Cannibalism as a cure

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This week, I saw several delightful headlines like "South Korea cracks down on baby flesh pills." Apparently, the pills, made in some parts of China, are sold as treatments for impotence and other conditions. Interestingly, an article in the new Smithsonian magazine explores the long history of ingesting human bones, flesh, and blood for medicinal purposes. Indeed, two recent books -- Richard Sugg's "Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires" and "Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture" -- document these cannibalistic cure-alls. From Smithsonian:

The question was not, ‘Should you eat human flesh?’ but, ‘What sort of flesh should you eat?’ ” says Sugg. The answer, at first, was Egyptian mummy, which was crumbled into tinctures to staunch internal bleeding. But other parts of the body soon followed. Skull was one common ingredient, taken in powdered form to cure head ailments. Thomas Willis, a 17th-century pioneer of brain science, brewed a drink for apoplexy, or bleeding, that mingled powdered human skull and chocolate. And King Charles II of England sipped “The King’s Drops,” his personal tincture, containing human skull in alcohol. Even the toupee of moss that grew over a buried skull, called Usnea, became a prized additive, its powder believed to cure nosebleeds and possibly epilepsy. Human fat was used to treat the outside of the body. German doctors, for instance, prescribed bandages soaked in it for wounds, and rubbing fat into the skin was considered a remedy for gout.

Blood was procured as fresh as possible, while it was still thought to contain the vitality of the body. This requirement made it challenging to acquire. The 16th century German-Swiss physician Paracelsus believed blood was good for drinking, and one of his followers even suggested taking blood from a living body. While that doesn’t seem to have been common practice, the poor, who couldn’t always afford the processed compounds sold in apothecaries, could gain the benefits of cannibal medicine by standing by at executions, paying a small amount for a cup of the still-warm blood of the condemned. “The executioner was considered a big healer in Germanic countries,” says Sugg. “He was a social leper with almost magical powers.” For those who preferred their blood cooked, a 1679 recipe from a Franciscan apothecary describes how to make it into marmalade.

"The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine"


  1. “Apparently, the pills, made in some parts of China, are sold as treatments for impotence”

    It’s always impotence, isn’t it? The more absurd and otherworldly the treatment the more effective. If unicorns ever existed, I’d have no doubt about the cause of them going extinct.

  2. C’mon guys we shouldn’t question the wisdom of ancient eastern medicine practices.. They are like, totally legit. Some people in Cali told me so it must be true.

  3. May I take this opportunity of emphasizing that there is no cannibalism in the British Navy. Absolutely none, and when I say none, I mean there is a certain amount, more than we are prepared to admit, but all new ratings are warned that if they wake up in the morning and find any toothmarks at all anywhere on their bodies, they’re to tell me immediately so that I can immediately take every measure to hush the whole thing up.

  4. The London Review of Books has an article on these books, sadly behind a paywall:

  5. i’m guessing that, at some point, legislatures made laws forbidding these practices, and social conservatives complained that the liberals were persecuting them.

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