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 product 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.

A : turning the Ox upside down

The letter we know today as “A” has its roots in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics where it was originally the pictogram of an ox head.

From Oxen to Alpha

The letter “A” we use today is descendant from the Greek letter Alpha. The first letter of the Greek alphabet, Alpha is actually the evolutionary result of other letter forms from other alphabets most notably the Phoenician letter / word Aleph meaning “ox.” Aleph looks like a sideways “A” pointing to the left which not-so-accidentally resembles a sideways ox head. But the history of the letter A goes back even further. The Phoenicians created Aleph as a simpler form of the even older Egyptian letter / sign of an ox head. The Egyptian pictogram for an ox is essentially an upside down “A”.

Egyptian roots

History of the Alphabet by Art of the Problem is a great video that explores the history and changes of language & writing from the more conceptual pictograms to the sound signs we use today. The invention of papyrus as a writing material gave the Egyptians a quicker way to record information than carving into stone. As papyrus became increasingly popular the Egyptians created what was essentially a hieroglyphics shorthand … hieroglyphics-lite if you will. This system eventually became the hieratic system of writing. It was a faster writing system designed to take advantage of this new writing technology they had created. Hieratic became easier to remember than hieroglyphics because it started to use less pictograms / word signs and instead used more sound signs, like our letters do today. With word signs you had to remember thousands of symbols to communicate. With sound signs you could combine symbols to create words. Hieratics eventually gave way to demotic, an even faster way for Egyptians to write. Over time the demotic sign for an ox became the basis for the Phoenecian aleph sign, which became alpha, which became our letter A.

So the letter A started as the image of an ox head in Egypt and as time past it worked its way around the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean up into Greece where it got turned upside-down into the letter Alpha and eventually our letter A.