9 Strange Uses for Ancient Egyptian Mummies

Coffins holding mummies on display at the Field Museum in Chicago
Coffins holding mummies on display at the Field Museum in Chicago
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Most people have only ever seen a genuine Egyptian mummy in a museum; fictional mummies, of course, are all over film, literature, and Halloween costume stores. But in centuries past, mummies were put to a variety of inventive uses: for art and commerce, science and entertainment, and possibly even to provide paper.

Many of these uses and abuses stemmed from the Egyptomania that gripped Europe and America throughout the 19th century, set off by Napoleon's invasion of the country in 1798 and nourished by a string of amazing archeological discoveries. By the 1830s, upper-class Western Europeans and Americans began flooding Egypt in search of treasure, and mummies became a chief prize—treated as a symbol of the entire country’s exotic allure, and the "mysteries of the Orient" more generally. The mummy madness progressed to the point where, Egyptologist Beverley Rogers notes, in 1833 monk Father Géramb remarked to the then-ruler of Egypt, Mohammed Ali, “it would be hardly respectable, on one’s return from Egypt, to present oneself in Europe without a mummy in one hand and a crocodile in the other.”

Read on for some lessons in just how disturbingly inventive our great-great-grandparents could be.

1. FOR MEDICINE

Strange as it may seem, people in early modern Europe frequently practiced a kind of cannibalism for health. According to historian Richard Sugg, "Up until the late 18th century, the human body was a widely accepted therapeutic agent. The most popular treatments involved flesh, bone, or blood, along with a variety of moss sometimes found on human skulls."

Mummy, often sold as “mummia” (a confusing word that also refers to the bitumen with which mummies were embalmed), was applied to the skin or powdered and mixed into drinks as a treatment for bruising and other ailments. The belief may have come from ancients such as Pliny the Elder, who wrote that the bitumen used to embalm mummies offered healing powers. Sugg says that adherents included the French King Francis I, as well as Francis Bacon, who wrote that “mummy has great force in staunching of blood.” Mummia became such big business that there was a trade in fake mummies—made from executed criminals, slaves, beggars, and camels—just to keep up with demand, much like today’s market for counterfeit pharmaceuticals.

2. AT PARTIES

Need a theme idea for your next get-together? Why not take a page (or a rag?) from the Victorians and hold a mummy unrolling party, which is exactly what it sounds like. While the craze is sometimes overstated—it’s not like every aristocrat watched Tutankhamen’s cousin unwrapped over sherry in his drawing room—these parties were a not-uncommon feature of 19th century British life, especially among those who fancied themselves the more scholarly sort.

According to Rogers, mummy unwrapping as a social event really got going in Britain starting in the 1820s, thanks to a circus performer-turned-antiquities salesman named Giovanni Belzoni. Belzoni made a name for himself in Egypt-obsessed circles after arranging for the removal of several massive Egyptian artifacts on behalf of British consul to Egypt Henry Salt. In 1821, he held a public mummy unwrapping as part of an exhibition of Egyptian antiquities near Piccadilly Circus. The event proved an enormous success—over 2000 people attended on opening day alone. One member of the audience was London surgeon and scholar Thomas Pettigrew, who was so enamored of the spectacle he began holding his own public, ticketed unrollings, usually with an accompanying lecture.

While there was occasionally an element of serious science (Pettigrew went on to write the first book on mummy studies, A History of Egyptian Mummies, in 1834, and earn the nickname "Mummy Pettigrew”), the gawk-factor was usually a larger draw. Not only were the mummies themselves fascinating (if a bit pungent), their wrappings often contained valuable talismans and amulets lying in and around the body.

Members of the upper class copied Pettigrew, and the idea spread, with unwrapping events held both at large venues and in private homes. According to Rogers, "Often the mummy came from the host’s own collection and invitations were such as those issued by Lord Londesborough in 1850, who promised a ‘mummy from Thebes to be unrolled at half-past two.'" Consider it the Victorian version of unboxing.

3. AS PAINT PIGMENT

It sounds like an urban myth, but it isn't: starting around the 16th century, a pigment called mummy brown, made from ground-up mummies, was a popular choice for European artists. Delacroix used it, as did British portraitist Sir William Beechey, and it was a special favorite of the Pre-Raphaelites. According to scholar Philip McCouat, in 1712 "an artist supply shop rather jokily called 'A La Momie' opened in Paris, selling paints and varnish as well as powdered mummy, incense and myrrh." To be fair, not everyone knew what they were painting with. When artist Edward Burne-Jones found out, he held a little funeral for a tube of paint in his back garden.

4. AS INTERIOR DECOR

Trips to Egypt were so popular among the upper classes of the 19th century that mummies were often displayed back home as souvenirs, usually in the drawing room or study, and occasionally even in bedrooms. Rogers notes that mummy hands, feet and heads were frequently displayed around the house, often in glass domes on mantelpieces. (The writer Gustave Flaubert was even known to keep a mummy's foot on his desk.) Mummies were displayed at businesses, too: One Chicago candy store reportedly attracted customers in 1886 by showing off a mummy said to be “Pharaoh's daughter who discovered Moses in the bulrushes.”

5. FOR PAPER

This a contentious issue among those who study the history of papermaking, but according to some scholars, paper mills on the East Coast of the United States imported mummy wrappings as source material during the mid 19th century. (It’s not quite as crazy as it might sound: a boom in printed materials vastly increased America's appetite for paper in the early 19th century, and wood pulp was only introduced after a rag shortage in the 1850s. Mummies, meanwhile, were relatively plentiful.) The story is debatable: sources are vague, and while historians have discovered newspapers and broadsides that claim to be printed on mummy wrappings, the claim isn’t bullet-proof: it could be a joke, or, as often the case with mummies, a crafty publicity gimmick.

By the way, a related story that mummies were burned for railroad fuel is almost certainly a joke dreamed up by Mark Twain. In The Innocents Abroad, Twain described Egyptian railroad companies using fuel “composed of mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard for that purpose,” and reported that “sometimes one hears the profane engineer call out pettishly, ‘D—n these plebeians, they don't burn worth a cent—pass out a King!’”

6. As Stage Props

Mummies are a familiar symbol of romantic ghastliness in literature and horror movies, of course, but their use in stage magic is less well known today. Yet the same sense of exoticism and dread that made them work so well onscreen also made them effective as stage props. It didn't even matter whether they were real.

In the 1920s, an elaborate fake known as "The Luxor Mummy" appeared in stage shows with a magician named Tampa. According to The New York Times, the mummy originally belonged to vaudeville theatre owner Alexander Pantages, "who claimed that it was a seer and prophet named Ra Ra Ra." When the mummy "performed" with Tampa, it would answer questions communicated through a telephone-like device. (No word on how an ancient Egyptian was able to speak English.)

7. FOR FERTILIZER

Animals were mummified by the millions in ancient Egypt to provide offerings for the gods and goddesses. Ibis and baboons were sacred to Thoth, raptors to Horus, and cats to the goddess Bastet. Cat mummies were particularly plentiful—so plentiful, in fact, that in the late 19th century, English companies bought them from Egypt for agricultural purposes. By one account, a single company purchased about 180,000 cat mummies weighing 19 tons, which were then pulverized into fertilizer and spread on the fields of England. One of the skulls from that shipment now resides at the natural history department of the British Museum.

8. AS FAKE RELICS

After Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431, her executioners were determined that no trace of her would remain—they burned her body a second time, then dumped what was left in the Seine. But in 1867, a jar labeled "Remains found under the stake of Joan of Arc, virgin of Orleans," turned up in the attic of a Paris pharmacy. It was recognized by the church as genuine, and later put on display at a museum run by the Archdiocese of Tours. However, in 2007, tests conducted by forensic scientist Philippe Charlier revealed that the contents of the jar predated Joan by thousands of years: they were actually a human rib and a cat femur, both from ancient Egyptian mummies.

9. FOR FUNDRAISING

Massachusetts General Hospital was the site of the first public surgery using modern anesthetic, which took place in 1846 in an amphitheater that became known as the Ether Dome. But the place is also home to something you don’t usually see in a hospital—an Egyptian mummy.

The well-preserved Padihershef arrived at Massachusetts General in 1823 as a gift from the city of Boston. The mummy had originally been given to the city by a Dutch merchant in the early 19th century (he reportedly purchased it to impress his in-laws), and the city gave it to the then-fledgling Massachusetts General Hospital to help it raise funds. According to the hospital, Padihershef was put on display at "Mr. Doggett’s Repository of Arts" in Boston, where "hundreds of people paid $0.25 to see the first complete human Egyptian mummy in the U.S." Padihershef then went on a year-long East Coast tour to raise even more cash for the hospital, before taking his place in the Ether Dome in time to witness the history-making surgery on October 16, 1846. He’s still there today.

6 Facts About International Women's Day

iStock.com/robeo
iStock.com/robeo

For more than 100 years, March 8th has marked what has come to be known as International Women's Day in countries around the world. While its purpose differs from place to place—in some countries it’s a day of protest, in others it’s a way to celebrate the accomplishments of women and promote gender equality—the holiday is more than just a simple hashtag. Ahead of this year’s celebration, let’s take a moment to explore the day’s origins and traditions.

1. International Women's Day originated more than 100 years ago.

On February 28, 1909, the now-dissolved Socialist Party of America organized the first National Woman’s Day, which took place on the last Sunday in February. In 1910, Clara Zetkin—the leader of Germany’s 'Women's Office' for the Social Democratic Party—proposed the idea of a global International Women’s Day, so that people around the world could celebrate at the same time. On March 19, 1911, the first International Women’s Day was held; more than 1 million people in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark took part.

2. The celebration got women the vote in Russia.

In 1917, women in Russia honored the day by beginning a strike for “bread and peace” as a way to protest World War I and advocate for gender parity. Czar Nicholas II, the country’s leader at the time, was not impressed and instructed General Khabalov of the Petrograd Military District to put an end to the protests—and to shoot any woman who refused to stand down. But the women wouldn't be intimidated and continued their protests, which led the Czar to abdicate just days later. The provisional government then granted women in Russia the right to vote.

3. The United Nations officially adopted International Women's Day in 1975.

In 1975, the United Nations—which had dubbed the year International Women’s Year—celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8th for the first time. Since then, the UN has become the primary sponsor of the annual event and has encouraged even more countries around the world to embrace the holiday and its goal of celebrating “acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.”

4. International Women's Day is an official holiday in dozens of countries.

International Women’s Day is a day of celebration around the world, and an official holiday in dozens of countries. Afghanistan, Cuba, Vietnam, Uganda, Mongolia, Georgia, Laos, Cambodia, Armenia, Belarus, Montenegro, Russia, and Ukraine are just some of the places where March 8th is recognized as an official holiday.

5. It’s a combined celebration with Mother’s Day in several places.

In the same way that Mother’s Day doubles as a sort of women’s appreciation day, the two holidays are combined in some countries, including Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, and Uzbekistan. On this day, children present their mothers and grandmothers with small gifts and tokens of love and appreciation.

6. Each year's festivities have an official theme.

In 1996, the UN created a theme for that year’s International Women’s Day: Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future. In 1997, it was “Women at the Peace Table,” then “Women and Human Rights” in 1998. They’ve continued this themed tradition in the years since; for 2019, it's “Better the balance, better the world” or #BalanceforBetter.

Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

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