Traditional medicine in Asia and the Middle East is truffled in miracle remedies based on products that, in reality, lack the slightest healing property.
Cases such as the false aphrodisiac faculty of the rhinoceros horn or the use of tiger bones, in both cases endangering the respective species, are well known, but surely the most unheard of and surprising remedy was one obtained after dissolving a human body in honey, in a process known as mellification.
Since such a medicine has never been found and is no longer practiced, if this ever crossed the threshold of the legend to enter into that of reality, one must turn to the documentary sources that are preserved in this regard.
The most important is a work entitled Bencao gangmu, written by a sixteenth-century Chinese pharmacist named Li Shizen, also known as Dongbi. He was a prestigious herbalist, also an expert in acupuncture, who became a veteran of ambulant medicine after failing in his attempt to enter as an imperial officer.
Paradoxically, this profession of circumstances ended up by opening him the door to social advancement, thanks to the fact that he treated and cured Prince Chu. His research work led him to write a dozen medical books, but the one that really made him famous was the aforementioned Bencao gangmu, popularly translated as Compendium of Medical Matter.
It deals with many facets, from herbalism to pharmacology, including health techniques, diseases, animals, minerals, philosophical concepts and various illustrations. Li Shizen spent twenty-seven years finishing it and, in fact, never saw it published.
Five original copies of this work have been preserved, which allows us to verify his knowledge and beliefs; Thus, he identified the gallstones, knew how to measure the heartbeat, applied ice to lower the fever and used steam to try to disinfect environments, but also believed that lead was not toxic, for example.
In any case, what is important for us is that the Bencao gangmu, in a chapter dedicated to mummies, records the fact that the mellification technique was used in Arabia.
Li Shizen’s source of information was not firsthand, so he himself admitted that he did not know if the story was true or not but that he was reviewing it for the wise to decide. He quoted a reference to another Chinese work, Chogeng Lu (something like Speaks while the plough rests), by the scholar Yuan Tao Zongyi (also known as Tao Jiucheng). This author, two centuries earlier, narrated that some near-death Arab elders agreed to undergo this treatment in order to be useful after their death.
It wasn’t to be cured, then. What is truly curious is that the subject had to start the process before dying, abandoning the normal food to feed exclusively on honey and bathing in it daily. This would make the patient assimilate the product so intensely that after a while his sweat and even his faeces would be basically honey. Then would come the death, either by nutritional deficiencies, or by age, and would move to a second phase.
In this one, the corpse would be put in a sarcophagus full of honey, with the date properly consigned, where it would remain approximately a century. The human remains resulting from the putrefaction would be mixed with the honey forming a substance that at the end of that time and previously filtered, would constitute the main ingredient of a powerful medicine capable of curing wounds, fractures and other traumatic ailments with a very small dose. Logically, given the difficulty and complexity of the process, it would not be a cheap medicine.
What historical credibility does mellification have? Surprisingly, specialized historians claim that it existed: the Assyrians practiced mellification and Alexander the Great’s corpse was covered with honey to preserve it while it was being transported to its burial place; such bodies have also appeared in the Caucasus and Burmese monasteries. However, it was a mere conservation process, just as in other places the mummification technique was used.
Perhaps this tradition was combined with an Arab pharmacological contribution lost today, but no documentary source records the use of corpses in this way, although the use of them or some of their parts in other times: for example, in Ancient Rome it was believed that the blood of gladiators was good against epilepsy and the Spanish conquerors (and the soldiers of the time in general) used human fat to heal their wounds, as well as mummy dust (that is, pulverized mummies) was used until the end of the Modern Age as medicine and fertilizer, creating an entire trafficking of this product to England a century later.
Moreover, the use of honey in medicine was widespread in many places throughout history, either by ingestion (it is highly caloric and therefore energetic, as well as being very useful in the treatment of throat conditions) or by topical application (it has antiseptic, antimicrobial and healing properties, something that perhaps explains what Li Shizen said). It is also true that it constitutes a good preservative in the very long term and samples of millenary honey have been found in a more than acceptable state.
Sources: National Geographic/Stiff. The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (Mary Roach)/History and Development of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Wang Zhenguo, Chen Ping y Xie Peiping)/Wikipedia