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How to make honey infused corpse medicine

An artistic impression of mellified man.  Image from Wikipedia.

An artistic impression of mellified man. Image from Wikipedia.

Corpse medicine was a type of remedy produced with the bones, organs, and blood from dead bodies. It is mentioned in ancient medical texts and histories from Greece, China, Mesopotamia, and India. One of the more peculiar accounts of corpse medicine comes from the 16th century Chinese materia medica, also known as the Bencao gangmu, written by Li-Shih-chen.

In the Bencao gangmu, Li-Shih-chen describes an ancient Arabic recipe to make a medicine called “mellified man.” To make “mellified man,” an elderly man volunteered to mummify himself from the inside out with honey until he died, then his corpse was placed in a coffin filled with honey. After 100 years, his coffin was opened so his remains were harvested for medicine.

“In Arabia there are men 70 to 80 years old who are willing to give their bodies to save others. The subject does not eat food, he only bathes and partakes of honey. After a month he only excretes honey (the urine and feces are entirely honey) and death follows. His fellow men place him in a stone coffin full of honey in which he macerates. The date is put upon the coffin giving the year and month. After a hundred years the seals are removed. A confection is formed which is used for the treatment of broken and wounded limbs. A small amount taken internally will immediately cure the complaint.” (p. 221 as quoted in Stiff my Mary Roach)

Li-Shih-chen states that he does not know if the report of “mellified man” is true, and there is no archaeological proof (that I know of) of the practice. But there is plenty of evidence that corpses were harvested for medicine, honey was used for medicine and embalming, and self-mummification were each practiced separately.

Corpse Medicine

Apothecary containers for axungia hominis (human fat), ca. 17th or 18th century. Image from Wikipedia

For hundreds of years, cultures from all over the world used corpse medicine to treat all kinds of illnesses and injuries including bruises, coughs, palsy, and vertigo.

English physicians treated Henry VIII with medicines made from mummies and the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis of 1618 includes preparations made with mummies. So from the 12th to the 18th centuries, mummies were commonly sold in European apothecaries. But the use of mummies in medieval medicine may have been caused by a tragic misinterpretation.

Naturally occurring bitumen, that Persians called mumiya, was used by ancient physicians in medications for all kinds of illnesses. Because Egyptian embalming resins looked similar to bitumen, artificially preserved bodies from Egypt became known as mummies. Historians believe medieval physicians began to use Egyptian mummies in prescriptions because they either mistook the word for naturally occurring bitumen for mummified corpses, or they simply used crushed mummies when naturally occurring bitumen became scarce.

Honey as Medicine and Embalming Fluid

Painting titled The Death of Alexander, by Karl von Piloty 1886. Image from Wikipedia.

Honey makes a great “natural bandage” that prevents the growth of bacteria because it contains a small amount of hydrogen peroxide, can draw moisture out of wounds, and is extremely acidic. Ancient Sumerians and Egyptians used honey to treat skin diseases and protect wounds from infection.

The factors that make honey a good treatment for wounds also make it a good embalming material. In The History, Herodotus described how the ancient Assyrians embalmed their dead with honey.  The body of Alexander the Great (356 B.C.-323 B.C.) was supposedly submerged in a golden sarcophagus filled with honey so that his corpse could be displayed.


Luang Phor Daeng Payasilo, the mumified monk, at Wat Khunaram, Ko Samui, southern Thailand. Image from Wikipedia.

Buddhist monks in Japan, Russia, Mongolia, and Thailand practiced ritual self-mummification, known as Sokushinbutsu, from the 11th-20th centuries. That monk’s efforts were respected but his body was not revered. The ritual of self-mummification was a way for monks to defeat suffering and achieve enlightenment through meditation and deprivation.

One of the best-known self-mummification rituals was practiced by the Shingon Buddhists of Japan. This ritual involved years of starvation and dehydration to eliminate moisture and kill the bacteria that hasten decomposition. During the first three years, a monk decreased his body fat by eating only nuts, seeds, and berries, while increasing his physical activity. Towards the end of the ritual, the monk only consumed bark, roots, and stones.

Self-mummification was further aided by drinking toxic herbs and tea made from the urushi tree, also known as the Chinese lacquer tree, which eliminated bodily fluids and killed bacteria.

The monk was placed in the lotus position inside a coffin or a tomb when he was close to death. The monk chanted and rang a bell until he died, and when his fellow monks heard silence, they completely sealed the tomb. After several years, monks exhumed the body to see if the self-mummification ritual was successful. If the body was incorrupt then the corpse was placed in a temple and treated like a holy relic.  If the body had decayed, then the corpse was left behind and the tomb was resealed.

H/T: Gizmodo


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