Friday, March 21, 2008

More on Yummy Mummy

Sorry for the bad pun.

My friend Marie tells us this about early modern mummy consumption:

"As for Jonathan's comment, my understanding is that "mummy" or "mummia" was a brew that involved boiled parts of dead bodies, mixed with other stuff, and that drinking it was thought to ward off death."

Given that some of my own work is about how early modern folk attempt to counteract death and decay through poetry, I wonder if there's more to be said about mummia. In addition to the notion I get from reading Donne that the corpse is an animated body even when it's resurrected for judgement day (see "The Relic"), I'm also thinking about the anxiety/fascination early modern writers seem to have about the affinity between corpses and flowers, especially in Act 4 of The Winter's Tale and in Acts 4-5 of Hamlet.

Ophelia sings about decking a corpse with flowers, is pulled to death with flowers, gets flowers thrown in her grave, "and from her fair and unpolluted flesh may violets spring."

What I'm getting at is that I think the boundary between life (flowers, living bodies) and death (corpses, mummies) was much more tenuous in the early modern period than it is today. Either tenuous and fluid, or organized in a different way. I've been thinking about this because I'm still intrigued by the "Shakespeare and Technology" panel at SAA, which seemed to want to redefine (and sometimes even blur) the boundaries between early modern nature and technology, human and machine.

I know that's kind of a knee-jerk early modern materialist argument, that boundaries were tenuous, everything was less fixed, but I guess I still think we can learn stuff from thinking this way.


Jonathan said...

Congrats on your article!

I don't know if the status of death you talk about is unique to the early modern period -- my sense is that you could just as easily be writing about the 19th century or probably the 13th century. The big gap, I think, comes with moving the dead and dying out of private homes at the turn of the 20th century, the professionalization and bourgeoisfication of hospitals, the popularization of embalming, etc., and the death taboo that grows over the course of the 20th century until we get into the mess we're in now.

Jonathan said...

ps -- I forgot to say thanks for the additional details on mummy tea.

Anonymous said...

Among Jews of the former Ottoman Empire, and their grandchildren today, 'mummiya' is the dried foreskin,kept for many years after the circumcision, and given to the adult at times of grave illness.


muse said...

Dear Pasha, I always thought that "mummiya as consumed foreskin" was a myth about the Sephardim (kind of an Ottoman or anti-Sephardic version of the blood libel), not actually true.

After doing a brief search on JSTOR, I found this utterly fascinating article by Raphael Patai from the Journal of America Folklore 1964 (it's all about indulco and mumia) that appears to dispel the idea of mumia as foreskin entirely, arguing that this is actually a modern American Sephardic practice based on a misunderstanding of what mumia actually was. Patai cites Warren R. Dawson, arguing that mumia derives from the Persian word mum which means bitumen, a resin mistakenly thought to be used in the preservation of Egyptian mummies. Mumia itself- from 12th century Alexandria to the 16th century Ottoman Empire - was indeed made of ground up mummies, but these were used primarily in a mistaken attempt to find bitumen. Patai finds no references to foreskins whatsoever in the (thoroughly absorbing, I might add) Judeo-Espagnyol and Hebrew medical texts he's read and cites, though he does wonder if the folk Sephardi practice of barren women consuming foreskins in order to conceive was confused and conflated with mumia.

Has more recent research been done that actually links mumia to foreskins in 16th century Ottoman Jewish culture?

I swear, I'm not trying to sound all "More of a Semitic Philologist Than Thou," but I'm still dubious about the foreskin thing- it just sounds so, well, improbable and possibly anti-semitic. Then again, if you take a look at Patai's 16th century Jewish doctors, who argue that eating human flesh is ok so long as it's decomposed and mixed with bitumen, I guess it's a small step from that to foreskins. (Blech!)

muse said...

PS This website has a nice summary of early modern mummmy manufacture and consumption (it cites Liza's reference to Ambrose Pare, among others):