Thursday, December 04, 2008


We’re all familiar with Egyptian mummies from visiting museums and viewing gory films. I recently stumbled upon another meaning of the word, one that had earlier eluded me, thank heavens.

Mummy was a bituminous substance prepared for medicinal use from mummified (usually human) flesh. Purveyors of the medicine assured customers that the source was ancient Egyptian mummies, but chicanery abounded.

In 1634, Thomas Johnson wrote, “Embalming them [sc. the bodies of hanged men] with salt and Drugges they dryed them in an Oven, so to sell them thus adulterated in stead of true Mummie." [Gerard's Herball, Enlarged by T. J., from The workes of that famous chirurgion A. Parey XII. 448].

Right — true mummies would have been more palatable. The shoddy practice was again mentioned in the July 1999 edition of the Fortean Times: “Much of what was sold as mummy was in fact made of the decomposing bodies of humans or animals who may have died of all sorts of communicable diseases.”

In many cases, the patient had no desire to cannibalize the past. Thirty-five years before Thomas Johnson, Richard Hakluyt had written, “And these dead bodies are the Mummie which the Phisitians and Apothecaries doe against our willes make vs to swallow.” [The principall navigations, voiages and discoueries of the English nation, II. I. 201]

Mummy was a pulpy substance, often dried to powder form, and it led to a popular threat: “I’ll thrash you into a mummy.” That’s a wrap, folks.

SIDEBAR: Mummy MedicineLink

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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