According to an Egyptian legend, honey was born from Ra’s tears, which explains why the ancient Egyptians ascribed so many virtuous properties to this natural product. From the earliest times, it was incorporated in food and used in medicine, mainly to heal wounds and to treat coughs. But, if its therapeutic properties are universally known, as well as its sweetness, honey also had, in the eyes of Egyptians, some quite unusual beneficial properties. This article will explore them and check whether their effectiveness can be proved or disproved by modern science.
A natural contraceptive?
Many medical and medico-magic treatises have come down to us from ancient Egypt. One of the most ancient is the Kahun Papyrus, written at the end of the Middle Kingdom (c.1850-1750 BC). Mainly focused on gynaecology, it includes simple methods to avoid becoming pregnant. One of these prescriptions, the text of which is unfortunately very incomplete, proposes pouring honey, probably mixed with other ingredients, into the patient’s vagina:
“Another preparation. … a henu-vase of honey. [This] will be introduced in her vagina. Prepare this with a solution of natron”.
Although it is not possible to know what other ingredient(s) were recommended, we may note that as well as honey, the potion included natron, which was traditionally used by embalmers to desiccate bodies in preparation for mummification. And, as improbable as this seems, the chances of success of such a procedure were high. Dr Richard-Alain Jean, an independent medical researcher and author of a very interesting article about contraception and experiments designed to determine the spermicidal properties of different products, highlighted the fact that simple contact of the sperm with honey and natron was enough to immobilise and kill them. These two components break the cell membranes, and produce a reduction of arterial pressure, which provokes the death of the cells by osmotic imbalance.
Another prescription, in the later Ebers Papyrus, recommended honey to prevent pregnancy. Measuring slightly more than 20 metres long, this medical treatise was written at the beginning of the New Kingdom (c.1550 BC) and comprises some 700 prescriptions from different scholars, dealing with a wide range of illnesses and pathologies. One of these was addressed not to all women, but to mothers who did not want further pregnancies:
To cause a woman to stop being pregnant, be it one, two or three years: part of acacia, colocynth, dates, finely ground in a hin of honey; fibres are moistened therewith, introduced into her vagina.
All the ingredients are identified. Once more, Dr Jean concludes that this medication was effective: in addition to honey employed for its spermicidal properties, the prescription includes acacia gum, which breaks down to produce lactic acid, a powerful spermicide. Date stones, also included in the prescription, are known to contain oestrogens, which can be prescribed today, in association with progestogens, as inhibitors of ovulation.
This antique contraceptive could indeed give good results, if it was applied at the correct time, in the right place, and the prescription was followed properly.
Honey to repel ghosts
Honey was also, according to ancient Egyptians, powerfully repulsive to ghosts, as recorded in Papyrus Berlin 3027:
You who have come in the darkness, who have entered stealthily, his nose turned backwards, his face averted, having failed in what he came for!
You who have come in the darkness, who have entered stealthily, her nose turned backwards, her face is averted, having failed in what she came for!
Have you come to harm it?
I will not let you harm it.
Have you come to take it away?
I will not let you take it away from me. I have ensured its protection against you with the plant-âfai, since it provides an obstacle [against you], garlic to ensure that it harms you, honey, sweet to [living] people, but bitter to the dead, the tail of the fish-abdju, the mandible of the animal-meret[?], and the vertebral column of the Nile perch.
Written during the New Kingdom, Papyrus Berlin 3027 has a broad range of magic spells intended to protect the pregnant woman and her child. Often the threat to the baby came from the supernatural world of ghosts, frequently operating in pairs: a male ghost and his female counterpart. This is the case in this protective spell appealing to the male and female maleficent spirits who came to attack a defenceless infant. Despite the incantation, the spell contains a magic ritual meant not to defeat, but to repel the ghosts, which says much about their harmful power.
The ritual relies on three ingredients, said to be repulsive to ghosts – the âfai-plant, garlic, and honey – a fact unusual enough to be underlined, while, in general, the elements of the ritual are simply named. Although today we do not know which plant went by the name âfai, the belief that garlic could repel ghosts crossed time and space, and in more modern times was thought to counter vampires. The last anti-ghost component is honey, sweet to the living, but bitter to the dead. Unfortunately, we do not have any other attestations of this belief, nor examples of its survival through time. It is impossible to know if this belief was held all over Egypt, or if it was limited to the region where this magic papyrus was written.
Note that, if honey was famous for being bitter to the dead here, the opposite was the case in Romania during the 18th century, where it was used as a ghost trap. The peasants used honey to impregnate the crosses over graves where they suspected a strigoï (troubled spirit) might be buried. Contrary to its Egyptian counterpart, this creature, closely related to the vampire, was very partial to honey. If, at dawn, there was no longer honey on the crosses coated with it the night before, it meant the owner of the tomb was of the maleficent undead!
Honey used to preserve cadavers
If honey was recommended during mummification, when the body was anointed with different kinds of balms and unguents, as the Papyrus Boulaq 3 and the Papyrus Louvre 5158 tell us, its use was limited in the elaborate process of artificial conservation of the dead: it was just one among many products used. But the Arabic historian and doctor Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi (AD 1162-1231) revealed an unusual discovery in his book Account of Egypt:
Some of the bodies are enclosed in strong planked coffins made of sycamore fig; others have stone coffins, either marble or granite; finally, there are those who are sealed in jars of honey. A reliable man told me that, once he and some others went to look for treasures around the pyramids, and they found a still sealed jar; having opened and having recognised that it contained honey, they began to eat it. One of them noticed a hair that was stuck to his finger; he took it, and there came up a small child whose members were still attached, whose body seemed to have retained its freshness, and which carried jewellery and rich ornaments.
Even if the passage does not mention it, the systematic robberies Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi describes took place in the area surrounding the Giza pyramids, the only locality where it was possible to see many pyramids, as most were buried under sand. From the information recorded by the historian, we can deduce that some very old tombs were robbed, dating back to the Old Kingdom (c.2600-2200 BC). It is at this time that we encounter the first stone sarcophagi, rectangular in shape, evoking the last house of eternity for the deceased. As creating these sarcophagi necessarily required considerable expenditure of time and resources, Egyptian officials subsequently chose wooden alternatives, less solid, more vulnerable to looters, but much less expensive – unless they were made of imported wood like cedar from Lebanon.
The use of large pottery jars as containers for the deceased is known from prehistory until Roman times. Although it was most commonly foetuses and infants that were physically protected in this way, older children and even adults were not excluded.
In my research for the publication of The Child and Death in Ancient Egypt, I identified 21 foetuses, 99 babies (0-1 month), 267 infants, 20 children (approximately of 4-10 years old), and 282 individuals (age not mentioned by the archaeologists). This study concerned a period ranging from c.4500 BC to the end of the New Kingdom (c.1075 BC), and in none of the listed cases were the bodies of the young subjects – mummified or not – placed in jars later filled with honey.
This practice must therefore date from a later period. On the other hand, ancient Egyptians, who were great observers of nature and its phenomena, had tested, over the millennia, dozens and dozens of possibilities to improve, simplify or make less expensive the practice of mummification. However, they never used honey to preserve epidermal tissue, but instead imported resin, mainly from Lebanon, from the Predynastic Period onwards. This substance, not found in Egypt, was used on the first partial mummies found in one of the cemeteries of Hierakonpolis in the south of the country, made around 3600 BC. Not only did the resin help to preserve the skin for longer, but it has the advantage of being a repellent to necrophagic insects, a property not possessed by gum and gum-resins produced by Egyptian trees. If honey would have given as good results as resin and allowed optimal conservation of the body, the ancient Egyptians clearly would not have gone to the trouble of creating such an elaborate process as mummification, and they certainly would not have used foreign resin when they could use local honey.
While it is impossible to check the truth of the words attributed to Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi – that the child immersed in honey had a perfectly preserved body – there is no reason to doubt the anecdote told to him. What is certain is that it refers to a practice that has not yet been observed by researchers of this ancient period. So when did this child die?
Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi’s account dates to the beginning of the 13th century. At that time, Egypt had been under Muslim rule for about 550 years. Although the Arabs did not force the mainly Coptic inhabitants, to convert to their religion, they banned the practice of mummification throughout the country. Some Copts ignored the prohibition and kept secretly practising the mummification rites inherited from their ancestors. The last traces of artificial preservation of bodies date to the beginning of the 11th century AD. Yet the discovery recorded by the Arab historian clearly demonstrates the desire to keep the child’s physical appearance beyond death, a choice that could not emanate from a Muslim Egyptian. If the child was as well-preserved as the grave robbers reported, consideration should be given to the possibility that it was a child from a Coptic family who, for fear of reprisal, opted for an easy and fast solution. Apart from the possibility of storing the little body in honey for a long time, let us not forget that this substance has a particularly positive image in the Christian religion: in the Bible, honey is regularly compared to God’s Word (for example, Psalms 19:10 and 119:103). Covering this child in a mass of honey had a conservative purpose, but also a symbolic and religious meaning. If the child died between the beginning of the 11th century and the beginning of the 13th century, the possibility must be considered that its body was well-preserved for up to two centuries, especially if the jar in which it was buried was well-sealed.
Like many of the resources available to ancient Egyptians, honey had amazing properties, and examination of its unusual uses yields surprising results.
Dr Amandine Marshall is a French Egyptologist, archaeologist, and author, and a regular contributor to Ancient Egypt magazine. Her book Childhood in Ancient Egypt is reviewed in AE 133, and she has created Egyptology videos for children, teenagers, and adults on YouTube: http://www.bit.ly/ToutankaTube.
FURTHER READING R-A Jean and A-M Loyrette (2001-2002) ‘À propos des textes médicaux des papyrus du Ramesseum no.III et IV: I-la contraception’, in Memnonia XII-XIII: 83-115. A Marshall (forthcoming) Motherhood and Infancy in Ancient Egypt, AUC Press.