Art and History

THE MUMMY POWDER

mummy momia ty interntional

THE MUMMY POWDER

Until relatively recently, in 1924 a German pharmaceutical company, Merck & Co. included “mummy powder” on its list of products for sale in its catalogs. It was the star product in Victorian times, even the kings of France were gluttons of this yellowish powder with strange “magical” properties.

THE MUMMY POWDER

They said it was extracted directly from the legendary ” Egyptian mummies “. At first it may have been so, that it was from mummies from Ancient Egypt, but after seeing the clamorous reception of this prodigious remedy, quickly the typical mischief of enterprising minds, they saw in it a sweet business from which they could make a good profit. So they embalmed, like this on the fly, fresh bodies of recently deceased and sold them to European merchants, so in need of the effects that this product provided.

THE MUMMY POWDER

The funny thing is that it was attributed esoteric and extraordinary healing properties, a true cure-all, a medicine that was sold in pharmacies, and that they said was capable of curing all kinds of ailments and diseases, including epilepsy and even the plague, and of course, it also rejuvenated the skin.

So everyone, well, not everyone, only those who could afford it, had it both in the home medicine cabinet, as well as in some comfortable and practical little bags or boxes, even some beautifully decorated, that fit very well in your pocket. So you can take it everywhere and have the prodigious yellow powder always at hand, to be able to snort it either alone, or mixed with other fashionable drugs such as opium, or throw it on a scratch.

In addition to snorting it, it was also taken mixed with honey, wine or simply water. Some overenthusiastic or very needy, depending on how you look at it, made a feast by directly ingesting a piece of mummy, I suppose with a lot of wine, but that is only a guess of mine.

THE MUMMY POWDER

The truth is that it was a “gourmet” product in the lunches of the highest social classes, those who could afford the high price of a piece of mummy.

Aristocrats, kings, as we say, but also the most common people wanted to consume it, they too had the right to benefit from such a prodigy, so among them too, the consumption of such powder and its variants in ointments and oily concoctions began to become fashionable.

FROM A LINGUISTIC CONFUSION TO “LITERALLY” EATING MUMMIES

It is curious how from a simple linguistic association we can go on to eat the dried bodies of ancestors. Yes, it sounds weird, but it seems that this is what happened.

It all started with the Persians, as we know they were great traders. Thanks to them, the citizens of Europe could enjoy genuine, exotic and sometimes very rare products that they brought from distant and rich worlds.

One of them was bitumen, originally from the Arabs, it meant resin, a black liquid with a viscous appearance, the common tar or pitch made from the distillation of certain carbonized substances such as coal or oil, which was used mainly for coating boats, and for many other uses, due to its excellent resistance to saline water, its anticorrosive effect and impermeability, so the demand for this product at the time was very high.

THE MUMMY POWDER

Since ancient times, the Persians attributed to this viscous sauce, also called pitch asphalt, because it is very dark in color, healthy and beneficial properties for the body, a medicine, which was initially used only for external use, for the skin, wounds or fractures; but that shortly after it began to be used also for internal use, consuming it, they said that it cured ulcers and other diseases, and even that it was an aphrodisiac.

There are many historical references to bitumen, the Arabs were the first to introduce the pharmacological concept of mumiya, since it was a type of resinous bitumen that was extracted in Western Asia, and that was used in traditional Islamic medicine since ancient times.

Subsequently, references to its healing properties have been found both in Greek texts, called pissasphaltus, that is, tar or asphalt, and later in the texts of some medieval physicists and doctors, who called it bitum, in Latin. During the Crusades its use became even more general in Europe and its demand increased as a result.

Today we know that it is a very toxic, irritating and also carcinogenic substance. The funny thing is that the Arabs and Persian merchants knew it and called it in their language mumo mumiya, or more simply mummia. What a coincidence.

The bitumen or asphalt, however there was an unknown substance to the Egyptians, they also knew since ancient times, and used for many applications, especially for sealing, there are even references during the XII Dynasty (1991-1802 a. C.) have used it precisely also to embalm the bodies of the deceased.

When Persian merchants came to Egypt and saw the famous ancestral mummies, they thought that the ancient Egyptians had coated the bodies of their ancestors with the same substance, their well-known and useful mummia.

In reality, what they saw was the black secretion that the embalmed bodies leaked, and not the original resin with which in the past they had smeared the body in the past.

In ancient embalming it was more common to resort to another substance, an ointment that provided similar characteristics to bitumen, but different in its composition and preparation, a resin, to which different combinations of vegetable oils and beeswax were sometimes added, which also provided antiseptic and bactericidal properties.

After being emptied of its internal organs and desiccated, the body came dusted with what they called ntry, which means pure, divine or gave. The natron, the so-called “divine salt”, was extracted from the arid and parched bottom of a lake, located in a place called Wadi el-Natrun, in Egypt, hence the name.

The Natron is a decaidrato sodium carbonate, white, whose main characteristic is to absorb moisture, and when it does is colored in yellow.

THE MUMMY POWDER

Then they smeared the body with the resin, and ended up putting the famous bandages on it. The corpse was already ready to be placed in the sarcophagus and deposited in the pyramid or tomb destined for its eternal rest.

As early as the 12th century, fame for the fabulous healing properties of bitumen began to grow in Europe. The Persian merchants in this sector were struggling to supply the growing demand, and it was when supplies of natural bitumen imported from Asia began to run low.

So some merchants began to market a bitumen, although also scarce, cheaper, brought from the Dead Sea, to which, supported by some Greek doctors, they attributed better properties than the Asian one.

It was then that the Persian merchants looked for another source where to obtain the precious bitumen; if the Egyptian embalmed bodies that they had seen, leaked a black substance similar to bitumen, because they had been treated with ointments of similar properties, they could take advantage of this similarity. And incidentally call it by the same name, mumiya. The meaning of the two things, liquid secretion from embalmed corpses and bitumen, came together.

THE MUMMY POWDER

And that’s how it all began, if mummia, that is, bitumen, common tar, had miraculous properties, by extension, also the body covered with that substance. Thus, the original mummia, natural bitumen, began to be confused with the strange and macabre black substance that leaked from the embalmed corpses.

With these intentions, merchants began to flock to Egypt in search of embalmed corpses, and thus began this curious commercial exchange with Europe.

The collection of this strange secretion was to say a little morbid, this humor accumulated mainly in the belly and skull of the corpses. The production was not great, it was enough only to partially supply the pharmaceutical demand of the European countries, and not that of other uses.

The surprising reception and incessant demand that this product had was increasing in Europe, so that supplies were soon insufficient. In view of this circumstance, it did not take long to commercialize not only the black substance that the embalmed bodies passed through, but the internal blackened parts of the corpse, and later the entire rotten body of the embalmed person.

When control was lost, Egypt banned the trade in mummies, they were becoming scarce and if they continued like this, they would not leave a single one in Egypt. It was then that the home-grown, massive “production” of fake mummies began, and the business continued.

In the Renaissance, some studies already recognized that there was an error in the translation of the word resin from Latin and mumiya. Despite these voices, mummy powder around 1718 had an astonishing reception in all the apothecary’s shops of Europe, and it continued to be the trending product for more than a century.

Since the Middle Ages in the 12th century, Egyptian mummies were used for curative purposes, and their massive use lasted as we say until the beginning of the 18th century, by then it was already recognized that they were forgeries and the sale in pharmacies decreased; finally some skepticism about the pharmacological value began to fly through the minds of the most modern Europeans… or not.

THE MUMMY POWDER

Curiously, despite the skepticism that some detractors wanted to instill in the consumption of this product, apparently the sale decreased because it was false, and not because of reasonable doubts about its supposed healing properties. So it makes us think that if they had continued to market only authentic mummies from Ancient Egypt, perhaps we were still had those powders on our hands. That’s sound crazy, right?

However the consumption of mummy did not disappear, because it continued throughout the 19th century, and mummy powder was on sale until the beginning of the 20th century.

A MORE NATURAL AND REALISTIC TOUCH

Even with that, the mummy trade continued for a while, they were not going to waste the ones they already had in the warehouse, at least those, but for other uses, not as creative as gastronomic ones, but also quite profitable: the artistic world.

As these mummies, as they were false, they no longer had “magical powers”, they used them to make brown pigments, with which to color the canvases, especially the parts of the canvas that represented human skin.

THE MUMMY POWDER

According to the artists, it gave a “special” touch, more natural and realistic to the skin, who knows why. Although the idea was somewhat macabre, it was well received. The artists of the time called it ” mummy brown.”

The pigments, sold in normal tubes for oil painting, was also known as Egyptian brown or caput mortum (dead man’s head). The name already gave indications.

Even with that, many artists of the time used it thinking that its name was merely metaphorical; like the legendary dragon blood, another pigment of the time they said was a mixture of dragon and elephant blood from India, generated when they died together in a fierce confrontation.

Sure, with these fantastic dragon stories, it was no wonder that it fell into disuse quickly. On top of it it took a long time to dry and it darkened in the presence of light, perhaps because it was actually a resin, yes, of a bright blood-red color, extracted from trees of the genus of the dracanea.

On the other hand, the brown mummy was special, it did not present those drawbacks, and its origin was more credible. Today, the modern brown mummy pigment is obviously not made from a corpse, but from a mixture of minerals, kaolin, quartz, goethite and hematite, whose qualities confer different degrees of opacity and color, varying from yellow to bright red and violet.

UNDISCRIMINATED LOOTING, EVERYONE WANTS A MUMMY

Well, it escalated really quickly. Everyone in search of archaic Egyptian mummies. A real persecution and looting of the areas where it was believed there were cemeteries and tombs. The business had only just started.

While in Europe the massive sale of this wonderful product began in all the pharmacies of the territory, a panacea for all ailments, or a drug for others, included in the list of their favorites, as some texts of the time narrate. They were not enough, to crush the corpses, to transform them into that much appreciated powder, and so well paid. The demand for mummies exceeded expectations, and marketing strategies began.

After the first brutal pillage, the tombs had been plundered unscrupulous, and “easy to get”mummies began to dwindle. It was increasingly difficult to find a mummy in good condition, despite the efforts of looters, many found them rotten. This did not prevent the product from being used as well, making instead of yellow powder, therefore, a darker paste or concoction, but with the same curative properties.

In addition to the difficulty of finding more graves, since most were underground and it was not so easy to find indications of their presence, there was the fatigue of their extraction. Not an easy task, very complicated and dangerous, at times, in addition to being tiring.

Therefore, both the looters and the merchants came up with another technique, counterfeiting. They began to mummify the bodies of recently deceased, slaves or abandoned corpses, as we have previously mentioned.

Everything was done so as not to disappoint and respond to the demand of its European customers. In addition, it offered an added advantage, it was no longer necessary to use the Egyptian ones, they could be manufactured at home, since there was also an abundance of products in the area. So they saved the transfer of the merchandise.

THE MUMMY POWDER

Of course, with so much bustle of mummies, from here to there, some of these “false” mummies ended up in museums, and for decades they have been admired by thousands of people without knowing that they were a fake, until the arrival of X-rays. That’s where the scam was discovered, with the disappointment.

THE RECIPE TO MAKE A GOOD AND TASTY MUMMY

THE MUMMY POWDER

Sure, at this point, it was not expected that philosophical considerations will belacking in this regard, but gastronomic? Paracelsus spoke not only of the “intrinsic spirit” of the mummy, but also of which was the best mummy to eat. The most nutritious and the one that had the most magical substances inside.

According to him, the true pharmaceutical mummy, that is, the one with the highest concentrations of curative substances, was that of a healthy body of a man, who must have died not a natural death, but an unnatural one. In this way he kept all the healing “powers”.

Later Oswald Croll, a German chemist, known for being one of the alchemists who wanted to unite alchemy and chemistry, picked up the idea of his comrade, and literally prepared a culinary recipe full of disturbing details.

Of course they were not the only ” chefs” of the time, as in the sixteenth century fake mummies were made even in France itself. There was a whole network well planned, the apothecaries brought in the corpses stolen from the executions or victims of attacks. They dried them in the oven, marinated them with concoctions, and then sold their meat.

As we know, cannibalism, because I already think that at this point we can call it that, was a practice spread throughout the world, in different cultures and times. To this we must add the occasional and sporadic cases that we can find in the chronicle news.

ENJOY YOUR MEAL

So, you are all wondering what a mummy would taste like. Well, difficult to say for one who has not tried it, nor expects to do so. But according to the Spanish archaeologist José Miguel Parra, “it would have a very oily taste, due to the resins, and a little salty, due to the natron that was used in dehydration.” I mean, the perfect dressing for a summer salad.

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