sold with might and main.

Travelers of that time describe how huge baskets with the arms and legs of mummies sticking out of them like bread baguettes stand near the merchants. And European tourists literally rummage in these baskets. The most expensive and elite product is considered to be whole mummified bodies found in expensive tombs. But the most popular souvenirs are the heads of mummies.

The price of an Egyptian mummy head is quite acceptable for the then European traveler - from 10 to 20 Egyptian piastres (15-20 current US dollars). Naturally, all these souvenirs are transported to Europe illegally. At the same time, almost all famous people of that time have in their collection, if not a whole mummy, then some of its fragment.

For example, the popular writer Gustave Flaubert kept a mummified human foot on his desk in his study for 30 years. This artifact Flaubert obtained in Egypt himself, when in his youth (as he once put it) "crawled like a worm" in the desert caves.


In Europe, mummies were no longer eaten, but they were turned into a popular and fashionable spectacle. The culmination of many scientific symposia, parties or paid show programs was the unwinding of the bandages on the mummies. As usual, this part of the program was accompanied or ended by a scientific lecture.

How pictures were painted with mummies

Until the end of the 19th century, mummies in Europe were used in another non-standard "role". Mummified bodies are literally forced to work for the art of painting - they paint pictures with them. For about 2 centuries, Old World artists have used powdered mummies as a brown pigment. In those days, it was noted that the addition of this substance, which has very good transparency, allows the painter to easily work on the canvas with the finest strokes.

In 1837, George Field, a famous English chemist, publishes his treatise on paints and pigments. In it, the scientist, in particular, writes that it is hardly possible to achieve something special by “smearing the remains” of an Egyptian on the canvas, rather than with the help of much more stable and more “decent” materials.

The end of art cannibalism

The end of the so-called "art cannibalism" with the participation of mummies in Europe is considered June 1881. British artist Edward Burne-Jones and friends gathered for lunch in the garden. One of Edward's friends in a conversation said that not so long ago he was lucky enough to receive an invitation to a workshop for the production of paints for artists. There, he will see the Egyptian mummy for the last time before grinding it into brown pigment.


Edward Burne-Jones did not believe it at first. He stated that the paint is most likely so named because of its similarity to the color of mummies. And not because it is actually made from human bodies. However, the artist's friends gathered for lunch convinced him of just the opposite. Expressive Burne-Jones jumped up and rushed into the house. A couple of minutes later he returned, holding in his hand a tube of mummy brown art paint. The artist told his friends that he wants to provide "this man with a worthy burial."

The audience liked Edward's idea - they solemnly dug a small hole in the garden and buried a tube of paint with honors. In addition, Burne-Jones' 15-year-old daughter planted fresh flowers at the “Egyptian's grave”. So at the end of the 19th century, the real centuries-old curse of mummies ended in Europe.


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