One of the ways we fund the podcast is through affiliate links. If you purchase these items through our links, we make a commission. This, and all the posts here on our website, may contain such affiliate links. 

Welcome to Episode #120 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

In Elizabethan England, there was a strong overlap in the use of drugs as medicine and using them for magic. Real physical diseases like epilepsy or psychological conditions like the pathological jealousy we see exhibited in Shakepseare’s Othello, are all conditions that were just beginning to be fully understood by the medical community of the 16th century. One of the primary drugs used to treat epilepsy and pathological jealously was a drug called mummy, which was extracted from the bodies of corpses. The dark and sinister nature of the drug’s origins, combined with the pervasive belief in the supernatural and conviction of superstition that saturated Elizabethan England society, it was perhaps the perfect choice for Shakespeare when he has the drug mummy be the substance that runs as a theme throughout his play, Othello. Here to help us explore the culture, medicine, and superstition behind the drug mummy and how it was used during Shakespeare’s lifetime is our guest, Stephen Rojcewicz. 

Join the conversation below.

Subscribe
Itunes | Stitcher | TuneIn | GooglePlay | iHeartRadio

BECOME A MEMBER

Cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare
with history activity kits that work like science labs for Shakespeare. 

 

Steve Rojcewicz is a professional psychiatrist, with 40 years of practice in medicine informing his current work as a scholar in comparative literature. Steven applies his experience in medicine with his life-long interests in languages and literature along with a master’s degree in in Classics (Latin and Greek, 2012) and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature (2017) to study the the intersection of psychiatry and the humanities, and on classical reception, including the influence of Latin and Greek works on James Joyce and William Shakespeare.  He is the co-author of a textbook on supportive psychotherapy, and has published numerous papers and book reviews including his most recent papers which have focused on Thornton Wilder and on the Nobel Prize-winning Polish novelist, Olga Tokarczuk.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Stephen Rojcewicz about :

  •  While “mummy” to modern ears refers to a bandaged wrapped corpse, for Shakespeare, this term could apply to a variety of substances and the Oxford English Dictionary explains that among those options, a corpse was not one of them, Stephen, what did the word “mummy” mean for William Shakespeare?
  • Many scholars have long thought the handkerchief in Shakespeare’s Othello would be white, spotted with red strawberries. Stephen, according to your research, what color would a handkerchief be after it had been dyed in mummy?  
  • What kinds of ailments was mummy powder, sometimes called mumia, used to treat in early modern England?

  • … and more!

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.

‘Tis true: there's magic in the web of it: A sibyl, that had number'd in the world The sun to course two hundred compasses, In her prophetic fury sew'd the work; The worms were hallow'd that did breed the silk; And it was dyed in mummy which the skilful Conserved of maidens' hearts.
Othello

Othello (III.4)

1875 image of a man selling mummies. GEO-Special Ägypten, Nr 3. Juni 1993 S. 16 (Kommentar) und 17 (Foto) Source

Mummy Extracted from Corpses

By the time William Shakespeare was writing about Mummy in his plays Macbeth, Merry Wives of Windsor, and most famously, Othello, the ancient Egyptian remedy called mummy, or mummia, was well established in Britain as a common and familiar drug.

As time went on, physicians seem to have confused (or perhaps found a new medicine they ascribed a similar name) the mumyia from Persia with mummies from Egypt. Exactly how it came to happen, I am unclear, but at some point in history famous medical doctors started scraping the insides of dead corpses to extract the human liquid that was created by the combinations of excretions of a dead body with the aloes, oitnments, and oils which were applied for embalming. 

Dead bodies were alot easier to come by than specific types of earth and rock from Arabia, so physicians turned to corpses as their supply source for what they considered to be a miracle drug.

Serapion the Younger, a 12th century physician, described mumia as “Mumia, this is the mumia of the sepulchers with aloes and myrrh mixed with the liquid (humiditate) of the human body” By the 15th century, medical science had evolved a little to decide that mumia was still useful, with Gionvanni da Vigo (1450-1525) describing mumia as

“The flesh of a dead body that is embalmed, and it is hot and dry…and therefore it has virtue to incarne [i.e., heal] wounds and to staunch blood”

Just before Shakespeare was born, the definition shifted somewhat when Swiss-German polymath Paracelsus (1493–1541) decided that it wasn't enough to have the insides of a corpse, you needed the body to have died in a specific manner. He says that mumia had to come from “the body of a man who did not die a natural death but rather died an unnatural death with a healthy body and without sickness”.

By the time Shakespeare was born, Europe seems to have abandoned the idea that the dead had to be Egyptian mummies and could indeed, be any dead person. German physician Oswald Croll (1563–1609) says mumia is “not the liquid matter which is found in the Egyptian sepulchers” and can be “the flesh of a man that perishes a violent death, and kept for some time in the air”. He goes on to outline a detailed recipe for turning a dead body into a medical tincture. The recipe outlines specifics of the man including his hair color. The dead person had been hanged, beaten to death, left in the air for days, then cut into pieces before he was sprinkled with herbs and soaked in wine, before being dried.

Gives you a new perspective on poor George being drowned in a butt of malmsey, now doesn't it?

Another example from Shakespeare's lifetime comes from Ambroise Paré, who died in 1590. Mr. Paré introduced the idea of moral depravity around the use of mumia, calling out fake mummia apothecaries who used the bodies of dead criminals to extract the medicine, and then called out the apparent hypocrisy of the Christians who would be, as he described them “so dainty mouthed” and then eat this medicine made from the bodies of the dead.

In 1597, John Gerard's Herball was published full of a variety of excellent herbs and medicinal recipes, but interestingly he identifies mummia coming from preserved bodies as a false mummia, saying correctly that Egyptians used a cedar pitch for embalming mummies, and that pitch was the true medicine mummia. Gerard says that mummia and pissasphalton are the same thing, and he goes on to blame translators for incorrectly translating ancient Greek documents. He accuses Serapion, specifically, of writing what he wanted to promote instead of what was actually described.

No matter how it arrived, ever how corrupted, once mummia hit England it was a popular remedie for many ailments over centuries. Writers like Shakespeare, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, John Donne, and more would write about mummy in their works, demonstrating that it was an ordinary part of living for 16th century England.

Apothekary vessel with inscription “MUMIÆ” and inventory number “No 217”. The object is a part of the pharmacists collectioin of Museums für Hamburgische Geschichte. Original Image Source

Related Episode You Might Enjoy

for the water swells a man; and what a thing should I have been when I had been swelled! I should have been a mountain of mummy.
Falstaff

Merry Wives of Windsor (III.5)

Natural formed Bitumen collected at the Dead Sea Shore. Photo taken and uploaded to Wikimedia commons by Daniel Tvzi. Source

 

Mummy as Medicine

There is an actual substance known as mumiya, found in Persia, which is dug up out of the ground. It is extremely hard to find, and quite rare, so both bitumen from the Dead Sea and pissasphalt from Illyria were used as alternatives.

The actual product of mumia was a black liquid which was very thick and would harden to help heal breaks and fractures. However, there was some discrepancy over exactly how to make it.

The rocks shown in the picture above were one source, and  very similar to what we construct roads of today and indeed, is called in ancient Greek texts “pissasphalton” –a form of asphalt.

The picture shows bitumen manifestations (“seepage”) in biocalcarenites, in the Valle Romana Quarry close to the village Lettomanopello in the area of the Majella Mountain in central Italy. The picture was taken in occasion of a field excursion in the realm of the Task Force Majella research Project, during a managers meeting of NorskHydro, in July 2001. The picture is taken towards the West. Johne Alex Larsen (NorskHydro) for scale. The figure was published in van Dijk (2011) (Afb. 5, p. 37) Source

This form of mummia was commonly used to heal fractures and breakages of bone. During the Crusades, soldiers used mummia frequently and the King of France carried a bottle of mummia about as a kind of cure-all for anything he came upon. (The similarity there to the father that carried Windex everywhere to cure all the things in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding came to my mind while I was researching this episode, which is made even more humorous and ironic by the Greek connections for Mummia).

Not only useful for the treatment of breaks and fractures, Mummia was also useful for the treatment of stomach ulcers, tuberculosis, and even emotional disorders like psychotic jealously–which is the treatment of course, we see Shakespeare apply in Othello. 

Sometimes mummia was used as a black paste (like the road work), or it could be ground into a powder and taken orally. You will see Helen of Troy drop a similar mummia powder into a beverage in Homer's Odyssey–that is thought to be not only mummia that she's using, but one possible inspiration for Shakespeare's use of mummy in Othello.

BECOME A MEMBER

Cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare
with history activity kits that work like science labs for Shakespeare. 

 

Tell me but this, Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief Spotted with strawberries in your wife's hand?
Iago

Othello (III.3)

William Powell Frith (1819-1909) – Othello and Desdemona – 498 – Fitzwilliam Museum Source

The Color of a Mummy Dyed Handkerchief

John Bannister (Elizabeth I’s physician) recommended mummy as medicinal. The whole play of Shakespeare's Othello has a theme of medicine and medicinal treatments.
Stephen points out, “Chains of magic”, “foul charms”, “spells and medicines , and the handkerchief itself shows medicinal value because in the scene where Desdemona loses it, she attempts to heal Othello of pain on forehead by binding the handkerchief to the forehead, suggesting the handkerchief was treated with a medicine.

Stephen goes on to explain that there is a triple meaning “dyed in mummy.” At face value, the phrase can certainly mean a change in color, but “dyed” for the 16th century could have two additional meanings.

Died–the handkerchief will lead to physical death. 

“To die” is a euphemism is a sexual satisfaction and the final scene integrates all of these meanings. Death, dye for color, and physical affection.

Many scholars have long thought the handkerchief in Shakespeare’s Othello would be white, spotted with red strawberries. Stephen's research suggests that understanding mummy leads to an alternative option for how the handkerchief would have appeared visually.

“It wouldn’t be totally white. It could be off white, but could also be black or grey.” Handkerchiefs were luxury items, and as an example Stephen points out that Elizabeth I was given as a gift a black silk and black lace handkerchief. One scholar that Stephen cites in his work suggests that the handkerchief in Shakespeare's Othello could reasonably have been all black and a metonymn for Othello’s skin

Similar episode you might enjoy:

Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf, Witches' mummy, maw and gulf Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark, Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark, Liver of blaspheming Jew, Gall of goat, and slips of yew Silver'd in the moon's eclipse, Nose of Turk and Tartar's lips, Finger of birth-strangled babe Ditch-deliver'd by a drab, Make the gruel thick and slab: Add thereto a tiger's chaudron, For the ingredients of our cauldron.
Third Witch

Macbeth (IV.1)

Gravura do século XVI, representando a colheita de betume natural.” Translated to English: “16th century engraving representing the natural bitumen harvest.”. Source

Mumia treated everything from Abscess to Epilepsy

Pronounced, “Moo-me-ah” Mumia was used to treat every kind of ailment from Abscess, internal bleeding, wounds, to epilepsy and psychotic jealousy.

In early modern England/Europe mumia was especially used for wounds and epilepsy. Francois Robulait prescribed mumia to treat intestinal colic.

Not only useful for people, mumia was also applied in veterinary medicine. According to Stephen, Thomas Alsop, chief apothecary to Henry VIII, was paid for “mummy for the King’s hunting hawks”

When you investigate the medieval medical authorities about recommended treatment for external injuries to hawks, you do find mumia listed in the manuals as an application for hawks as well as other animals.

In addition to the black paste, mummy powder was also associated with healing.

Elizabethans held a very close, nigh inseparable association between magic and medicine. It is a very timely cultural reference for Shakespeare to write, “Tis true, there’s magic in the web of it.”

Paracelus, a 16th century polymath, was influential among English physicians, who associated medicine with a mystical life and connected medicine with astrology. Shakespeare demonstrates this perspective on mummy as not just a medical treatement but also as a potential magical weapon when he includes it as one of the ingredients for the witches brew in Macbeth. According to Elizabethan thought, a particularly powerful form of mummy was the powder extracted from the corpses over virgins. Stephen suggests the reference to “skilful conserved of virgin maiden's hearts” in Shakespeare's Othello is a reference to the use of virgin mummy as a powerful agent. Stephen identifies one critic, Michael Neal, in Oxford Othello, writes that “ironically, the mummy from the virgin’s hearts, the charms on the handkerchief could specifically be actual medical treatments for pathological jealousy.” 

A contemporary of William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, wrote of a similar dug called “nepenthe” within just a few years of Shakespeare’s Othello, when he wrote Fairie Queene. Nepenthe was related to mummy as a treatment for pain. Philosophers and poets called the drug nepenthe, Spenser describes it as “drink of sovereign grace…to assuage heart’s grief”

In 1599, John Davies refers to nepenthe but he gives it a highly contemporary title, one that had only just arrived in England as this poet was writing his play–he calls it tobacco.

Stephen explains that for the 1590s, Nepenthe and tobacco were interchangeable. In 1586 Raleigh brought tobacco to England. Tobacco was advocated as a treatment for lockjaw and cancer. Nepenthe was called heaven’s drink, and “most gladness brings, wits refine.” By Elizabethan times, tobacco had to take Nepenthe’s place, and was considered medicinal for a variety of places. Smoking a pipe at breakfast was thought to prevent plague.

BECOME A MEMBER

Cook, play, and dance your way through the life of William Shakespeare
with history activity kits that work like science labs for Shakespeare. 

 

Books & Resources Stephen Rojcewicz Recommends

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


Comment and Share

Please consider rating the podcast with 5 stars and leaving a one- or two-sentence review in iTunes or on Stitcher.  Rating the podcast helps tremendously with bringing the podcast to the attention of others.

We encourage you to join the That Shakespeare Life community on Facebook. It’s a community of fans of That Shakespeare Life and a meeting place of professional Shakespeareans and Shakespeare enthusiasts.

You can tell your friends on Twitter about your love of Shakespeare and our new podcast by simply clicking this link and sharing the tweet you’ll find at the other end.

And, by all means, if you know someone you think would love to learn about the life of William Shakespeare, please spread the word by using the share buttons on this page.

And remember: In order to really know William Shakespeare, you have to go behind the curtain, and into That Shakespeare Life. 

%d bloggers like this: