[Editor’s note: years ago we regularly featured transcriptions of Barry Baldwin’s Classical Corner items from Fortean Times and we are in the process of resuming that practice, More to come, hopefully on a once-a-week schedule (the next two will probably be the ones referenced within this one). The current offering is reprinted with permission of the author himself, who years ago had to deal with yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription accrue to the latter.]
Or, The Mummy Returns – addenda to my previous embalmy army piece [FT162:19), itself supplementing FT159:45.
Embalming is associated with Egypt, thanks (mummies apart) to Herodotus’s lurid account (Histories, bk2 chs 85–7), especially the morticians’ proclivity for necrophiliac sex with female cadavers, a detail worthy of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One.
Thanks to his Egyptian staff, Joseph had father Jacob embalmed, likewise himself and eleven brothers (Genesis 50.2-3, 25-6; Acts 7.16) – Jewdicious biculturalism.
Herodotus (1.196; 3.24) attributes the practice to Babylonians and Ethiopians – esprit de corpse obviously widespread in the ancient East.
Various passages in Homer (e.g. Iliad, bk7 vv84–6; bk16 vv.456–7; bk18 vv350–3; bk19 vv37-9; Odyssey, bk224 vv67-8) may imply embalming, though not always easy to distinguish between this and pre-cremation unguenting; cf. R Garland, “Geras Thanonton: an Investigation into the claims of the Homeric Dead,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 28 (1981), p73 n35. Such corporeal preparation is widely attested, not least in Gospel accounts of Christ’s obsequies.
Bodies were similarly treated to preserve ther for long journeys to final resting places. Spartan kings Agesilaus and Agesipolis were coated respectively in wax and honey (Nepos, Agesilaus, ch8 para7; Plutarch, Agesilaus, ch40 para3; Xenophon, Hellenika, bk5 ch3 para 19). The various sources for Alexander the Great don’t all mention the honey, but Quintus Curtius’s biography (bk10 ch 10 paras9-13) says he was perfumed in the Egyptian manner”, and sent for burial to Alexandria, where Augustus (Suetonius’s Life, ch18 paral) saw the mummy before it vanished to make the Shakespearean (Hamlet, act5 sc1 vv224-5) reflection “Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole?”
Greek and Roman writers frequently ridicule embalming, Lucretius (On the Nature of Things, bk3 vv888-93) from the philosopher’s view, Varro (Satires, fr81) from the comedian’s. Cicero (Tusculan Disputations, bk1 ch45 para108) calls it “an error of nations”. Dio Cassius (Roman History, bk50 ch 24 para26) has Octavian mock this “Egyptian idiocy” in a pre-Actium speech, ironically balanced by his later account (bk51 ch11 para15) of Cleopatra embalming Antony, the first Roman so prepared for eternity.
Lucian (Funerals, para21) provides the gothic tale (supposedly autoptic) of an Egyptian who placed a mummy at his dinner table, a scene re-created in Peter Fonda’s motorbike picture The Wild Angels.
Pliny expatiates on the preservative power of honey (Natural History, bk22 ch50 para108). The poet Statius (Silvæ, bk5 no1 vv225-31) describes the embalming of his wife Priscilla by Domitian’s courtier Abascantus. Nero typically provides the most spectacular example. Having kicked his pregnant wife Poppæa to death, he atoned by (Tacitus, Annals, bk16 ch6) “having her not cremated Roman-fashion but stuffed with spices and embalmed like a foreign potentate”; cf. Derek Couts, ‘The Nature and Function of Embalming in Rome”, Classical Antiquity 15 (1996), pp189–202.
Not much Byzantine evidence, although Corippus’s poem In Praise of Justin II (bk3 vv20-5) vouchsafes the embalming of Justinian (AD 565), while the famous “sweet odours” emanating from the uncorrupted corpse of Saint Demetrius of Thessalonica hint at chemical preservation.
Archaeological evidence bolsters the literary record. A young woman’s mummified body was discovered (1445) in an Appian Way sarcophagus, R Lanciani (Pagan and Christian Rome, Cambridge, 1892, p296) said it attracted “swarms of bees”. 1964 saw the discovery in (suitably) the so-called “Tomb of Nero’ of a seven-year-old girl datable to C. AD 150, while in 1962 (many electronic sites for these), the mummy of a middle-aged woman was found in a Thessalonican cemetery from c. AD 300. Most recently, again female from Thessalonica, a preserved body dating to c. 1700 BC: C Papageorgopolou & others, ‘Indications of embalming in Roman Greece by physical, chemical and histiological analysis,’Journal of Archaeological Science 36 (2010), pp35-42.
What goes around… The Mycenaean corpse Schliemann romantically thought was Agamemnon was preserved by a local pharmacist drenching it with gum arabic before shipment to Athens (Kathy Gere, Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, Chicago, 2009, p25). Schliemann’s famous telegram to the King – “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon” – was actually a later re-write (David Traill, Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit, NY, 1995, p163).
Salty cognate Calypso finale provided by this 1953 Oxford theatrical satire:
Oh, you’ve all read in the New Testament How the wife of Lot became a condiment. It was her curiosity started the rot,
She only peeped a little but she had lost her Lot.
Classical Corner 133: Fortean Times 271 (February 2011), p. 19.