The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine

(Maria Dolan, May 07, 2012)


My original intention for this blog post , was to write about the medicinal aspect of archaeology and what exactly it entails and also how it affected society as a whole. However, I came across this intriguing article as I was searching through the Smithsonian’s website, and this clearly won my attention.

Since man has been around, there has always been ailments, injuries, and sickness to make life that much more challenging for us humans. Medicine has evolved in unimaginable ways since the beginning of humanity and continues to amaze us every day. As with all learning, mistakes must be made so that we can learn from them and expand our horizons. This includes the practice of using human remains as medicine.

References have been made throughout literature from the early modern European era, that humans were thought to have medicinal properties. From Shakespeare’s Othello to Donne’s Love’s Alchemy, the word “mummy” appears many times. This is not that surprising though, since it was common and socially acceptable that human remains were used as an ingredient  for medicines at that time. So yes, they were cannibals!! Which,at the time, was seen as being the utmost savage. (little did they know)

This time period lasted from the Renaissance to the Victorian era, reaching its vertex in the 16th and 17th century. Who would use medicines containing human body parts? Apparently there was a wide range of people who believed in this “medicine”, which we now know would actually do the complete opposite of healing and would most likely lead to fatal diseases. Access to the current breakthroughs in medicine was a large privilege; therefore, the common consumers consisted of royalty, scientists, and priests. Most remedies included human bones, fat, blood, and other miscellaneous body parts. This new “fad” erupted a black market for human remains. Grave robbers were nonstop raiding tombs, and people would even steal mummies from Egyptian tombs to make remedies because it was believed that Egyptian mummies had the most valuable healing powers.  Even King Charles II of England had his own concoction, he would drink alcohol infused with ground skull. If this wasn’t weird enough already, it was believed that the fresher it was the healthier. This especially pertained to blood, and people would pay the town executioner to receive a cup of fresh blood after an execution. They believed that by consuming the blood and other pieces of a corpse, they were also consuming the soul of the deceased and gaining their strength. Weird right? Leonardo Da Vinci even wrote about this topic.“We preserve our life with the death of others. In a dead thing insensate life remains which, when it is reunited with the stomachs of the living, regains sensitive and intellectual life.” This goes on and on, and even talks about how Romans drank the blood of slain gladiators to absorb their strength. If you were interested by this post, I highly suggest you check out the link below and read the whole thing.

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1 thought on “The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine

  1. Well first. I’d like to say that I think that was an interesting article (and by extension, an interesting topic).

    When you mention the ancient practice of consuming human remains for the sake of Medicine (which has oddly enough come up in my life multiple times…), I always think of some old legend I once read as child. About a witch who consumed enough poisons at a gradual rate. such that eventually she had built up an extreme immunity to them.. At point, her blood had become an extremely potent medicinal cure and that was how she healed people, by cutting herself and using her own blood. Of course among those poisons, many came from the consumption of rotting flesh. So after reading this particular article and your post, I then wonder if this legend had any grounding in the truth (probably).

    The logic behind the witch in the story and the various doctors and consumers in the past seems to be pretty basic if you ask me: Taking “You are what you eat.” To a very…. extremely level. Or perhaps they took what Da Vinci said rather literally (whereas I like to think he meant it figuratively and maybe literally in a kind of ironic way).. . And as for eating mummies, the first thing I get in my mind is a funny image of a guy just sitting at a table, trying to eat a mummy. But on a more serious note, I can rather understand why people would believe mummies would have healing powers When you look at all the stuff that lead up to the mummy and where the mummy was, they’d need some kind of justification that it was so important right?

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