Monday, March 9, 2015
While listening to Mary Roach's amazing book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, I came across a story so strange I had a hard time believing it wasn't an excerpt from some Victorian weird fantasy: The Mellified Man.
According to our only source, Li Shizhen, a Chinese pharmacologist of the 1500s, mellified man was a legendary medicine made from the honey-steeped mummy of a human being. In his book, Bencao Gangmu, Li relates an account given by Tao Jiucheng. That's right. Our only source of the legend is based on secondhand hearsay. In fact, Li is diligent enough to add at the end of the entry that he "does not know whether it is true so he is recording it for others to verify." I have to confess, I'm really sad that nobody got around to verifying it.
So, on to the good stuff: how does one make a Mellified Man?
Well, you start with an old guy. According to Tao (via Li) a volunteer, usually a man between the ages of 70 and 80, forgoes all food and water and subsists entirely on honey for the remainder of his life. He bathes in honey, and honey is his only food. It is said that after a month of this process, the man will begin to excrete nothing but honey. Meaning his sweat, urine, and feces are nothing but the thick, golden substance. Death follows soon after.
Then, the body is put into a honey-filled coffin for a hundred years until the body has completely mummfied, preserved by the antibacterial properties of the honey. They even write the month and year of entombment on the coffin. Which is a detail that makes me feel really weird about my strawberry jam canning practices.
Once the necessary century had passed, the seals was opened and the body was portioned out. Pieces were sold in Arabian markets at jaw-dropping prices. It is stated in the Bencao Gangmu that this confection was used to cure broken and wounded limbs. When a small amount is taken internally, it will instantly cure any complaint. It's also said to be extremely rare.
Now, whether or not this practice is true or just a really good story is unclear. I dearly wish that there were ANY source other than Li, because it sounds like a practice weird enough to be true. In fact, Burmese priests were known to preserve their chief abbots in coffins full of honey, though they did not eat them. Further, Chinese medicine of the time did make use of human milk and urine. And, the medicinal use of 'dry' mummies is well documented in chemistry books of Europe in the 16th and 18th centuries. However, the combination of transforming a human body into a mummy that is also a confection is novel.
For most people, the horror of this legend is in the cannibalism of it, but I'm not in that camp. Honestly, the notion of swallowing a tiny lump of sweet-mummy-jerky isn't nearly so disturbing as what it must have looked like to watch this supposed process take place. I love honey, and the thought of taking care of an elderly man as he starves to death, dripping honey into his puckered mouth, is enough to make me swear off of it forever. Not to mention the image of pure honey excrement. It's just such a vile juxtaposition of one of my favorite pleasures with slow, aged, oozing death.
Anyways, Happy Monday everybody!