Cannibalism gave imperial powers compelling justifications for their colonial endeavors; indigenous Americans and Australasians were backward, uncivilized, savage, and ritual cannibalism served as proof of their need for a guiding hand. But it’s not that easy. Why? Because right at the moment when Europeans were using cannibalism to demean indigenous cultures and justify their civilizing missions, they too were engaging in cannibalism. So were most of the ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Asia, but under the guise of therapeutics. This week’s episode will focus on cannibalism’s most “civilized” iteration, but also its most widespread, medicinal cannibalism. It’s true. For thousands of years, all over the world, the human body has been both the object of medical treatment AND an ingredient in its therapies.

Transcript: Medicinal Cannibalism

Written by Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Produced and recorded by Marissa Rhodes, PhD and Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Marissa: It is difficult to think of instances of cannibalism that don’t elicit the immediate disgust and disapproval that have come to characterize the taboo. Unlike the term anthropophagy (literally people-eating), the term “cannibalism” seems to have meaning beyond the anthropological… suggesting someone who eats people ravenously, barbarously, and revels in their animalistic deviance. But still, there’s something about cannibalism that people are drawn to. The early years of the internet saw dozens of cannibal hoax sites, such as, which pretended to sell human meat to any of the 500,000 daily visitors to the site.

Sarah: Historically, cannibalism served as a tool to enforce social order on disordered individuals, such as suspected witches, sex workers, Jews, and, after the “discovery” of the New World, remote and uncivilized savages. Anthropologist William Arens put it this way, “What could be more distinctive than creating a boundary between those who do and those who do not eat human flesh?” Until recently, cannibalism was used as a relatively uncontroversial way of sorting people into the categories of civilized and uncivilized. Around 1580, Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne lamented the hypocrisy of Europeans who labeled indigenous Americans and Australasians as savages due to ritual cannibalism:

“I am not sorry we note the barbarous horror of [cannibalism], but grieved that, prying so narrowly into [the Tupinambás’] faults, we are so blinded in ours. I think there is more barbarism in eating men alive than to feed upon them being dead; to mangle by tortures and torments a body full of lively sense, to roast him in pieces, to make dogs and swine to gnaw and tear him in mammocks (as we have not only read but seen very lately, yea and in our own memory, not amongst ancient enemies but our neighbors and fellow-citizens; and, which is worse, under pretense of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead.”

Marissa: Cannibalism gave imperial powers compelling justifications for their colonial endeavors: indigenous Americans and Australasians were backward, uncivilized, savage, and ritual cannibalism served as proof of their need for a guiding hand. But it’s not that easy. Why? Because right at the moment when Europeans were using cannibalism to demean indigenous cultures and justify their civilizing missions, they too were engaging in cannibalism. So were most of the ancient civilizations around the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Asia, but under the guise of therapeutics. This week’s episode will focus on cannibalism’s most “civilized” iteration, but also its most widespread, medicinal cannibalism. It’s true. For thousands of years, all over the world, the human body has been both the object of medical treatment AND an ingredient in its therapies.

I’m Marissa.

And I’m Sarah.

Marissa: and we are your historians for this episode of Dig.


Marissa: Literary scholar P. Kenneth Himmelman, who is more concerned with the cultural meanings of cannibalism than the social phenomenon of anthropophagy, has defined four different types of cannibalism. First is cannibalism as a result of starvation such as that which we saw in Jamestown during the Starving Time, or in 1846 which marked the stranded desperation of both the Donner party in the Sierra Nevada and the Franklin expedition in the frozen waters of arctic Canada. Second, is cannibalism committed by the diseased, deranged, or perverse. Today’s most culturally-important cannibals, like Jeffrey Dahmer or Hannibal Lecter, tend to fit into this category as they walk the Freudian line between insanity and sexual perversion. Third, we have ritual cannibalism. This is most often ascribed to remote or primitive societies of the past like the Caribs in the West Indies in the 1490s, or the Fore tribe in New Guinea which struggled with prion disease as a result of their mortuary cannibalism. However, many anthropologists have argued that the Eucharist, which Catholics believe transubstantiates into the actual flesh and blood of Christ, qualifies as ritual cannibalism.

Sarah: The final type of cannibalism, and the one we’ll focus on here today, is medicinal cannibalism. Medicinal cannibalism refers to the practice of consuming human anatomy for therapeutic purposes. Medicinal cannibalism developed out of the widespread understanding of the human body as powerful. The body is a strange thing, really, because it does not sum up a person. Once someone suffers anatomical death, their remains are no longer “them,” They have lost something, whether it’s a soul or some other animating force. For that reason, the body is a liminal space (which means it’s some kind of in-between) that divides the material world from the spirit world. This reality gives the body a kind of power. Himmelman has this great quote that really clarifies what we’re talking about here: “Medical attention to the body is necessitated by its deterioration; medical use of the body is made possible by its spiritual, occult properties.”

Marissa: Perhaps it is due to the fact that all humans have “the body” in common that medicinal cannibalism developed independently all around the world. Indeed, many of the instances of “ritual cannibalism” among indigenous folks which were condemned by Europeans and Asians were instances of medicinal cannibalism. This, of course, went unrecognized by people from the “Old World” who neglected to ascertain the motivations behind the instances of cannibalism that they witnessed or heard about through word of mouth.

Sir Walter Raleigh wrote extensively about “New World” cannibals during his 1595 expedition to Guiana but his anecdotes suggest that there were quasi-medial, quasi-spiritual motivations behind the instances of cannibalism he encountered. For example, Raleigh said that the Arawak Indians, “beat the bones of their lords into powder, and their wives and friends drink it all in their several sorts of drinks.” It is possible that the Arawak were imbibing the qualities or powers of their slain lords by ingesting their bones. This will sound very similar to the medicinal cannibalism practiced in Europe and Asia later on.

Sarah: The Piritu of Venezuela did something similar. After vanquishing enemies in war, they dried and powdered their enemies hearts and added the mixture to chicha, a fermented drink. This practice, initially understood as an act of consuming their barbarous trophies, can also be understood in the medicinal context. It’s possible the Piritu believed that they were ingesting the life forces of the foes they had vanquished, making them stronger and wiser.

The Bimin-Kuskuskin, who lived on the islands now known as the Bahamas, performed mortuary cannibalism (eating of the dead) which was thought to maintain reproductive health. When a person’s spouse died, they typically ate the dead spouse’s genitals. Tribal elders ate the reproductive organs of other elders, usually the hearts of male elders and the uterus or vaginal canal of female elders. They believed that this ritual recycled the procreative powers of the dead, redistributing the reproductive abilities of the dead to the remaining community.

Image of Cannibalism among the Aztec from 16th-century codex.
Depiction of Aztec Human Sacrifice in 16th-Century Codex. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Marissa: In a sense, much ritual cannibalism was medicinal cannibalism… based on an unrecognized indigenous medical system rather than that of Western medicine. Keep in mind that prior to the 19th-century, Western medicine was arguably just as unscientific as any system found among indigenous Americans or Australasians. So privileging Western medicine over the medical understandings of indigenous folks makes little sense. In actuality, historians are just starting to realize that the medical capabilities of so-called “primitive” folks were far more advanced than we ever could have realized. Keep these indigenous examples in the back of your mind as we go on to discuss medicinal cannibalism in Europe and Asia. We’ll refer back to them when we can as we see differences and similarities.

Recall that handy quote by Himmelman we mentioned above: “Medical attention to the body is necessitated by its deterioration; medical use of the body is made possible by its spiritual, occult properties.” We can see this operating among indigenous American cultures from the anecdotes about but what about the older, more hierarchical and complex societies that make up what is often called the Eastern and Western worlds? (or the Orient and the Occident) Yes. This holds true for those societies as well.

Sarah: Traditional Chinese medicine developed cannibalistic prescriptions for a whole host of diseases. Menstrual blood was used to treat “hot disease,” “yellow diseases,” and “acute delirium.” Human blood was used as an ingredient in medicine to treat diseases causing bloody sputum and postpartum blood loss. Bone and bile from the human gallbladder were used to treat wounds from traumatic injury; human liver treated night blindness, and human placenta treated sexual impotence and lunacy. Corrected Pharmacopoeia, published in 739, recommended the ingestion of human flesh to treat diseases causing physical debility and muscle atrophy. In these cases, human flesh was used as either the only or primary ingredient in a pharmaceutical preparation. Meaning, ancient and medieval Chinese weren’t grizzly-bearing raw human body parts… rather, they were ingesting pharmaceuticals as prescribed by their physicians and those pharmaceuticals just so happened to be made of human ingredients.

Marissa: So there was a level of manipulation and processing in between the corpse from which the parts were harvested and the ingestion by another. This level of processing is what allowed people from the “Old World” to conceptualize medical cannibalism as something entirely different from the medical/ritual cannibalism of the indigenous groups we described a few minutes ago. To some, that difference is enough to convince them that these instances of human flesh consumption are entirely different from those in indigenous American and Australasian societies. But this distinction all but disappears if one includes the practices of ko-ku and ko-kan under the umbrella of medicinal cannibalism.

Ko-ku refers to the practice of cutting flesh from one’s thigh or leg and feeding it to one’s ailing parent. Ko-kan is the same practice but rather than the flesh being taken from the thigh or leg, part of one’s liver is excised and fed to their parent. Some of you may have already encountered this fascinating practice if you read Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club.  Now, in that novel, the practice is portrayed as common. Most historians believe that it was a common literary trope, yes, but that it was comparatively rare in practice. Still, we know that ko-ku was/is(?) definitely practiced by real people.

Sarah: The practice has been traced to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) but became much more common under the Ming (1368-1644). In the 700s CE, the physician Ch’en Tsang-ch’i became the first recorded Chinese physician to prescribe human flesh. There are three important aspects of ko-ku and ko-kan that were required for the treatment to be effective. (1) The act must be voluntary. The donor had to be willing to donate their flesh or liver tissue for this purpose; (2) The donor and recipient must be closely related. The donor was usually a child or child-in-law and the recipient, an ailing parent; (3) The recipient must not know that they are eating human flesh. The human flesh or liver tissue must be disguised as ordinary food so the recipient does not observe the usual taboo of eating human flesh.

There are also a few important caveats here if we’re categorizing ko-ku and ko-kan as medicinal cannibalism. Of course, the donor is still alive, which stands in stark contrast to routine instances of medical cannibalism, where the human material is harvested after death. This means that, in the end, the donor is exalted and glorified for their selflessness and bravery. When human material is harvested from a corpse, however, they have no personhood. The corpse is merely material with therapeutic properties and they can neither consent nor decline their donation. Another thing to point out is that this is done in a private setting, at home, not in an institutional setting like other forms of medicinal cannibalism.

Marissa: Wondering what this practice might look like? We have one story from 1779 that recurs often in Chinese literature. It has likely been exaggerated and fictionalized for effect but it gives us an idea of how real instances of ko-ku or ko-kan might have proceeded. A woman named Liu was home alone with her mother-in-law in Hsun County, Hupeh. Her mother-in-law became gravely ill and none of the medicines prescribed by her physician were working. Liu cut a piece of flesh from her thigh, added it to a congee, which is a rice porridge, and fed it to her mother-in-law. The ill woman immediately recovered by suffered a relapse ten days later. Liu cut even more flesh from her thigh and prepared the meat into meatballs which she again fed to her mother-in law. The ill woman recovered for a somewhat longer time but, again, relapsed.

In her desperation, Liu prayed to Kuan-yin (Ming goddess of mercy, and later a female bodhisattva), offering herself in her mother-in-law’s place. Their physician witnessed Liu’s desperation and told her that ordinary medicines were no use, the ONLY thing that would save her mother-in-law would be an offering of Liu’s liver. Shortly after, Liu made an incision under her armpit and accessed her liver, cutting off a piece of it before promptly fainting. While Liu was unconscious, Kuan-yin appeared before her and anointed her wound, saying “My child! You have suffered much!” When Liu awoke, she cooked the liver and fed it to her mother-in-law who made a full recovery.

Guanyin or Kuan-yin, Goddess of Mercy, statue in theEast Royal Garden Hotel. Photograph by BaronzKodam, available under GNU Free Documentation License.

Sarah: Scholars believe that ko-ku and ko-kan had cultural currency in China because of Confucian and Buddhist influences. Ko-ku was the ultimate instance of filial piety, or deference to one’s elders, which was a moral imperative in Confucian China. The rise of ko-ku can be traced to the introduction of the Buddhist cult of Kuan-yin during the Ming Dynasty. This is because the practice fitted in well with Buddhist ideas of self-sacrifice. According to legend, the child Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) cut off three pieces of flesh from his arm to feed his starving parents. The widespread practice of asceticism and filial piety around Ming China allowed for the practice of ko-ku to occupy an important place in Chinese culture and medicine.

As you could see from the story of Liu from 1779, ko-ku was neither entirely medical, nor entirely spiritual; it was a combination of both. Most pre-modern medicine blurred this line between the medical and spirit world. In “primitive” societies, shamanism represented the complete overlap of these two worlds. But even “Western medicine” during Classical antiquity, the medieval, and early modern periods neglected to separate these two worlds for most of its history.

Marissa: As we’ve mentioned before in previous episodes, much of Western medicine builds off the ideas of Galen, a Roman physician from the second century CE. Greco-Roman medicine held that the human body was made up of the same elements as all the natural world. Illness was understood as some kind of disruption of the body’s natural functioning and the ultimate healer was nature itself. Therefore, most Greco-Roman therapies were aimed at supporting the body during the natural healing process. Since the body was made up of the same elements as the natural world, it was logical for pharmaceuticals to be produced using elements from the natural world, such as botanicals, as well as from parts of the human body. 

Sarah: Galen’s most influential philosophy was humoralism, the idea that illness was the result of an imbalance of the body’s four humors. He believed in the curative properties of contraries. Illness caused by an excess or dearth of a certain humor could be cured by consumption or limitation of the opposite humor respectively. Using this logic, ancient Romans used human flesh and excretions such as milk, blood, urine, menses, and dung as ingredients in their pharmaceuticals. One of the most common prescriptions was an elixir of burnt human bones which was used to treat epilepsy and arthritis. The Roman naturalist, Pliny, writes of the drinking of blood, called “medical vampirism,” as a cure for epilepsy. Bathing in human blood was a time-honored prescription for patients suffering from leprosy. 

Marissa: The impulse to consume human bodies for therapeutic reasons continued in Christianized Rome and after the fall of the Roman Empire. Christian Rome adopted an alternate mode of cannibalism, the Eucharist. For the less religiously inclined among us, the Eucharist refers to the commemoration of the Last Supper, often called “taking communion” in the Christian Church. The faithful typically eat a piece of bread and drink a small amount of wine (or grape juice if you’re a Protestant). For much of Christian history, that is, prior to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, the Eucharist was understood to be the actual body and blood of Christ. This divine transformation of bread into flesh and wine into blood is called transubstantiation. Some anthropologists argue that, for Christian Europe, the Eucharist replaced the “baser,” pagan practices of medicinal cannibalism. In reality, Greco-Roman medicinal cannibalism continued unabated alongside this new Christian ceremony. 

Sarah: For non-believers, the Eucharist hardly seems comparable to the medicinal cannibalism we encountered in China or Rome but there’s more. While Christian Europe continued to use human bodies in their pharmaceuticals, a highly spiritualized version of medicinal cannibalism developed during the process of institutionalization that empowered the Roman Catholic Church. Medieval Catholicism contained many mystical elements that encouraged the ingestion of human flesh and excretions. The bodies of saints were believed to hold the highest measure of spiritual power. It became common for the faithful to seek healing in the form of human excrement or the bodily remains of holy people. 

Historian Caroline Bynum notes that holy people “spit or blew into the mouths of others in order to cure them or in order to convey grace.” Christians suffering from illness petitioned to drink or wash themselves in saints’ left-over bath water, believing the lice and skin which floated in it might depart to them some degree of relief. Occasionally, saints themselves cannibalized others in an attempt to share in their sufferings. St. Francis of Assissi kissed the diseased flesh of lepers and several Italian saints ate puss and lice from the bodies of the poor so as to incorporate their misfortune into their own bodies. 

Marissa: Within the Catholic tradition, the idea that spiritual power might restore bodily health is known as ecstatic healing. There is even some evidence that the effectiveness of Greco-Roman medicinal cannibalism was marshalled by theologians to rationalize ecstatic healing: “Doctors acknowledge that a dead man’s parts and members can be put to the same parts and members of incurable patients, head to head, mouth to mouth, hand to hand, and will have the power to heal them… Now if the body of a dead man can possess such virtue, how much more the power of the body of God who is all virtue.”

Sarah: European executioners often served as informal healers and apothecaries because of their access to human remains slain violently. Apothecaries often complained that their business was undercut by local executioners who took advantage of their position to source human blood and human fat for pharmaceuticals. Public executions served as convenient venues for the sale of human blood. Though these instances of medical vampirism often eludes the historical record, oral histories and folklore assert that, in Denmark, ill people attended public executions “cup in hand, ready to quaff the red blood as it flows from the still quivering body.” Medical vampirism was the primary treatment for epilepsy for hundreds of years. The impetus behind this gruesome practice reaches all the way back to Rome where, Pliny wrote, epileptics collected “warm, living blood” from the bodies of slain gladiators. As late as 1747, English physicians were prescribing the drinking of human blood “recent and hot” as a cure for the seizure disorder. 

Pharmaceutical trademarked in 19th-Century Germany as Humanol made of sterilized human fat. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Marissa: Edward Taylor, a 17th-century Protestant minister in New England, wrote that “human blood, drunk warm and new is held good in the falling sickness.” Strangely, medical vampirism and medicinal cannibalism were particularly popular in Protestant Europe and America. This finding is ironic because Protestants strenuously object to the doctrine of transubstantiation. One of their qualms with the Roman Catholic Church was the doctrine of transubstantiation. Rather than the communion bread and wine turning into the literal flesh and blood of Christ during the ceremony, Protestants believed that the bread and wine symbolize Christ’s bodily sacrifices. 

Why, then, were Protestants so keen on consuming human blood and flesh for medicinal purposes? American anthropologist Karen Gordon-Grube suggests: “Perhaps for the Protestants of this period, healing with [corpse flesh] and blood on some level fulfilled a substitute function to that of the transubstantiated flesh and blood.” What she’s saying is that Protestants, in the immediate wake of the Protestant Reformation, were feeling some kind of loss because of the abolition of the doctrine of transubstantiation and so their commitment to medicinal cannibalism filled that void for them. 

Sarah: One leading historian of medicine, Katharine Park, draws distinctions between Northern and Southern Europe rather than one between Protestant and Catholic Europe. Park argues that Mediterranean Catholics and Northern Europeans had very different conceptions of the death process. Southern Europeans, particularly Italians, thought of death as a radical and immediate separation of body and soul. They saw the corpse as inactive and inert. Northern Europeans, however, were more likely to conceive of death as a gradual process by which the soul left the body slowly as it decayed. This imbued the recently dead body with an ethereal and slowly evaporating life force and it goes some way toward explaining the immense popularity of medicinal cannibalism in North Europe. Most folks believed there was some powerful, animating force still at work in recently deceased bodies. 

Marissa: This distinction is immediately apparent in many German customs. It was custom in Germanic lands to put a suspected murderer in the same room as the body of their suspected victim. If the body bled or exhibited some other obvious change in his presence, the murderer’s guilt was confirmed. This practice suggests that Northern Europeans understood recently dead bodies to be sentient, somehow still containing the person, or remnants of the person who had once lived inside it. This also explains why embalming in Northern Europe was aimed at preserving the remains from decay as long as possible while they traveled toward its final resting place. And in most Northern towns, the dissection of the corpse was prohibited. While, in southern Europe, the corpse was regarded as an inanimate object of little spiritual value and thus was rarely preserved. Southern Europeans were also more likely to dissect and anatomize corpses than other parts of Europe. Yet Northern Europeans were comparatively comfortable consuming the flesh and blood of their dead. 

Sarah: Medicinal cannibalism became so commonplace in the Christian world that outsiders came to associate Christians with the practice. Jews in Alexandria, Egypt were recorded as having “marveled greatly at how the Christians were so fond of eating bodies of the dead.” And they would know. Residents of Alexandria were accustomed to witnessing the operations of a robust network established by Europeans for the trafficking of Egyptian corpses. This brings us to the most popular and sought-after human ingredient in Western medicine, mumia. 

Street vendor selling mummies in Egypt
Bonfils Family, Momie égyptienne, Medinet-Abou, Egypt, c. 1870, printed later. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum. An Egyptian mummy dealer selling his wares in 1870.

Marissa: The story of mumia, or powdered mummies, is an interesting one because its popularity can be traced back to an unfortunate instance of mistranslation in Greco-Roman texts. Historian Karl Dannenfeldt uncovered this translation error in the 1980s. As it turns out, mumia originally referred to bituminous materials. Bitumen, known more commonly as “pitch” or “asphalt” is a black, sticky substance that occurs naturally in sandy landscapes all over the world. Prior to the invention of petroleum distillation (which produces asphalt as a by-product), natural asphalt was much harder to find. In the ancient world, the best-known source for asphalt was a mountain range in Persia which sits in present-day Darab, Iran. Ancient peoples found quite early on that this liquid asphalt had medicinal properties. It was used as an antidote for poisons or to set broken bones. They called the substance “mumiya.” Mum meant “wax” in middle Persian. 

Sarah: The first-century Greek physician Dioscorides gave asphalt, especially the bitumen from the Dead Sea, pride of place in his Materia Medica. Pliny the Elder, the naturalist we referred to earlier, wrote that asphalt was used to cure cataracts, leprosy, gout, toothaches, coughs, dysentery, wounds, and quartan fever. As we’ve mentioned in previous episodes, most of the literature from the Classical world was preserved and translated by Arab scholars in the medieval period. Medical texts were no exception. Arab physicians Al-Kindi and Al-Razi wrote about the medicinal uses of asphalt and used the word “mumia,” because it was the colloquial term for the liquid asphalt in Persia. The legendary physician and medical theorist, Ibn-Sina (Avicenna) agreed with his predecessors, prescribing asphalt (aka mumia) for abscesses, eruptions, fractures, concussions, paralysis, headache, epilepsy, vertigo, blood sputum, stomach problems, disorders of the liver and spleen, and to treat cases of poisoning. 

Marissa: So how did mumia go from meaning “liquid asphalt” to “powdered mummies”? The translation error occurred in the twelfth century by Gerard of Cremona. Gerard wrote that mumia was “the substance found in the land where bodies are buried with aloes by which the liquid of the dead, mixed with the aloes, is transformed and is similar to marine pitch.” Gerard got this from Constantinus Africanus who, a century earlier, had printed the false translation. Constantinus’s error was later corrected but Gerard must have not gotten the memo. 

This began a comedy of errors where medieval compilers reinforced and promoted this translation error. The mistake was further obscured by the Muslim parmacologist Ibn al-Baytar in the thirteenth century when he wrote, “that which is called bitumen Iudaicum, and to the mumia of the tombs, which is found in great quantities in Egypt, and which is the mixture which the ancient Greeks used formerly for embalming their dead, in order that their dead bodies might remain in the state in which they were buried and experience neither decay nor change.” Ibn al-Baytar may have gotten this idea from Pliny who wrote that asphalt was used in the mummification process, a belief that Egyptologists believed for centuries. In reality, asphalt was used rarely in the mummification process and probably only for poor, ordinary folks rather than important Pharaohs. 

Sarah: So the idea that Persian asphalt had curative properties survived the translation mistake. But, over time, it wasn’t just the asphalt that gave mumia its medicinal properties. It was the liquids exuding from the mummified corpses that mixed with the supposed asphalt to create this “elixir of life.” Matthaeus Silvaticus, in the fourteenth century, wrote that mumia “is that which is found in the tombs of those embalmed in which the fluid of the corpse dissolves with the aloes and myrrh with which the body is preserved.” 

Karl Dannenfeldt believes that this literary transformation of mumia occurred parallel to Renaissance Europe’s sourcing of medicinal compounds from the Middle East. During the 1400s, demand for liquid asphalt mumia outpaced the limited supply in Persia. Arab physician Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi sought to reconcile the two disagreeing definition of mumia by writing: “The mummy found in the hollows of the corpses in Egypt, differs but immaterially from the nature of mineral mummy; and where any difficulty arises in procuring the latter, may be substituted in its stead.”

Marissa: It comes as no surprise that the 1400s asphalt shortage coincides with an uptick in the raiding of Egyptian tombs and corpse trafficking in Cairo and Alexandria. In 1424, Cairo authorities discovered a hoard of cadavers within the city limits. The suspects confessed under torture that they were stealing bodies from local tombs, boiling them in water, and bottling the oily substance that came to rest on the water’s surface. When asked why they would do such a thing, these criminal entrepreneurs said that Europeans were willing to pay twenty five gold pieces per hundredweight. 

wooden apothecary vessel containing powdered mummy
Wooden apothecary vessel with inscription “MUMIÆ”, Hamburg Museum

Sarah: Amidst this thriving trade in Egyptian corpses, locals began processing and packaging entire embalmed bodies rather than just the black bituminous materials they exuded.. Most corpses were sourced from poor neighborhoods or in the remote desert sands where one could find the desiccated bodies of lost travelers. Some European physicians actually preferred this form of mumia. Charles II of England’s chemist, Nicasius Le Febre declared that the best medicinal mumia was made of “bodies dried up in the hot sands of Lybia, [sic] where sometimes whole caravans were overwhelmed by simoons and suffocated… ‘This sudden suffocation doth concentrate the spirits in all parts by reason of the fear and sudden surprisal which seizes on the travellers.”

Marissa: By 1600, mumia was widely understood to be processed, mummified remains, rather than the liquid exuded from mummies or liquid asphalt. Scholars attempted to differentiate between older mumia (liquid exudations)  and its new counterpart (powdered mummy) but their lamentations fell on deaf ears. The 1500s, however, was a time of immense confusion over what mumia was and how it was made. 

During the 15th and 16th centuries, in part due to the travel narratives written during the Crusades, Europeans were themselves visiting Egypt in large numbers. Medical mumia, which was slowly becoming known as a panacea, accounted for much of their fascination with Egytian mummies. In 1586, Englishman John Sanderson visited the pyramids in search of mummified cadavers. He wrote that the mummies “are like pitch, beinge broken; for I broke off all parts of the bodies to see howe the flesh was turned to drugge, and brought home divers heads, hands, arms, and feete for a shewe.” Two years later, a German traveler named Samuel Kiechel inquired about visiting Egyptian tombs to look for mummies but his local guides forbad him, saying it was too dangerous. While he was there, however, Kiechel witnessed the natives scavenging the tombs daily and taking human remains to Cairo to sell at market. Kiechal wrote, “one could buy an entire person in Cairo.”

Sarah: By the 1500s, we can perceive two different transcontinental mumia markets that had developed, one for the rich and one for ordinary folks. Wealthy and influential Europeans sourced mumia from trusted merchants in Egypt and the Levant, and bought the final product in Venice. For example, King Francis I of France carried a mixture of mumia and rhubarb with him at all times. This mumia, often called “true mumia,” was black liquid extracted from ancient Egyptian notables whose bodies had been preserved with myrrh, aloes, saffron, and other spices. Matter extracted from embalmed virgins was thought to be especially potent. This was a much older trade that accounted for most medieval mumia. 

Jewish physicians had established a mumia trade in the Levant during the Crusades. They injected corpses with inexpensive asphalt, wrapped them and cured them in the sun. Word of the lucrative nature of the market spread quickly and Egyptians found new and inventive ways of sourcing human material. This imitation mumia, made from the asphalt-preserved poor, desiccated travelers, and contraband corpses, is the mumia that most Europeans would have been familiar with in the 1500s and 1600s. 

Marissa: By the mid-1500s, “true mumia,” as in material sources from wealthy ancient Egyptians, would have been hard to find. In 1564, Guy de la Fontaine, physician to the king of Navarre, asked a Jewish mumia merchant about the ancient mummification process that created his mummies. He was sorely disappointed when the merchant told him that he’d prepared the bodies himself over the course of the previous four years. Before long, European physicians and apothecaries observed the astronomical popularity of this low-grade mumia imported from Egypt and began making the product domestically in the late 1500s. Over time, the geographical source of the mumia became irrelevant. 

Sarah: The Swiss-German physician Paracelsus (a favorite of the pod), is perhaps the driving force behind the thriving mumia industry in 16th and 17th century Europe. Paracelsus prescribed both forms of mumia. The true mumia (which may have actually contained some of the bitumen that mumia had originally denoted) and the more common, low-grade modern mummia made of the corpses of contemporaries. He clearly thought the latter was the more powerful ingredient. Paracelsian medicine, which was heavy on astrology, ascribed the body with unique occult powers. Paracelsus believed that the human body was a microcosm of the universe. To him, pharmaceuticals derived from human ingredients held all of the power of the cosmos. 

He wrote, “Nothing can be attributed to the body itself but only to the powers within it… Hence the power of mummy has been discovered in a variety of experiments.” Not only must the best mumia be made of a human body. The body must belong to someone who “did not die a natural death, but rather died an unnatural death with a healthy body and without sickness.” The healthier the human was at the time of death, the more powerful his body would be when used as a pharmaceutical. 

Marissa: Under Paracelsus’s tenure, the human nature of mumia was prioritized over the bituminous nature that had initially made the substance therapeutic.  Later physicians in the Paracelsian tradition (operating in Europe in the 1600s and 1700s) had dropped “true mumia” entirely and adopted the definition of human mumia as the only effective mumia. 

In the 1600s, the Paracelsian physician Oswald Crollius, asserted that mumia was “not the liquid matter which is found in the Egyptian sepulchers…” but rather, “the flesh of a man that perishes a violent death, and kept for some time in the air.” Crollius provided detailed instructions for preparation of pharmaceutical mumia which involved obtaining the body of a red-haired man no older than 24 years old who had died an unnatural death, most preferably hanging or breaking on the wheel. The corpse was then to be sprinkled with preservatives (like myrrh, aloe, and wine, dried, then soaked again. This yielded a kind of human jerky that could be itself consumed or used to make a tincture that was used to cure pestilence and pleurisy. Because of these specifications- that the corpse must be healthy, young man cut down in the prime of his life- executed criminals became ideal candidates for mumia corpses.  

Sarah: By 1700, mumia had gone out of fashion in Europe. English author John Quincy wrote in 1718, “although mumia could still be found in medicinal catalogs, it is quite out of use in prescription.” During his travels in the Egyptians deserts in the 1730s, the English Richard Pococke commented on the destruction wrought by the mumia craze. He saw many skulls strewn about the desert, “many of which probably had been rifled of the bitumen or balsam that was in them, when that sort of medicine was formerly much more in use than it is at present.”

Marissa: The 1700s saw an effort to record and organize all of the information in the world (ie. the advent of encyclopedias). So, it was during this century that encyclopedists documented what mumia actually was, outlining four distinct kinds: (1) natural Persian asphalt, (2) the exudate from embalmed bodies that resembled Persian asphalt, (3) Egyptian bodies embalmed with natural asphalt, and (4) sun-dried, desiccated bodies such as those found in the desert or prepared by Oswald Crollius and his ilk. 

Sarah: But once again, not all physicians got the memo. Some physicians referred to all pharmaceuticals derived from dead bodies as “mummy.” They used this to differentiate from pharmaceuticals derived from live bodies, such as hairs, nails, saliva, ear wax, sweat, milk, menses, placenta, urine, dung, semen, and various stones, which were called “simples.” Though mumia was the primary cannibalistic drug on eighteenth-century markets, people were still using various other human parts and excretions for routine therapies. For example, 17th-century wives were sometimes prescribed a draught of their husband’s urine if they were experiencing a difficult labor. Human dung was one of many prescriptions for a phlegmy throat. Menstrual blood, more accessible than warm blood from a recently slain corpse, was the go-to remedy for epilepsy, pestilence, and skin abscesses. 

Natural asphalt/bitumen from the Dead Sea

Marissa: By the 1750s, the bituminous nature of mumia had been all but forgotten and its effectiveness was attributed almost entirely to the cannibalistic aspect of the drug. Physicians began to delineate which parts of the corpse were effective for which ailments. The Pharmacopoeia Universalis, published in 1764 and compiled by English physician Robert James, describes the therapeutic benefits of mumia like this:

“Mummy resolves coagulated Blood, and is said to be effectual in purging the Head, against pains of the Spleen, a Cough, Inflation of the Body, Obstructions of the Menses, and other uterine Affections; Outwardly, it is of Service for consolidating Wounds. The Skin is recommended in difficult Labours, and hysteric affections, and for  Withering and Contraction of the Joints. The Fat strengthens, discusses, eases Pains, cures Contractions, mollifies the Hardness of Cicatrices (scars), and fills up the pits left by the Measles. The Bones dried, discuss, astringe, stop all Sorts of Fluxes, and are therefore useful for Catarrh, Flux of the Measles, Dysentery, and Lientery; and mitigate Pains of the Joints. The Marrow is highly commended for Contractions of the Limbs. The Cranium is found by Experience to be good for Diseases of the Head, and particularly for the Epilepsy; for which Reason it is an Ingredient in several anti-epileptic Compositions. The… triangular Bone of the Temple, is commended as a specific Remedy for Epilepsy. The Heart also cures the same Distemper.”

Keep in mind, these ingredients weren’t separated, they were all part of the same powdered corpses, so it’s easy to see why mumia was called a cure-all or panacea

Sarah: Toward the end of the 18th century, it became increasingly taboo to use human flesh or excretions as medicine. New ideas about heredity made people wary of consuming the flesh or blood of executed criminals. This concern was nothing new. Even in the 1600s, some physicians believed that “Drinking the blood of a criminal who has been beheaded is likely to result in the acquisition of his criminal character and the pursuit of a career of crime.” But it wasn’t until the late 1700s that the general public began to take an interest in hereditary medicine and heed this caution. 

Still, mumia was still supplied by druggists into the 1800s. The posthumous edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of English reads, “What our druggists are supplied with is the flesh of any bodies [makers of mummy] can get, who fill them with… common bitumen… and adding aloes, and some other cheap ingredients, send them to be baked in an oven til the juices are exhaled and the embalming matter has penetrated.”

As late as 1908, the Merck Group in Darmstadt (which is still a pharmaceutical company today) offered in its catalog: “genuine Egyptian mummy, as long as the supply lasts, 17 marks 50 per kilogram.”

Marissa: Now, we have established that both the Eastern and Western world have time-honored traditions of cannibalism for medical purposes. But it’s worth mentioning the irony of all this. Both China and the various nations of Europe are guilty of using accusations of cannibalism against their enemies and in order to justify imperial force. For example, the Chinese accused Koreans of cannibalism in order to justify their imperial activities on the peninsula. The British accused indiegenous Americans and Australasians of cannibalism in order to justify their colonization of the Americans and Australia. 

Sarah: Even as recently as WWII, the Allied powers stoked rumors of cannibalism among the Japanese ranks. The Allies admitted that they were complicit in delivering 300 crates of human flesh to an Allied camp for Japanese POWs so that the Japanese prisoners could feast on the human remains. This… doesn’t pass the sniff test. But the point is that cannibalism has always been a useful tool when one has an enemy to “other.” It’s such a shocking, appalling practice to most people that it immediately damages any empathy that one might have for others. 

Some scholars, namely SUNY Stony Brook anthropologist William Arens, have argued that socially sanctioned cannibalism among indigenous societies was merely a myth. Arens’s 1979 book The Man Eating Myth argued that cannibalism among the Caribs and the Aztecs were fabricated by their colonizers. He wasn’t saying that cannibalism never happened, rather he questioned the ubiquity of the practice, it’s sanctioning by the community, and its centrality to indigenous culture. Most scholars now believe that Arens was a little too quick to dismiss ritual cannibalism in indigenous societies instead of trying to understand what cannibalism actually meant to them. 

Marissa: Recently, scholars have suggested that ritual and medicinal cannibalism were quite similar. Using the Bimin-Kuskuskin example, where spouses and elders ate the reproductive organs of the dead, once you’re past the initial shock, it’s hard not to see the practice as a medical practice, akin to placenta encapsulation or the consumption of mumia. Something similar can be said of Aztec human sacrifice. Humans were sacrificed in the prime of their lives, much like the men whose bodies were used to create mumia. The blood of the Aztec sacrifice was thought to fertilize the earth, ensuring a good harvest, and that human’s, as well as the community’s sacrifice, was believed to please the gods in order to ensure the health and stability of the community. It’s interesting to think of the mumia example in a similar way. Criminals were executed in order to pay for their crimes and bring harmony back to their communities. Their blood and flesh were collected and prepared, and then sold for very high prices back to the community. This is not to say that either practice is ethically sound or anything like that but it’s a good exercise in implicit bias.


Chen, T. S., and P. S. Chen. 1998. “Medical Cannibalism in China: The Case of Ko-Ku”. Pharos of Alpha Omega Honor Medical Society. 61, no. 2: 23-25.

Gordon-Grube, Karen. 1988. “Anthropophagy in Post-Renaissance Europe: The Tradition of Medicinal Cannibalism”. American Anthropologist : Journal of the American Anthropological Association.

Gordon-Grube, Karen. 1993. “Evidence of Medicinal Cannibalism in Puritan New England: “Mummy” and Related Remedies in Edward Taylor’s “Dispensatory”. Early American Literature. 28, no. 3: 185-221.

Himmelmann, P. Kenneth. 1997. “The Medicinal Body: An Analysis of Medicinal Cannibalism in Europe, 1300-1700”. Dialectical Anthropology : an Independent International Journal in the Critical Tradition Committed for the Transformation of Our Society and the Humane Union of Theory and Practice. 22: 183-203.

Noble, Louise Christine. Corpus Salubre: Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Culture. Ottawa: National Library of Canada = Bibliothèque nationale du Canada, 2003.

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Sugg, Richard. Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians. 2016.

Sugg, Richard. Murder After Death: Literature and Anatomy in Early Modern England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010.

Watson, Kelly L. Insatiable Appetites: Imperial Encounters with Cannibals in the North Atlantic World. 2017.

1 Comment

CANIBALISMOS: de los unos a los otros – In Media Res · March 29, 2022 at 10:23 am

[…] Rhodes, M. (2021, 23 octubre). A History of Medicinal Cannibalism: Therapeutic Consumption of Human Bodies, Blood, & Excrement in “Civilized” Societies. DIG.  […]

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