Cinco de Mayo e Jalisco

The holiday celebrating a victorious military battle (not Independence) that’s become a celebration of Mexican culture (and especially Jalisco culture).

In 1861 after multiple wars, a nearly bankrupt Mexico was in debt to Britain, France, and Spain. President Benito Juárez instituted a temporary moratorium on foreign debt payments which France used as a justification for invasion. France wanted to expand their empire by seizing Mexico, and Mexico’s unpaid debt was an excuse to do so. The French fleet launched an invasion at Veracruz and marched westward toward Mexico City. On the way to the capital the Mexican army engaged the French near the town of Puebla.

Despite being outnumbered 2 to 1, on May 5, 1862 the Mexican army defeated the French at the Battle of Puebla. This is what Cinco de Mayo celebrates – a Mexican victory over the French. Unfortunately the Mexicans eventually lost the war and in 1864 the French installed the Austrian born Emperor Maximilian I as ruler of Mexico. By 1867 though the Mexicans rose up and took back the country, executing Maximilian on June 19, 1867.

General Ignacio Zaragoza led the Mexican forces to a victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla.

Cinco de Mayo … nos Estados Unidos

Today Cinco de Mayo is more popular in the United States than Mexico. Outside of the state of Puebla most of Mexico pays little attention to the holiday (which in Mexico is not called Cinco de Mayo of course but is “El Día de la Batalla de Puebla” or “The Day of the Battle of Puebla”). One reason for its popularity in the US is that the Mexican-American community uses the holiday as a cultural holiday honoring their Mexican heritage, much like what Irish-Americans do with Saint Patrick’s Day. It’s become more of a celebration of Mexican culture than of a military victory over the French.

Many of the things people associate with all of Mexico really come from just the state of Jalisco.

Jalisco es Mexico

On the Pacific coast of Mexico, sits the state of Jalisco. While Jalisco had little to do with the Battle of Puebla it has a lot to do with modern Cinco de Mayo and what we think of when we think of Mexico. The first mass produced tequila, mariachi music, the iconic folk dresses with large ribboned skirts, jaripeo bull riding, wide-brimmed sombreros, and the national dance “Jarabe Tapatío” (“Mexican Hat Dance”) all come from the state of Jalisco. As a result the state’s motto is “Jalisco es Mexico” (“Jalisco is Mexico”).

Similar to how many of the things people associate with Germany really just come from the Bavarian region, many of the cultural elements that people associate with Mexico are just from the state of Jalisco. As such every Cinco de Mayo Jalisco’s contributions to the Mexican cultural identity loom large as they appear in homes and restaurants around the United States as people celebrate Mexico.

Added info: Mexican Independence day is called “Grito de Dolores” (“The Cry of Dolores”) which is when Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla gave a speech to his parishioners and rang the church bell as a call to arms. This was the 1810 start of the Mexican War of Independence and is celebrated every September 16th.

Persian Decision Making

The idea that ancient Persians would make a decision drunk then make it sober to see if the two match.

Herodotus was a 5th century BCE Greek whose Histories changed how world history is recorded and earned him the title of the “Father of History”. Histories contains a record of the Greco-Persian Wars as well as other stories and information from around the ancient world. Some things he got right, some he got wrong. He did the best he could, but he also wasn’t an impartial recorder of events which meant some things became exaggerated or biased. One such example is his account of how Persians would make important decisions.

Drunk History

In Histories Herodotus reported that the Persians had a peculiar method of decision making. Supposedly they would get drunk on wine and come up with a solution to a problem. Then, the following day while sober they would think about the problem again and consider if the previous night’s decision was still a good idea. This process could also be done the other way around – sober first, then drunk. In either order, if the two decisions agreed then the decision was adopted. If they did not, the Persians would have to think on the matter some more.

At face value this a Persian version of the Latin phrase In vino veritas or “In wine, there is truth”. It’s also a bit like an ancient version of the misattributed Hemingway quote “Write drunk, edit sober” (which is actually by humorist Peter De Vries). The Persians would use wine to come to the truth of a dilemma and confirm the truth when sober. While a fun anecdote, it seems unlikely they did this in the way Herodotus describes.

To start, it’s improbable that the Persian empire was in the regular habit of making all important decisions twice. Further this story says more about Herodotus than it does about the Persians. The Greeks drank their wine diluted with water but the Persians drank their wine undiluted (as we do today). Drinking undiluted wine was seen by the Greeks as decadent and even barbaric, and Herodotus uses this story to depict the Persians as less civilized than the Greeks. There’s also a double standard in how he portrays Persia’s wine & wealth as a negative (again as decadent), even though a similar wealth amongst the Greeks would be seen as a positive. Further, while they may have drank wine differently, the Greeks enjoyed wine just the same as the Persians did. More than anything though, this is an account of Persian culture by a Greek. To get a more accurate portrayal of Persian culture we should look to the Persians themselves.

Persian Wine

Wine has been an important part of Persian culture for thousands of years (far longer than its recent prohibition). One of the world’s earliest known wine-making artifacts originates in Neolithic Persia (in modern day Hajji Firuz, Iran) from around 5,000 BCE. According to Persian folklore the legendary Shah Jamshid (who lived for 700 years) is said to have inadvertently discovered wine after one of his harem women found and drank from a jar of old fermented grapes.

At the time of Herodotus wine was a staple of Persian society. It was safer to drink than water (which was true around the ancient world), but more importantly people enjoyed it just like we do today. Wine was enjoyed at all levels of society from royalty to commoners, at social gatherings, meals, and political meetings. Given how common wine was in Persian society, perhaps the wine being drunk while making decisions was incidental to the decision making and not the focal point as Herodotus would lead us to believe.

Added info: the Persian region of Shiraz had a long history of wine production and was once Iran’s “wine capital”. After the 1979 Iranian Revolution however, alcohol was banned throughout the country and Shiraz no longer makes wine. Also the wine type of Shiraz is not named for the region, and Shiraz and Syrah wines are the same thing.

Viking Helmets & Wagner

Viking warriors didn’t wear helmets with horns or wings on them.

There’s no evidence that Viking warriors wore helmets with horns or wings. There are actually very few Viking helmets of any kind in existence and none have been found with horns or wings. Medieval sources show Vikings more commonly wearing simple headgear (perhaps made of leather or iron) while others have nothing on their heads at all. Vikings who wore metal helmets were probably in the minority and all of those helmets were fairly plain.

The Gjermundbu helmet is one of the few Viking helmets in existence. Medieval sources show Vikings wearing simple head coverings or nothing at all. Winged or horned helmets were never used in battle.

South of Scandinavia, Germanic and Celtic tribes did have religious headpieces with horns, antlers, wings, etc. but these were purely ceremonial and never worn in battle. To wear a helmet with large decorative extensions in combat would be impractical.

The paintings of August Malmström and the stage productions of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle set the standard for what we think Viking warriors looked like.

Artistic License

Fast-forward to the early 19th century, the Romanticism movement produced works that turned away from classical Greek & Roman influences and embraced medieval history from other European cultures further north (such as the Germanic and Celtic cultures). Within Romanticism was the Viking Revival in which the Swedish painter August Malmström is believed to have been one of the first to paint Viking warriors with wings on their helmets. In the spirit of the Mark Twain quote, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” there are a variety of historical inaccuracies in Malmström’s paintings and the winged helmets are a big one … but they make for some great paintings. The fact that winged headpieces were purely ceremonial and probably Celtic (and not Viking), seems to have been lost on Malmström.

But perhaps the most influential source of this myth is the composer Richard Wagner. Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a German 4 opera cycle by Wagner which tells the tale of a mythical past, a magic ring, and the fall of the Nordic / Germanic gods. For the first Bayreuth production in 1876 Wagner’s costume designer Carl Emil Doepler added wings to the helmets of the female Valkyries and horns to the helmet of the minor character Hunding, husband of Sieglinde.

What’s Opera, Doc?

Over time the Valkyries’ wings were replaced with horns, giving us the idea of a female opera singer with a horned helmet. This spread across pop culture most notably in the comic strip Hägar the Horrible, the Minnesota Vikings football team logo, Julianne Moore’s character in the Gutterballs dream sequence from The Big Lebowski, and the legendary 1957 Warner Bros. cartoon What’s Opera, Doc? which pulls from several Wagner operas and features Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in winged/horned Wagnerian costumes.

A scene from the 1957 Wagner inspired Warner Bros. cartoon What’s Opera, Doc?.

Drop in to see what condition your condition is in with the Wagner inspired Gutterballs dream sequence from The Big Lebowski.

Beyond the Pale

The expression about unacceptable behavior that’s based in Irish history.

Around 16,000 BCE the melting ice from the Ice Age raised sea levels and separated Ireland from Britain. Then around 6,000 BCE Britain became separated from mainland Europe. Since around 8,000 BCE the island of Ireland has been steadily inhabited but whether these early settlers arrived on a disappearing land bridge or by boats is unknown. The Celts much came later (exactly when is debated) but somewhere starting around 500 BCE.

The long conflict between the Irish and English stems from the 1169 CE Norman invasion of Ireland. An 1155 papal decree by Pope Adrian IV (who, what a coincidence, was English himself) granted King Henry II of England the right to invade & govern Ireland. This was the start of the next several hundred years of English colonization of Ireland.

Us From Them

The Lordship of Ireland began in 1177 but England really only ruled over parts of Ireland. Some of the Lords who had been given land assimilated to the local Irish culture, the crown gained land and lost land, and gradually the area under English control shrank. By the 14th century only a region around Dublin was still under English control. To clearly mark the King’s territory, to separate “us from them”, a wooden fence was constructed along portions of the border. This border was the pale, from the Latin “palus” for a stake or fence. So, the native Irish living free outside of the control of the English crown were “beyond the pale.”

To try and control their subjects the English put in place various laws to prevent Irish influence. Marriage between English settlers and the Irish was forbidden, as was speaking Irish Gaelic, dressing like the Irish, or even cutting your hair like an Irish person. These activities were deemed unacceptable behavior and were “beyond the pale.”

Added info: the oldest structures in Ireland, sometimes thought of as Celtic, existed long before the Celts arrived in Ireland. Newgrange, the 5,200 year old passage tomb just North of Dublin, was created 2,500 years before the Celts arrival (it was also created before the pyramids of Giza).

Desert Storm Trading Cards

The bizarre 1991 Gulf War trading cards celebrating weapons and the American military.

In 1990, after Iraq invaded the neighboring country of Kuwait, a coalition of Western forces mounted a response in defense of Kuwait (… and oil). The initial operation of the Gulf War was codenamed “Operation Desert Shield” which was followed by the combat phase of “Operation Desert Storm”. Around the same time the American trading card industry was reaching new highs. Trading cards were expanding beyond just sports. There were cards for TV shows, movies, bands, cartoon characters, etc. It was in this world that Desert Storm trading cards were launched.

A collection of cards from Topps Desert Storm series 2 including the “Desert Drink” card which discussed the benefits of staying hydrated.

For the children

In 1991 Topps produced the Desert Storm trading card series. There were 88 cards and 22 stickers with 9 cards & one sticker per 50-cent pack. There were cards of military leaders such as General Norman Schwarzkopf, political leaders such as President George H.W. Bush, as well as cards for vehicles, weapons, and other military equipment. Topps said these cards were not glamorizing war but instead were offering an “encyclopedic look at this military operation and its personalities and weapons …”.

As for being “encyclopedic”, the cards included numerous mistakes such as card 73 (“Machine Gunner”) which listed the 14 NATO member countries, but in 1991 there were actually 16 member countries (they forgot to list France and Iceland). Topps said their information was provided by the Pentagon and arms manufacturers, shirking any fact-checking responsibility.

Topps ended up producing three different Desert Storm card series, for a total of 264 cards, but they weren’t alone. A host of other companies got in on the action producing similar cards. Pro Set had 350 cards in their Desert Storm series with interesting cards such as Greenwich Mean Time, oil, as well as a card for the U.S. Constitution.

A collection of Pro Set Desert Storm cards including the “Greenwich Mean Time” card.

Strange days

Today the cards feel like a satirical take on America’s love of guns & patriotism – an odd relic of the early ‘90s. Critics at the time felt the cards trivialized warfare, that they were propaganda, and were desensitizing kids to violence. As for their monetary value, because of their popularity they were mass produced and so Desert Storm trading cards aren’t worth much. You can buy the entire Topps first series for $10.

Added info: at the same time as the Desert Storm trading cards Topps also produced Desert Shield baseball cards. The baseball cards were the same as regular baseball cards but with an Operation Desert Shield palm tree crest stamped on the front in gold foil. Also, after 9/11 Topps created the Enduring Freedom line of trading cards which included a collectible Osama bin Laden trading card.

Mount Tambora & Frankenstein

The eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815 led to the creation of Frankenstein.

Mount Tambora is a volcano on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia and on April 5, 1815 it began a monumental multi-day eruption. The eruption is still the largest volcanic eruption in recorded human history, the estimated equivalent of a 14,000-megaton nuclear bomb. It was so powerful it removed the top 4,750 feet of the volcano, reducing it to 9,350 feet tall as it sent more than 38 cubic miles of debris into the sky. The explosion was so loud it was heard 1,600 miles away, the equivalent of an explosion in Philadelphia being heard in Denver.

The 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, cause global devastation.

The eruption immediately killed over 10,000 people on the island. All of the island’s vegetation was destroyed and the water was poisoned which led to starvation and disease killing a further 37,825 Sumbawanese people. As the tsunami it generated, and the ash it expelled, spread to other islands, it killed off more vegetation and more people. Over 71,000 people are believed to have died in the immediate area of Indonesia from the eruption. However, with so much material being sent into the sky, the full impact of the eruption was only beginning.

Into the Stratosphere and Around the World

The long-term effects of the eruption were caused by the gases & ash sent into the stratosphere 141,000 feet into the sky. The sulfur dioxide (SO2) released caused a global greenhouse effect, blocking out sunlight and changing weather patterns. While the effects were spread around the world they were worse in the northern hemisphere. The cold weather and constant rain (such as the 8 weeks of “unceasing and extraordinary rain” in Ireland) killed crops around Europe causing food shortages in what became the worst famine in 19th century mainland Europe. Over 65,000 people died around the British Isles as a result of a typhus epidemic which was made worse by the volcanic induced weather. A new strain of cholera also developed in this weather, killing thousands more.

In North America a dry fog descended on the northeastern states which lasted for months. The extended cold was felt up & down the eastern seaboard. On the 4th of July the high in Savannah, Georgia was only 46° F. Rivers and lakes were still frozen in Pennsylvania in August. The extreme weather and bitter cold is believed to have been a catalyst for the westward expansion across America – people wanted to find a place that wasn’t awful. The eruption of Mount Tambora lowered global temperatures by 0.7 to 1.3 °F but its particularly brutal effects on the northern hemisphere is why 1816 came to be known as the “year without a summer.” The initial volcanic eruption, the extreme cold, the unusual weather patterns, as well as the spread of diseases resulted in a global death toll in the hundreds of thousands.

Silver Lining

Despite the adversity there were some positives. German inventor Karl Drais was motivated to find an alternate means of transportation to the horse (since horses require food which was in short supply at the time). He invented the first bicycle, the Laufmaschine, in 1817.

The eruption caused strange dark colors in the skies captured by a variety of painters of the day.

In the arts painters were inspired by the unusual hazy skies. Particulate matter from Mount Tambora hung in the stratosphere frequently blocking the shorter wavelength colors of blue light. A study of paintings from between 1500 to 1900 found that the paintings around 1816 got redder & darker than other time periods. The polluted skies might have made for more depressing daily life but they made for some great paintings.

But perhaps the greatest byproduct of the year without a summer was in literature. In the summer of 1816 a group of English friends traveled to Cologny near Lake Geneva in Switzerland. They hoped to escape the bad weather of England but ended up in even more rain. Sitting around with nothing to do Lord Byron proposed everyone write a ghost story. John William Polidori, Byron’s personal physician, took a story idea by Byron and eventually wrote 1819’s The Vampyre, the first modern vampire story.

The year without a summer generated two of the most influential stories in Gothic horror.

An 18 year old Mary Godwin had trouble coming up with a story until (literally) one dark & stormy night, sometime after midnight, she had a “waking dream” of a pale man kneeling beside the thing he had put together that showed signs of life. With the encouragement/help of her soon to be husband Percy Shelley, Mary (Godwin) Shelley had the beginnings of Frankenstein. In 1818 Mary Shelley published Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, considered the first science-fiction story.

From one miserable vacation, caused by a volcano thousands of miles away, two of the most defining works of the Gothic horror genre were born.

Auld Lang Syne

The nostalgic song toasting times gone by that has spread around the world.

Auld Lang Syne started as a traditional Scottish folk song. The lyrics were written down, added to, and made famous by 18th century Scottish national poet Robert Burns in 1788. In the late 18th century Burns was touring Scotland collecting folk songs & poetry when he recorded Auld Lang Syne and submitted it to The Scots Musical Museum.

Burns contributed hundreds of songs to the Museum whose intention was to preserve the fading Scots language & culture which was becoming increasingly influenced by English culture. Auld Lang Syne is written partially in English but also partially in Scots (which is a Germanic derived Scottish language, different than “Scottish” which is a Celtic Gaelic derived language). The lyrics were originally set to a few different melodies but in 1799 they were paired with the melody we know today.

Written down and added to by Robert Burns, Auld Lang Syne has become the unofficial theme song of New Year’s.

What is it and why New Year’s Eve?

Because the lyrics are partially in Scots most people don’t know exactly what the song means. The title “auld lang syne” in Scots translates to “old long since” or more loosely as “for the sake of the good old days gone by”. The song is a toast to friendship and to the fond memories of days gone by.

Given the song’s spirit of looking back while looking forward it became a standard sung every Hogmanay (the Scottish New Year’s Eve). Its association with New Year’s in North America was because of Guy Lombardo. On New Year’s Eve 1928 Guy Lombardo and The Royal Canadians big band hosted a concert at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City and at the stroke of midnight they played Auld Lang Syne. For the next 47 years they played NYE concerts and every midnight they played Auld Lang Syne, earning Lombardo the nickname of “Mr. New Year’s Eve”. When Dick Clark created Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve from Times Square in 1972 he too played Lombardo’s version of Auld Lang Syne at midnight. Since then the song has become synonymous with New Year’s.

Guy Lombardo’s classic 1947 rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

Around the World

While the song is internationally recognized as the unofficial theme song of New Year’s Eve the melody has been used in other ways. The Korean national anthem Aegukga originally used the melody of Auld Lang Syne until 1948 when it was replaced with an original melody. It was also the melody of the national anthem of the Maldives, Qaumii salaam, until 1972 when it too was replaced with an original melody.

The Dutch song Wij houden van Oranje (which translates to “We Love Orange”) is a national soccer chant set to the melody of Auld Lang Syne. Also in Japan the melody is used for for the graduation ceremony song Hotaru no Hikari, the melody is used to mark the end of the day in department stores, etc.

QI discusses the history of Auld Lang Syne

Toasting the Past, Looking Forward

Like the Roman god Janus, Auld Lang Syne is a seasonal reminder to look back at the days gone by but also look ahead to the future. It’s a nostalgic song that toasts the people with us today as well as the people with us in spirit.

the First Thanksgiving Menu

Lacking key ingredients, the menu at the first Thanksgiving of 1621 was a bit different than the traditional turkey dinner of today.

In the fall of 1621 the English Pilgrims and the Wampanoag came together in Massachusetts for, what has subsequently become a much mythologized, 3 day harvest festival. The pilgrims had a lot to be thankful for — that they were still alive following the deaths of half their fellow pilgrims the previous winter, that they had their supplies fortified by the Wampanoag, and that they had completed a successful summer growing season. What they ate as they gave thanks is debatable.

Definitely on the Menu

One food that was definitely served was venison. Massasoit, the leader of the Wampanoag, had 5 deer brought to the event. Another meat on the menu was “wild fowl”, but exactly what kind of birds these were is unknown. It’s possible that there was turkey at the first Thanksgiving but more likely it was goose or duck (or a combination). Other regional bird options at the time would have been swan and passenger pigeon.

Also definitely present was corn. The Wampanoag, who used the Three Sisters method of farming, had taught the pilgrims how to grow corn. As the pilgrims had grown a successful crop of Flint corn (aka “Indian corn”) it was cooked into a porridge, a bread, and/or with beans.

Maybe on the Menu

Given that the Plymouth Colony was by the water it’s very likely that seafood was also served. Eels, clams, muscles, cod, bass, and/or lobsters were very likely a part of the meal. It’s worth noting though that, unlike today, lobster was considered a food of last resort.

There were certainly vegetables & fruits on the menu but which ones were never specified (other than corn). Chestnuts, walnuts, beans, onions, carrots, cabbage, pumpkins, and various squashes were all grown in the area. Blueberries, plums, grapes, and raspberries were also grown in the area and could have been present. While cranberries might have been served cranberry sauce definitely was not since the colonists lacked the necessary sugar (and that cranberry sauce didn’t exist for another 50 years).

Not on the Menu

Even though pumpkins may have been present, pumpkin pie definitely was not. The pilgrims had neither the butter nor the flour necessary to make pumpkin pie – they didn’t even have an oven in 1621. Something pumpkin pie-esque that may have been prepared is a spiced pumpkin soup/custard cooked directly inside a pumpkin which was roasted on hot ashes.

There was no stuffing because, again, the colonists lacked the necessary flour. There were also no potatoes (mashed or otherwise). Potatoes came from South America and, while they had made their way to Europe by the late 16th century via the Spanish, they had yet to make their way to New England. There also weren’t any forks on the table since they too hadn’t made their way to North America yet (but on the upside nobody present had an overbite).

A historical reenactment of how to cook some of the foods present at the first Thanksgiving.

Hookworm

The parasite responsible for giving American southerners a bad reputation.

For centuries American southerners were maligned as lazy, slow, shiftless, dumb. Southerners had “the germ of laziness.” There was just something different about southerners that made them less-than their northern counterparts. As it turned out there was something different about them but it had nothing to do with genetics or social conditioning. That something was hookworm.

Hookworm

Hookworm, and specifically the New World hookworm Necator americanus, is a parasitic worm that arrived in America by way of the slave trade in the 17th century. In the larval stage hookworms live in wet warm shady soil where they wait to encounter a human. A person walking barefoot outdoors may make contact with a hookworm at which point it can penetrate the skin and crawl into the foot. From there it travels through the circulatory system to the lungs where it triggers a dry cough. The human host then unknowingly coughs up the worm only to swallow it down to the small intestine, which is where the worm wanted to be the entire time. The worm then lives around 1-2 years (or longer) attached to the wall of the intestine, sucking blood, and where a female worm can lay up to 30,000 eggs per day. Eventually these fertilized eggs are pooped out in a poorly built outhouse or in some bushes, contaminating the soil to start the process again. It’s disgusting.

Because hookworms thrive in warm humid environments they do particularly well in the southern climate of the United States. The area from southeastern Texas to West Virginia became nicknamed the “hookworm belt”. For poor southerners who couldn’t afford shoes and didn’t have indoor plumbing it was almost impossible to avoid hookworm. By 1910 it’s believed that around 40% of the people living in the south were infected with millions of worms.

Putting their gross lifecycle aside, the problem with hookworms is that they steal your blood. Alone one worm won’t do much damage, but getting infested by multiple worms on a continual basis over years/decades has a severely damaging cumulative effect. By consuming your blood hookworms can cause an iron deficiency. People with hookworms become tired, lose weight, and have little strength to do anything. Pregnant women are at risk for anemia and a greater chance of dying in child birth. Infected children can suffer irreversible developmental problems including stunted growth and intellectual disabilities. All of this matches the unfair characterization of southerners as slow rednecks.

A nurse brings hookworm medicine to a rural Alabama family, 1939.
A doctor and a nurse examine for hookworm in an Alabama school, 1939.

The cumulative effect

In 1902 zoologist Charles W. Stiles discovered that hookworms were endemic to the southern US. In 1909 John D. Rockefeller got involved by funding the creation of the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease. They campaigned across the south to educate, test, and help treat hookworm. Students in small country schoolhouses would submit stool samples to their teachers to be tested – some schools even required students be screened for hookworm. People would go to health clinics on the weekends to learn more. An estimated 7.5 million southerners had hookworms. While the Rockefeller Commission helped treat the problem what greatly reduced hookworm was the urbanization of the south enabling more people to afford shoes and sanitary indoor plumbing.

The barefoot Texas boy on the right has hookworm, 1939.

Beyond the health consequences the socioeconomic impact of hookworm is also destructive. The US regions with hookworm had lower rates of literacy and school attendance than areas without it. A 1926 study of Alabama children showed that the more worms a child had the lower their IQ. Even today children with chronic hookworm face up to 40% lower future wage earnings when they grow up. General productivity is measurably lower as a result of hookworm. The southern regions that were worst infected with hookworms saw the greatest income expansion after treatment, but unfortunately centuries of infection had a cumulative effect. Eight of the ten poorest US states are still southern states.

Hookworm in the US is typically thought of as a problem of the past but it is still very much a problem of the present. Given the severe income inequality in the US, hookworm is thriving in regions living below the poverty line. Hookworm lives in, and reinforces, poverty and while 85% of the world lives on less than $30 a day 10% of the world is currently living in extreme poverty. Around the world an estimated 477 million people are currently living with hookworms inside them.

Egyptian Mummies: From Medicine to Paint

For hundreds of years Europeans used ground up Egyptian mummies as medicine and paint pigment.

The Arabic word mūmiyā (which later became “mummia”) was the name for the black sticky asphalt material that came out of the ground used as a sealant, an adhesive, and as medicine around the ancient world. Pliny the Elder and others wrote about the medicinal uses for mummia which became a bit of a cure-all for a range of ailments.

Unfortunately mummia the petroleum product looked like another black substance that was a byproduct of the Egyptian embalming process. As such the word “mummia” came to mean both the petroleum product AND the byproduct of Egyptian mummification, which was then even further confused as meaning an entire mummified body. This is how we got the word “mummy”. Unfortunately this series of mistakes also led to hundreds of years of cannibalism.

Cannibal Medicine

Since the petroleum based mummia was used both externally as a salve as well as ingested internally, the Egyptian mummy version of mummia became used in the same ways. The 11th century physician Constantinus Africanus even described mummia as a “spice” found in the sepulchers of the dead. Soon the human version replaced the petroleum version and people began to crumble & grind human corpses for medicine.

With the Crusades, Europeans learned of mummia and its medicinal possibilities. This significantly increased European demand for Egyptian mummies and by the 15th-16th centuries there was a thriving trade in mummies. Thousands of bodies were being exhumed and shipped to Europe to be turned into medicines. In 1586 English merchant John Sanderson shipped 600 pounds of mummies to London to sell at various apothecaries. This was fueled in part by orientalism, that Egyptian mummies had some sort of exotic ancient knowledge or power.

Europeans would consume portions of Egyptian corpses for help with general pain, ulcers, inflammation, epilepsy, cough, difficult labor, etc. – none of which worked, or if they worked it wasn’t the mummy that was the active ingredient. The practice was so common Shakespeare included mummy as an ingredient in the witches’ potion in Macbeth. Demand was so high that by the 17th century some mummy dealers were producing counterfeit mummies. Newly deceased people, animals, or prisoners who had been purposefully starved & executed, were put through a process to simulate ancient Egyptian mummies.

After a few hundred years of medicinal cannibalism Europeans began to express doubt as to the practice’s efficacy (and ethicality). The 16th century herbalist Leonhard Fuchs felt foreign mummies were acceptable but local ones were wrong. While doubts arose during the Renaissance in the 16th century it took until the 18th century age of Enlightenment for the practice to fall out of fashion. As consuming mummies slowly ended Egyptian mummies took on a new role: paint pigment.

The Egyptian Widow by Lourens Alma Tadema is an 1872 painting of Egyptian life potentially painted using mummy brown paint.
Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix is another painting that’s theorized to contain mummy brown.

Mummy Brown

Around the end of the 16th century artists began using ground up Egyptian mummies (mixed with other materials) to produce mummy brown, a shade of brown pigment. Apothecaries that were grinding up mummies for medicine began to grind them up for paint as well. As a paint it was good for shadows, flesh tones, and glazing. Artists Benjamin West, Martin Drolling, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Edward Burne-Jones, Eugène Delacroix, and others all painted with mummy brown.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that mummy brown began to fall out of favor. That said as recently as 1926 C Roberson & Co. still sold mummy brown made with ground up Egyptian corpses. As mummy brown died out so too did hundreds of years of large-scale desecration of deceased Egyptians, using human beings for medicines and paints.