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One of the oddest chapters in the history of European pharmacology concerns the mania for a medicinal preparation called “mummy” that captured the European imagination in the early modern era. Mummy is just what it sounds like: a medicament, typically in the form of a powder, that was derived from Egyptian mummies or in some cases fraudulent substitutes thereof. The word itself comes from the Arabic al-mumiya, that is, asphalt or bitumen, the tarry black substance now associated with road surfaces but once recommended for its medicinal properties. Mummified corpses were sometimes coated in a black substance that looked like bitumen; through this connection, the meaning of the word was eventually transferred to the corpses themselves. In his al-Qānūn fī l-ṭibb, or “Canon of Medicine,” the physician and philosopher Ibn Sina (370-428 AH; 980-1037 CE) listed multiple disorders for which mummy was a remedy. European pharmacies began to stock mummy in the middle ages, and the fad grew in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in concert with Europe’s growing fascination with Egypt. Although the medicinal properties were originally thought to derive from the bitumen or tarry exterior of the mummy, the benefits were soon transferred to the entire corpse, which was ground up or in some cases boiled. A brisk trade in mummies, whole or dismembered, soon ensued. The uses of mummy were more than just medicinal, since the powder was also used by painters to prepare a color known as mummy brown. In the nineteenth century, rumors began to circulate that mummies were even being used for locomotive fuel.


Wooden apothecary vessel, Hamburg Museum. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

At present, the small set of apothecaries’ inventories in the DALME corpus includes three references to mummy. One of them occurs in the inventory of the estate of the apothecary Guilhem Coll (ed. Mathis Fourès). Guilhem, who died in December of 1453, was a resident of the city of Girona in the Crown of Aragon. A few months after his death, his widow, Blancha, requested an inventory of his estate, including the contents of his pharmacy. The record, written in Catalan, is quite extensive, running to 56 pages in length, and took several days to compile. The compound, described as “a little bit of mummy,” was found in a small red box among a set of twelve. A small apothecary’s box containing mummy was also found in the 1410 inventory of the shop of the apothecary and businesswoman Rixendis Cambale of Marseille, and in the 1425 inventory of the shop of Florentine apothecary Lionardo di Nicchola Falorni da Pescia. Mummy is also listed in three registers of duties from regions of Lombardy: Vercelli (1332), Frassineto Po (1427), and Milan (1450). Not all medieval pharmacies stocked mummy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but these references show that the substance was common enough.

Further reading:

Elliott, Chris. “Bandages, Bitumen, Bodies and Business - Egyptian Mummies as Raw Materials.” Aegyptiaca. Journal of the History of Reception of Ancient Egypt, no. 1 (2017): 26–46.

Noble, Louise. Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture. Early Modern Cultural Studies 1500–1700. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.