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Mellified Man (artistic impression)

Mellified Man refers to a legendary medicinal substance created by steeping a human cadaver in honey.

According to the legend[1] , a elderly man (over his 70), likely to die not far in the future, would donate his corpse to be used in a healing confection. Different of a simple body donation, however, this process has characteristics of a self-sacrifice, as the mellification should start before his death: the "donor" would stop eating any other food than honey, going as far as bath himself on it. Shortly his feces (and even his sweat, according to the legend) would be made of honey. When his diet finally kills him, his body would be placed in a stone coffin full of honey. After a century the contents would have turned into some sort of confection capable of healing broken limbs and other ailments. This confection would then carefully be sold in street markets, as a hard to find item, and at a hefty price.

Contents

Origins

Allegedly from Arabia, the mellified man legend was reported by 16th-century Chinese pharmacologist Li Shizhen in his Bencao Gangmu. It is described in the final section (52, "Man as medicine") under the entry for munaiyi (木乃伊 "mummy"), quoted below:

木乃伊, [MUNAIYI]. HUMAN MUMMY CONFECTION
Li [Shizhen]: According to 陶九成 [Tao Jiucheng] in the 輟耕錄 [Chuogenglu "Record after retiring from plowing"], it says 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. It is scarce in Arabia where it is called mellified man.
Mr. [Tao] has recorded it in this way but Li [Shizhen] the author of this [Bencao] does not know whether it is true so he is recording it for others to verify. [2]

Roach observes that Li Shizhen "is careful to point out that he does not know for certain whether the mellified man story is true."

Etymology

Li uses Chinese tianfangguo (天方國 "divine square [Kaaba] countries", an old name for "Arabia; Middle East") for the location (tr. "Arabia") and miren (蜜人 "honey person") for the name (tr. "mellified man"). Miziren (蜜漬人 "honey-glazed person") is a modern synonym. Chinese munaiyi (木乃伊), along with "mummy" loanwords in many languages, derives through Arabic mūmīya from Persian mūm "wax" (see mummy in the Wiktionary). Note that Japanese words of Portuguese origin says miira (木乃伊 "mummy") was borrowed from Portuguese mirra, comparable with English myrrh.

Honey physical properties

Honey has been used in funerary practices in many different cultures. The Burmese priests have the custom of preserving their chief abbots in coffins full of honey[3]. It's reputation both for medicinal uses and durability is long established. For at least 2700 years, honey has been used by humans to treat a variety of ailments through topical application, but only recently have the antiseptic and antibacterial properties of honey been chemically explained. Because of its unique composition and the complex processing of nectar by the bees which changes its chemical properties, honey is suitable for long term storage and is easily assimilated even after long preservation. History knows examples of honey preservation for decades, and even centuries.

Antibacterial properties of honey are the result of the low water activity causing osmosis, hydrogen peroxide effect,[4] and high acidity.[5] This combination of high acidity, higroscopic and antibacterial effect make honey a plausible way to turn a human cadaver into a mummy, despite lack of any concrete evidence.

Similar medicine practices

Both European and Chinese pharmacopeias employed medicines of human origin, for instance urine therapy, or even other medicinal uses for breast milk. In her book, Roach says the medicinal use of mummies, and the sale of fake ones, is "well documented" in chemistry books of 16th-18th centuries Europe, "but nowhere outside Arabia were the corpses volunteers."[6] [7][8][9] Mummies were a common ingredient in the middle ages until at least the eighteen century, and not only as medicine, but as fertilizers and even as paint. The use of corpses (or body parts) as medicine goes far back - in the Roman Empire the blood of dead gladiators was used as treatment for epilepsy[10]. One ancient belief is that every person has a natural predetermined life span, and if it is interrupted before due time, the rest of it could still be extracted from the corpse - as if the life force were something physically present on human bodies.

In his book Bernard Read suggests a connection between the European medieval practices and the middle-eastern and Chinese ones:

The underlying theories which sustained the use of human remedies, find a great deal in common between the Arabs as represented by Avicenna, and China through the [Bencao]. Body humors, vital air, the circulations, and numerous things are more clearly understood if an extended study be made of Avicenna or the Europeans who based their writings on Arabic medicine. The various uses given in many cases common throughout the civilized world, [Nicholas] Lemery also recommended woman's milk for inflamed eyes, feces were applied to sores, and the human skull, brain, blood, nails and "all the parts of man", were used in sixteenth century Europe. (1931:n.p.)

References

  1. ^ Roach, Mary (2003). Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. W.W. Norton & Company.   (ISBN 0-393-32482-6)
  2. ^ Read, Bernard E. (1931). Chinese Materia Medica: (5) Animal Drugs. Peking Natural History Bulletin.  
  3. ^ http://www.myanmars.net/myanmar-culture/myanmar-monk-cremation.htm
  4. ^ Wahdan H (1998). "Causes of the antimicrobial activity of honey". Infection 26 (1): 26–31. doi:10.1007/BF02768748. PMID 9505176.  
  5. ^ Honey as an Antimicrobial Agent, Waikato Honey Research Unit, November 16, 2006, http://bio.waikato.ac.nz/honey/honey_intro.shtml, retrieved June 2, 2007  
  6. ^ Le Fèvre, Nicolas (1664). A Compleat Body of Chymistry, tr. Traicté de la chymie. Readex Microprint.  
  7. ^ Pomet, Pierre (1737). A Compleat History of Druggs. London.  
  8. ^ Wootton, A.C. (1910). Chronicles of Pharmacy. Macmillan.  
  9. ^ Thompson, C.J.S. (1929). The Mystery and Art of the Apothecary. J. B. Lippincott Company.  
  10. ^ http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,604548,00.html
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