Medicinal Cannibalism Script and Sources

When I say mummy, what image do you think of? You probably think of Egypt and the great pyramids and tombs that housed the pharaohs of ancient times. The Western world has long been fascinated by ancient egypt, going back to the Napoleonic Wars when Napoleon occupied the country in an attempt to disrupt British trade. It was French soldiers who discovered the Rosetta Stone that allowed for the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Now that scholars were able to translate ancient egyptian, Europeans were delighted to learn more about the exotic lives of the god-kings and their unique pantheon. The sensationalism around ancient egypt reached its peak after the discovery of King Tutenkamen’s Tomb in 1922 in the Valley of the Kings. 

Westerners, especially Americans, were crazy for King Tut, and the 1920’s was the era of Tutmania. Egyptian motifs became incredibly popular in marketing and entertainment. Diamond jewelry was fashioned to resemble egyptian scarabs and sarcophagus masks. Popular romance novels featured pharaohs as their protagonists. Lemon companies labeled themselves as King Tut Brand Lemons. The 1932 movie The Mummy was based on the discovery of Tutenkamen’s tomb. Tutmania was so pervasive that Howard Carter, the archeologist who led the expedition that uncovered Tutenkamen, complained about the waves of tourists who interrupted his work and wished to tour the inside of the tomb. 

Egyptomania continues on to this day, with Egyptian motifs found throughout American culture. The Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas, the 1986 hit song Walk Like an Egyptian, and the continuing popularity of the traveling King Tut exhibit are all examples of the interest that many have in ancient egypt. 

However, while Egyptomania began in the modern era, the fascination people have had with ancient Egyptian relics, specifically mummies, dates back much earlier. In the late Medieval Ages and early Renaissance, Italian merchants in the city of Alexandria smuggled ancient mummies out of Egypt and to Europe. These smuggled mummies were sold throughout Europe, but they were not purchased by scholars or historians for research purposes; nor by rich private collectors like they might be today. These mummies would be purchased by doctors and apothecaries who would take the mummies and grind them down into a powder called mummia. Some artists used mummia as a paint pigment called mummia brown, but the most widespread use of mummia was as a medicine. 

Mummia was added to water and drinken by patients or made into a salve for a variety of ailments, such as epilepsy, bruising, nausea, and internal bleeding. Mummia was an incredibly popular medicine, so much so that medicine makers of Europe could not find Egyptian mummies fast enough. In order to meet demand, they began taking the bodies of lepers, executed criminals, and camels in order to embalm and grind them into mummia. One doctor in the 16th century stated that the substance was “the very first and last medicine of almost all our practitioners.” Mummia would continue to be sold in at least Germany until the early 20th century, where it was listed as a product in a popular medical catalogue.

Now, you may think that consuming embalmed and mummified humans as a medical treatment might be a bit strange or even grotesque. But for much of European history people did not even bat an eye. Mummia was a part of a larger practice known to scholars as Medicinal Cannibalism, or corpse medicine, and that is the topic of this episode. 

The use of human corpses as a medicine cabinet dates back thousands of years. In the Roman Republic, spectators in the arena would be delighted when a gladiator was killed, because it meant that they could drink the blood of the fallen combatant. It was believed that drinking the blood of a slain gladiator would cure “falling sickness,” or epilepsy as it is known today. Concessionists would collect the blood spilt by the gladiator and sell the still warm, viscous fluid to the audience. 

Fast forward a few centuries to the late 4th century CE when Emperor Honorius ended gladiatorial combat. Though they could no longer acquire the blood of arena fighters, those who were afflicted still felt the need to satiate their thirst. Public executions quickly filled the void left behind by gladiators, and both spectators and the ill crowded around the chopping block and gallows. If you or a loved one suffered from epilepsy, you could push your way through the crowd to sip the blood trickling off the executioner’s platform or soak some up with a cloth. Alternatively, you could pay the executioner for a cup of fresh blood. 

Beyond epilepsy, human blood was useful to patients for multiple other ailments. Marsilio Ficino, a 15th century priest, told the elderly that blood was a means to reduce the symptoms of aging. Ficino said that the blood should come from ‘an adolescent” who was “clean, happy, temperate, and whose blood is excellent but perhaps a little excessive.”’ 

But, if drinking pure blood was offsetting to a patient, there were means of making it more palatable. One recipe for medicinal blood, attributed to St. Albert Magnus the Universal Doctor, involved distilling blood like rose water. This distilled blood was a cure all that, even in small quantities, could supposedly restore all strength to an ailing person. Another popular use of blood was applying powdered blood to wounds and nosebleeds to stop bleeding. Now I am not a doctor and I am not and will never give medical advice on this podcast, but based on my research powdered blood would have actually worked as a medication for bleeding. This is due to the fact that applying any powder to a wound helps with coagulation. 

Now let’s take a step back and examine more closely the most steady supplier of human blood: Executioners. While executioners were often ostracized from normal communal life, they were also seen as being somewhat magical due to their ability to supply the sick with miraculous medicines. Executioners made a killing selling corpse medicine to the ill and apothecaries. Other than blood, their best selling product was human fat. 

Apothecaries would purchase human fat from executioners by the pound. Like blood, fat was a panacea, a cure all, and would be prescribed for everything. Bandages soaked in fat were wrapped around wounds, fat salves were rubbed into the skin in order to alleviate arthritis, and it could be powdered and consumed to help with bruising and bleeding. Sir Theodore Turquet de Mayerne, a physician to both English kings and Oliver Cromwell, recommended a mix of hemlock, opium, and fat as a painkiller. 

While this pain killer might have worked due to the opium and not the fat, using fat as an arthritis medicine might have actually had an effect. Again, not a doctor, but rubbing fat causes heat and friction, which can ease aches and pains in a person’s muscles and joints like a heat pad would. My grandma had pillowcases full of corn kernels that she would heat up in the microwave and then she would rub it over her muscles and joints. This is the same principle. 

Besides fatty tissue and blood, the human body was filled with other wonderful ingredients just waiting to be explored. One such ingredient was bones, specifically skulls. Human skulls were useful in curing epilepsy, strokes, vertigo, and stupidity. Thomas Willis, a doctor in the mid 17th century who is now credited for his pioneering of brain research, would prescribe patients a medicine whose ingredients included powdered flowers, chocolate, sugar, ambergris, and human skulls. When the Archbishop of Canterbury suffered a stroke, Willis cited his skull medication for the archbishop’s recovery. 

Another use of human skull was an alcoholic beverage known as King’s Drops. Originally devised by Dr. Jonathan Goddard, the drops were made of distilled human skulls and were prescribed for apoplexy, a broad diagnosis that included strokes and other ailments. King Charles II, being an ameutur chemist with his own laboratory, bought the recipe for the drops from Goddard and began to make the drops himself. From then on, the medicine was known as King’s Drops. King’s Drops were very popular, and English doctors traveling abroad would be bombarded with requests for the drink.

Once again, I will state that I am not a doctor, and I do not know if skull alcohol will help with strokes, but there is evidence that the King’s Drops helped one specific housewife. In 1686, Anne Dormer wrote in a letter, “I apply myself to tend my crazy health, and keep up my weak shattered carcass, broken with restless nights and unquiet days. I take the king’s drops and drink chocolate, and when my soul is sad to death I run and play with the children.” Basically, what Anne Dormer is saying is that she has poor mental health and she drinks this heavily alcoholic beverage and chocolate in order to get through her day. 

Now, if skulls are not your cup of tea, there is another cure all medicine that you could take instead. Human brains. John French, renowned chemist and physician in the early 17th century, was famous for his book The Art of Distillation, an instruction manual on how to distill alcohol and other liquids. The manuel held recipes for distilling fruits, vegetables, sugar, amber, and wood into oils and liquor for medicinal use. The manual also contained recipes for distilling mummia, Kings Drops, and human brain. 

French’s recipe for what he called Essence of Man’s Brain called for the brain of a young man who died a violent death. You would crush the brain with a mortar along with human arteries, veins, and nerves. Then you would add some distilled wine and place the mixture into a sealed container. Leave the container for half a year in decaying horse dung. The heat generated from the decaying horse dung would slowly cook the brain juice. After it was done cooking, you would finally distill the brain into a liquid that could be taken as an “infallible medicine against the falling sickness.”

Now, did you catch where you are supposed to acquire your medicinal brain from? French recommends that Essence of Man’s Brain uses the brain of a young man who has died violently. And do you remember where epiletics in Ancient Rome and Medieval times got their blood from. Slain gladiators and executed criminals, or in other words people who died violently. Most doctors who prescribed corpse medicine recommended that the medicine come from a cadaver that died violently. Do you have a guess as to why that is?

It was believed that when a person died young, before their time, all the strength and youth remained in their body. And if that young person died violently, then their soul would temporarily remain trapped within their corpse, granting medicine made from their body certain magical properties. In other words, corpse medicine was believed to be more potent if the source died violently because it meant that a patient was consuming the soul of the man who died. 

Of course, this was just one medical theory for why corpse medicine was considered effective. Another reason corpse medicine was popular was because of the homeopathic belief of “like cures like.” If you go onto the website for the School of Homeopathy, you might see a quote from Hippocrates, the namesake of the modern Hippocratic oath. The quote goes as such, “By similar things a disease is produced and through the application of the like is cured.” In other words, things related to the origin of a disease are effective medicines for that disease. 

Even though Homeopathy would not be founded until the late 18th century, this principle of “like cures like” predates the formal practice and was given much stock by doctors. So, if you suffered from epilepsy or stroke, which were ailments that were believed to originate in the head, a doctor would recommend that you consume the skull or brain of a young man. If you were bleeding from a wound or internal hemorrhaging, you would apply powdered blood. And so on.

Now, while medicinal cannibalism would continue on in some forms up to the early 20th century, it reached its peak in the early enlightenment. This also coincided with the colonization of the Americas. When Christopher Columbus returned from his journey to the Carribean, he told stories of the Carrib people, whom he claimed hunted people of other tribes in order to eat their flesh. The world cannibal is believed to originate with the word Caribe, which is what Columbus called the Carrib people. These stories of human hunters horrified Europeans and helped to justify the conquest, enslavement, and forced conversions of indigious peoples. And in future centuries, whenever European explorers and colonists met with peoples who were considered primitive, accusations of cannibalism soon followed. 

You might think that in the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, people would be able to spot the hypocrisy of their outrage. Europeans, after all, had been consuming human bodies for centuries. And while indigeonous people of South America performed cannibalism as a part of ritualized funeral rights for family and friends, European apothecaries would take the bodies of the poor, social outcasts, and criminals in order to make medicine for the rich. But, either through willful ignorance or lack of critical thinking, Europeans never made a connection between their own cannibalism and the cannibalism practiced by conquered native people. 

Shout out to the book Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires by Richard Suggs and A brief history of cannibalism – Bill Schutt on the TED ED Youtube page for being especially helpful in my research. You can find me on Twitter @HistoryMisc or my website where you can get updates on new episodes. New episodes can also be found on soundcloud at


A medieval remedy for MRSA is just the start of it. Powdered poo, anyone? Richard Sugg

John French’s The Art of Distillation  Recipe for Essence of Man’s Brain

7 Human Body Parts That Were Once Used as Medicine 

A Brief History of Medical Cannibalism Beth Lovejoy

The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine

Egyptian Mummies

Mummies, Cannibals, and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine From the Renaissance to the Victorians | Richard Sugg

A Brief History of Cannibalism – Bill Schutt 

Tutankhamun: How ‘Tut-mania’ gripped the world

Egyptomania: Why are we so obsessed with Ancient Egypt

Between horror and hope: gladiator’s blood as a cure for epileptics in ancient medicine.

Gladiator History

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