Cannibalism in Europe

I feel a strong desire to begin this paper Shakesperimentally; and as I recollect several passages which are mostly or entirely irrelevant, I do not see why I should balk my inclination.

When the fire burned and cauldron bubbled, the witches who doubled, toiled, and troubled, threw into the broth, amongst other ingredients of a recherche description, a portion of the mummy of one of their respectable sisterhood. The mixture which they concocted was, however, not intended for bodily refreshment, nor in any way made for the stomach’s sake. The use to which it was put was, as we all know, quite other than that of victuals.

Again, if I recollect rightly, the fatal handkerchief of Desdemona “was dyed in mummy, which the skilful conserved, of maidens’ hearts.” But it does not at all appear that that hapless lady’s fate was in any way influenced by the application of mummy internally.

Could Shakespeare however have read Sir Thomas Browne, I think he would have been extremely surprised to meet with the following very singular inquiries:

Shall we exceed the barbarities of Cambyses, and turn old heroes into unworthy potions? Shall Egypt lend out her ancients unto chirurgeons and apothecaries, and Cheops and Psammeticus be weighed unto us for drags? Shall we eat of Chamnes and Amasis in electuaries and pills, and be cured by cannibal mixtures? I think he would have replied promptly, that we ought to do no such thing, that no such thing ever had been done, and that it was absurd to think of it. He would, however, have been entirely mistaken.

Some few centuries ago, the learned physicians of England and other countries of Europe, prescribed for their patients, quite regularly, what they called “mummy;” viz., nothing more and nothing less than the powdered bodies of Egyptian mummies.

Mummy became an article of commerce: a brisk trade was done in it. Bodies, fragments of bodies — of embalmed Egyptians, embalmed Egyptian cats, embalmed Egyptian anything — came to have a marketable value, and were eagerly sought after by the astute Levantine merchants. The people of the East, being inclined to more wholesome medicaments for their own part, and not wanting to keep their peculiar produce at home, exported largely to these countries.

I do not know whether there is on record any authentic list of cures effected by these singular nostrums of our ancestors, but we are credibly informed how the specific was administered, and for what complaints it was esteemed an anodyne. It was recommended to be taken in decoctions of carraway, marjoram, cassia, lentils, saffron, thyme, and various other aromatic herbs, with wine, milk, butter, &c. As for the diseases over which it was all-powerful, any quack list of the present day will give them as well as I can. One great virtue of mummy-powder, however, seems to have been, that if it did no good, it also did no harm; which is more than could be said of the quack mixtures of our times.

The physicians apologised for the singular and offensive nature of their prescriptions, by saying that the ancient Egyptians used in the process of embalming certain precious gums and balsams, the art of preparing and mixing which, in the proper proportions, had been lost in the lapse of ages, and which could therefore only be obtained by using the substances impregnated with them. They urged that these ingredients were not only, as had been sufficiently made manifest, of power to keep the dead husk together in the tomb, but had also the rare and higher virtue of upholding our mortal frames in life, and in some measure lengthening the span allotted to us. I propose to offer no opinion as to the correctness of these theories.

The common people (who took mummy powder without any especial reluctance), cherished a firmly-grounded belief that the virtue, far from being in the spice, was altogether in the Egyptian.

Whether in the course of time it became difficult to obtain supplies of the genuine article, or whether the dealer in mummy found it more profitable to manufacture it at home, I know not. It is certain that the discovery was made that the vendors had been (iMrribile dictu) in the habit of getting hold of the bodies of executed criminals, which, by a process of drying in the sun, stuffing with common bitumen or asphaltum, and discolouring in various ways, they contrived to palm off as genuine mummies from the banks of the Nile.

This discovery was the death-blow of the trade. Thenceforth people turned in disgust from mummy-powder, and I believe it would be quite in vain to seek for it in any modern pharmacopoeia.

So strange an episode in medical history may suggest to us one or two as strange reflections.

The first that occurs to me is, “How curiously people are sometimes revenged!”

When mummies were medicine the trades of apothecary and importing merchant were chiefly in the hands of Jews. Consider now the possibility of a hard-hearted Pharaoh, three or four thousand years ago, having insisted on the poor down-trodden children of Israel building him an enormous pyramid in some preposterously short space of time. The poor strawless brick-makers and bricklayers groan under the rod of the oppressor, and labour at their task. The weak bows down before the strong, and the suffering cry of “How long?” seems to have been lifted up in vain.

The Pharaoh goes down to his tomb, and the oppressed go totheir long homes, also. To the just and to the unjust there is one common end. But the years roll on unceasingly. Generation follows generation; century after century is swallowed up of time. Israel has been lifted up and brought low again. Once more he groans under the yoke of the stranger. The glory of his own land has departed, and he is scattered abroad amongst the people that scorn and despise him. Even yet in this, his low estate, there is reserved for him a refinement of revenge that is calculated to satisfy even a nation of Shylocks!

He takes the old Pharaoh who ground down the faces of his father; takes him from out his stately tomb, beats him with mortar and pestle into a fine powder, and sells him out across the counter at so much an ounce to the extortionate Christian whom he most hates and detests! There is something more than mere revenge in Nemesis turned apothecary. Consider how curiously these Egyptian worthies might be distributed, which is, of course, only a consideration arising out of my last reflection on their being distributed at all. Two drams of Sesostris to cure the pork-buteher’s little daughter of the whooping-cough!

Half-an-ounce of Sesostris’s valet for the relief of His Majesty King John’s rheumatism! 1qAn occasional pinch of an Egyptian tom cat from Sebaste for the good of old General Fugleman’s eye-sight!

When our forefathers absorbed Egyptian bodies into their own, must they not necessarily have become in some degree Egyptianised? You may tell me “No” and that a man by eating beef never shows any tendency to become an ox — still the doubt will return. And when I stand in the Sydenham Palace and look up at those colossal figures of Oimenepthah II., and Amunothph III. (whose name any one may pronounce who can), is it not natural that I should feel a yearning towards them? Why should I not cry ” Oh, Oimenepthah II., Oh, Amunothph III., can it be that my ancestors actually devoured thee in the shape of drugs, and that I, through their cannibalism, am in some fractional degree, bone of thy bone, flesh of thy flesh, balsam of thy balsam?”

Did Mr. Buckle properly consider all this when he wrote that admirable book in which he teaches us how greatly our mental, moral, and intellectual eminence depends on the state of the weather, and the quality of our victuals? I am afraid he did not; and as the omission must have been accidental, he is at liberty to insert in his next edition any reflections which may be suggested by this paper. If, as we are so clearly taught, the comparative perfection of the soul depends on the comparative perfection of the body; and if the physical organisation of an Egyptian be so far inferior to that of an European that only the diseased imagination of the lover can “see Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt;” — it follows, practically and incontrovertibly, that Europe must deteriorate in exactly the same proportion as it assimilates itself to Egypt.

Following out carefully this train of reasoning, my readers must admit that the inadequate manner in which I have brought this subject before them may be chargeable not so much on me as on Oimenepthah II., or Amunothph III.

R. H.



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