Throughout the centuries, doctors have used healing techniques devoid of all kinds of scientific basis.
A good example was mummy powders. For centuries they were considered a true panacea, they were attributed all kinds of healing virtues, from the healing of ulcers and repair of broken bones, to epilepsy, through toothache.
This peculiar treatment enjoyed the acquiescence of all social classes, including royalty. We know that the French monarch Francis I did not leave the palace without a good supply of sachets with mummy powder.
The use of mummies for medical purposes was the result of linguistic confusion. In ancient times the Persians traded in bitumen, a black and viscous liquid to which health properties were attributed, and which was known in their language as “mummia”.
When the Eastern merchants first saw Egyptian mummies, they discovered with satisfaction that they were covered by bitumen, that is, by “mummia.”
Actually the mummies were coated with special resins, quite similar to bitumen, whose function was to keep the mummification in good condition.
Here the confusion began. If “mummia” had miraculous properties for the human body, so would, by extension, what the Egyptian mummies were impregnated with.
With the passage of time, the error increased and the word “mummia” began to be applied to the entire body of the mummy, popularizing the use of mummified bodies as a therapeutic method.
The crusades did the rest, fostered contact with Arab culture and the entry of the wonders of the East into Christian Europe.
The conditions of this linguistic confusion were dire. There was a relentless pursuit to acquire Egyptian mummies, the obtained powder diluted in wine, water or honey and dispensed to a troubled clientele.
In some cases the powder was not sold, but pieces of the corpse or even a blackish paste. Ointments were also made based on mixtures of petroleum jelly and oily substances, to which supposed rejuvenating effects on the skin were attributed. In other words, the mummies became a very lucrative business.
At first it was not difficult to find mummies to atomize, but the unstoppable increase in demand caused the raw material to become scarce.
The grave robbers went to great lengths but their work failed to supply the thriving European market, so there was no choice but to resort to counterfeiting.
It did not take long for unscrupulous merchants to appear, happily mummifying the bodies of slaves, abandoned corpses, or executed people.
The result they achieved was of such high quality that when X-ray tests were started on the mummies it was discovered that some museums exhibited fake Egyptian mummies in their cabinets.
Mummy powder: New use
In the 12th century, Egyptian mummies were used for the first time for curative purposes in European courts, a treatment that reached its peak throughout the Middle Ages.
It was from the Renaissance when an interest in science began, rejecting the practice of magical treatments. The French surgeon Ambroise Paré (1517-1590) was one of the first to lash out at the mummy powder.
Some time later, Father Feijoo (1676-1764), a Benedictine monk, would do the same . In spite of everything, the last therapeutic queues reached the beginning of the 18th century, when in European pharmacies there was absolute certainty that crude counterfeits were being sold.
From that moment on, the mummies were used for other purposes, mixed with solvents and resins, they transformed into an unsurpassed brown pigment, which the painters of the 18th century baptized with the name of “mummy brown”. It was the start of a new business.