Honey – powerful preserving and healing power (Fascinating Insights from Arabia)
Eben van Tonder
17 May 2018
The link between meat preservation technology and embalming is by this time well established and I have written extensively on the subject. The use of honey in meat formulations and meat curing is no exception and we are introduced to the topic of honey in the preservation of human remains by the 16th-century Chinese medical doctor and pharmacologist, Li Shizhen, reporting on a practice from Arabia.
Three aspects emerge. We have seen in our article, How did Ancient Humans Preserve Food? that the ancients were not grossed out by human excrement or urine. Here we see that they were likewise not revolted by the use of human body parts. The second is the use of honey in the preservation of these body parts. This becomes another example where the same preserving technology is in use to preserve meat and human bodies alike or, as in the particular case, body parts.
The third interesting aspect is the level of technological development in the use of honey. In the minds of the ancients, it would seem, honey had a preeminent place among the different preservation technologies in that they recognized that it had not only great value for the dead but also healing power for the living. This is a tremendous realization in a day when sodium chloride salt, nitrate, nitrite, sulfate, and ammonium are being highlighted for their detrimental effects to the lives of the living if not used with extreme care. In Li Shizehn’s account, there is an amazing mix of the healing and preservation power of honey, blended in with ancient belief’s and legends about the essence of life and the human body. The account may be in its composition as handed down by Li, mostly fictional, but there are undoubtedly enough points of contact with reality to be of huge interest. The mere fact that it was romanticised to the level of Li’s account, points to fascinating underlying truths that can be seen through the fog of the legend. Lets first look at the man who brings us this fascinating story.
“Li Shizhen was a highly influential figure in Chinese medicine and the author of the revered text Bencao Gangmu (Great Compendium of Herbs). The Bencao Gangmu is one of the most frequently mentioned books in the Chinese herbal tradition, rivaled only by the Shanghan Lun. Li Shizhen’s image (see Figures 1 and 2) is to be found at every traditional medical college in China and in any illustrated book about the history of Chinese medicine. Li Shizhen was the subject of a 1956 Chinese movie about his life and accomplishments. The modern kung-fu actor Jet Li described Li Shizhen as the person he most looks up to. There is a Li Shizhen award given to doctors and researchers who make valuable contributions to traditional Chinese Medicine. He is further given recognition in the labeling of herb products and there is even a Li Shizhen brand of herbs. One can say that in the pantheon of the greatest scholars of traditional China, Li Shizhen is the last towering figure to be recognized and, by virtue of that position, the main scholar who has been worthy of emulation ever since.” (LI SHIZHEN by Dharmananda, S.) Li Shizen will later become a key figure in understanding the Chinese view of salt, but more of that later.
The concoction described by Li was created by steeping a human cadaver in honey after the dying person in a way “gave himself” to the process, while still living. It is mentioned only in Chinese medical sources, most significantly by Li Shizhen in his Bencao Gangmu.
What follows is an extract from the article Mellified Man.
“Relying on a second-hand account, Li reports a story that some elderly men in Arabia, nearing the end of their lives, would submit themselves to a process of mummification in honey to create a healing confection.”
“This process differed from a simple body donation because of the aspect of self-sacrifice; the mellification process would ideally start before death. The donor would stop eating any food other than honey, going as far as to bathe in the substance. Shortly, his feces (and even his sweat, according to legend) would consist of honey. When this diet finally proved fatal, the donor’s body would be placed in a stone coffin filled with honey.
After a century or so, the contents would have turned into a sort of confection reputedly capable of healing broken limbs and other ailments. This confection would then be sold in street markets as a hard to find item with a hefty price.
The first record of mellified man is found in Li Shizhen’s 1596 classic Chinese pharmacopeia Bencao Gangmu (section 52, “Man as medicine”) under the entry for munaiyi (木乃伊 “mummy”). Li quotes the c. 1366 Chuogeng lu (輟耕錄 “Talks while the Plough is Resting”) by the Yuan dynasty scholar Tao Zongyi (陶宗儀) or Tao Jiucheng (陶九成).
According to [Tao Jiucheng] in his [Chuogenglu], in the lands of the Arabs there are men 70 or 80 years old who are willing to give their bodies to save others. Such a one takes no more food or drink, only bathing and eating a little honey, till after a month his excreta are nothing but honey; then death ensues. His compatriots place the body to macerate in a stone coffin full of honey, with an inscription giving the year and month of burial. After a hundred years the seals are removed and the confection so formed used for the treatment of wounds and fractures of the body and limbs—only a small amount taken internally is needed for cure. Although it is scarce in those parts the common people call it “mellified man” [miren 蜜人], or, in their foreign speech, “mu-nai-i”. Thus Mr. [Tao], but I myself do not know whether the tale is true or not. In any case I append it for the consideration of the learned.
According to the historians of Chinese science Joseph Needham and Lu Gwei-djen, this content was Arabic, but the story got mixed up with a Burmese custom of preserving the bodies of abbots and high monks in honey, so that “the Western notion of a drug made from perdurable human flesh was combined with the characteristic Buddhist motif of self-sacrifice for others”. In her book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, writer Mary Roach observes that Li Shizhen “is careful to point out that he does not know for certain whether the mellified man story is true.” (Mellified Man)
“Li calls the concoction miren (蜜人), translated as “honey person” or “mellified man”. Miziren (蜜漬人 “honey-saturated person”) is a modern synonym. The place it comes from is tianfangguo (天方國 “divine square [Kaaba] countries”), an old name for Arabia or the Middle East”). The Chinese munaiyi (木乃伊), along with “mummy” loanwords in many languages, derives through Arabic mūmīya (mummy) from Persian mūm “wax”.
Mellification is a mostly obsolete term for the production of honey, or the process of honeying something, from the Latin mellificāre (“to make honey”), or mel (“honey”).” (Mellified Man)
Physical properties of honey
“Honey has been used in funerary practices in many different cultures. Burmese priests have the custom of preserving their chief abbots in coffins full of honey. Its reputation both for medicinal uses and durability is long established.” There are stories from the Arabian peninsula of deceased children of wealthy families being preserved in sealed jars of honey. The preserving properties of honey are well established and have been recognized and used for its medicinal value for millennia. I discuss it in detail in my article, Honey in cured meat formulations
“Antibacterial properties of honey are the result of the low water activity causing osmosis, hydrogen peroxide effect, and high acidity. The combination of high acidity, hygroscopic, and antibacterial effects have led to honey’s reputation as a plausible way to mummify a human cadaver.” (Mellified Man)
Alexander the Great allegedly ordered that his body is embalmed with honey, and upon his death in Babylon in 323 BC, he was presumably placed in a golden coffin filled with the purest of white honey and taken back to Macedonia. (Aufderheide, A. C.; 2003: 45)
Another famous figure, similarly preserved with honey is “King Edward I of England, who died in 1307, was found to have hands and a face that was remarkably well preserved due to having been coated with a layer of wax and honey.” (Brent Swancer)
Similar medicine practices
“Both European and Chinese pharmacopeias employed medicines of human origin such as 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 to 18th centuries in Europe, “but nowhere outside Arabia were the corpses volunteers””. (Mellified Man)
“Mummies were a common ingredient in the Middle Ages until at least the eighteenth century, and not only as medicine but as fertilizers and even as paint. The use of corpses and body parts as medicine goes far back—in the Roman Empire the blood of dead gladiators was used as treatment for epilepsy.” (Mellified Man)
“In his book, Bernard Read suggests a connection between the European medieval practices and those of the Middle East and China:
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.”” (Mellified Man)
If one studies every single reference to the use of honey to preserve corpses on its own, one could find problems and alternative interpretations to most of the references. What is clear though, is that honey was used in embalming and the preservation of corpses. From Arabia, there is enough evidence that it was practiced in some form. So then, it is easy to conclude that a body somewhere was preserved in honey and that the coffin was sealed and re-opened a long time afterward. Whether it was exactly 100 years later or not is not the issue. Number of years were often used in antiquity to indicate long time spans without the need to take it literally. The 100 years could easily refer to simply a long time.
In line with the widespread use of mummies in remedies, it is easy to see how such a mummy could have been opened and the content removed and reworked into a remedy that was sold, consistent with what was done with other mummies. Now, link with this, the fact that honey is a known cure. To this day there are people who swear by the fact that one teaspoon of honey stay off colds and flue and relieves other ailments. It is easy to see that the same was true since antiquity given the inherent healing qualities of honey. Who else but 60 or 70-year-old men would have been prime consumers of such a remedy and it could just as easily been such a practice that was linked to the honey preserved mummies. The set of events that I describe may just as well be the basis of Li’s story.
The story of old men commencing the honey-soaked embalming process while still alive, sacrificing themselves to become medicine, 100 years later is romantic, disturbing and appealing, all at the same time. Whichever way you take it, the story highlights the value of honey as a preservative and a medicine which makes it ideal for cured meat preparations.
Aufderheide, A. C.. 2003. The Scientific Study of Mummies. Cambridge University Press.
Dharmananda, S., LI SHIZHEN