A True Story of Mummies and European Ghouls

From 'A Complete History of Drugs,' 1725. Ann Ronan Pictures/Getty

The ancient Egyptians were a very alien people in many ways. Even in their own time, the complexities of Egyptian cosmology failed to travel well. Modern minds have even more difficulty with it, but science fiction provides an interesting way to understand certain aspects of this ancient religion.

An end, a beginning.
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The Egyptians believed in a rich and vibrant afterlife. To reach it, one's soul had to pass a series of tests, avoid annihilation by the Crocodile-headed Ammit and then passing on into the realm of Sekhet Aaru. There, 15 gods ruled over 15 separate regions, some benign and some inhumanly hostile. Woe to any soul unfortunate enough to enter the airless region of Iksey, the realm of "that August God who is in his Egg" [Source: Turner]

A newly-arrived soul in Sekhet Aaru would need spells to protect it from snakes, giant beetles and curses. It would need farming equipment, pets, servants, gold, food and items of comfort. It would need a vessel for the journey and its body would demand preservation for the world beyond. In other words, the ancient Egyptian mummy was a traveler through time in space, its body suspended in a deathly state en route to another universe.

Unfortunately, however, these ancient astronauts were intercepted by corpse-eating European ghouls.

Feast of the Ghoul

You're familiar with the ghoul, I trust. This species of corpse-eating humanoid emerges from the legends of the pre-Islamic Middle East. They are tomb raiders, corpse defilers, demonic entities and human-cannibals-turned-monster. They feast on the dead for nourishment, prophesy and even curative reasons.

Perhaps the ghoul of legend has always resonated with us because humans have long shared their appetite for the dead. From ancient tribal mortuary cannibalism rites to modern blood transfusions and tissue transplants, we've never been all that shy about taking another's flesh into our own.

The Corpse Grinders

And so our Ancient Egyptian travelers did not wake from their sarcophagi into the realm of Sekhet Aaru. Instead, their bodies found their way to Victorian unwrapping parties and apothecary workshops.

Powdered mummy container, European, c 1600-1800.
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From the 12th century BCE onward, a holocaust of the undying transpired in the Middle East and especially in Europe. These preserved corpses were destroyed for sport, treasure-hunting greed and even as kindling for fires. Most shocking of all, thousands of mummies perished in apothecary's corpse grinder for use in medicine [source: Ikram].

Yes, welcome to the world of medicinal cannibalism, where humans drink gladiator blood and consume honeyed cadavers. From the 12th to the 17th centuries, Europeans couldn't get enough mummy powder. They used it in the treatment of everything from headaches and erectile dysfunction to stomach ulcers and tumors [source: Dolan]. They drank in in tinctures, mixed it into salves and it takes no leap of faith to imagine these ground-up human remains found their way into suppositories as well.

Imagine cryogenically-suspended space travelers consumed by ravenous aliens and you land close to the tragedy of the ghoulish fate of the Egyptian mummy. It's all the more tragic in that this appetite for mummia (also known as mumiæ or mumia) is based on a misunderstanding.

Bitumen in the Human

See, it all hinges on bitumen, the world's first petroleum product. It's a sticky, black, viscous and you probably know it better as asphalt. But it was highly prized in the ancient world, and for the longest it was primarily a Mesopotamian monopoly. The substance saw use in various endeavors (boat caulking, art, cosmetics) but physicians in the region eventually used it to treat a number of ailments -- and word of these treatments eventually spread to Europe [source: Bilkadi].

'Excavations of Antinopolis' by Albert Gayet
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But how was one to obtain this precious substance without access to Mesopotamian bitumen deposits? Well, word had it that the Ancient Egyptians used bitumen as a preservative in their mummies -- the word "mummy" even comes from the Persian word for wax, mumia, used to describe bitumen. Yet while the Egyptians used bitumen occasionally from about 1100 CE onward, they largely used resins and oils in their mortuary practices [source: Ikram].

But the ghouls of Europe didn't know this. Their mummia-based medicines contained equal parts magical thinking and placebo effect. The treatments seemed to work, so the honored dead of Egypt found continued annihilation in the apothecary's mortar. When mummies were scarce, contemporary cadaverous were dried and pulverized to produce an imitation product.

The practice didn't fall away entirely till the 18th century, and actual bitumen still sees limited use in modern Iran as a skin treatment [source: Bourée, et al]. In the end, we'll never know exactly how many immortality-seeking Egyptians found their ultimate oblivion in the gullet of a ghoul.

There's a grisly irony there -- one that the cackling, bone-sucking children of Gluttriel would certainly appreciate.

"Egyptian ingenuity was more unsatisfied, contriving their bodies in sweet consistencies, to attend the return of their souls. But all was vanity, feeding the wind, and folly. The Egyptian mummies, which Cambyses or time hath spared, avarice now consumeth. Mummy is become merchandize, Mizraim cures wounds, and Pharaoh is sold for balsams." - Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682)

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.