Weird History

The Bizarre Ancient Practice of 'Honey Mummies'  

Lisa A. Flowers
120.6k views 3 items

Properly-encapsulated honey is well-known for having an eternal shelf life. Ancient Arabia took advantage of this fact when they developed the scientific process for creating their poetically mystic "honey mummies." Mellified men (of "honeyed men") were elderly volunteers who gorged themselves on honey until they died. The sugary substance was subsequently poured into their coffins or sarcophagi, and many believed that their "edible" bodies would possess miraculous healing powers when they were finally exhumed.

The first record of mellification dates back to 1596 CE, but, for ages, this practice was considered to be both holy and therapeutic, a medicinal gift designed to benefit future generations. Read on to learn more about this particularly ingenious incarnation of corpse medicine.

Step One: Future "Honey Mummies" Gorged Themselves To Death On Honey
Step One: Future
Photo: Sachem31/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The process of mellification was essentially viewed as a gift to future generations by way of a sacrificial ritual. The method was first mentioned in the 16th-century text Bencao Gangmu, or The Compendium of Materia Medica, authored by Li Shizhen, a Chinese pharmacologist. As Shizhen explains, the process – which came to the Chinese from Arabia – typically started with a willing volunteer, who was almost always an elderly person in their 70s or 80s.

After the volunteer agreed to sacrifice themselves, they would eat, drink, and bathe in nothing but honey until their "sweat, urine, and even feces" essentially turned to pollen. Within one to two months, the volunteer would pass away, after which they would be interred in a coffin filled to the brim with bee-elixir. 

Step Two: Corpses Would Marinate In Honey For Centuries
Step Two: Corpses Would Marina... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Bizarre Ancient Practice of 'Honey Mummies'
Photo:  Maja Dumat/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

After a mellified man was ensconced in his honeyed coffin, the 100-year marination process would begin. As Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers states,  

"The date is put upon the coffin giving the year and month. After a hundred years the seals are removed. A confection is formed which is used for the treatment of broken and wounded limbs. A small amount taken internally will immediately cure the complaint.”

The theory may sound romanticized and even fanciful, but the rationale behind it is just the opposite:

"For honey to spoil, there needs to be something inside of it that can spoil. With such an inhospitable environment, organisms can’t survive long enough within the jar of honey to have the chance to spoil..."

The combination is essentially foolproof: as long as honey is contained, unexposed to open air or water, it will never expire, even after centuries.

Step Three: Corpses Mummify In Pollen
Step Three: Corpses Mummify In... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Bizarre Ancient Practice of 'Honey Mummies'
Photo:  Tomascastelazo/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.5

The success of mellification was dependent upon the desired result. Though the corpses of the honey-entombed didn't possess any medicinal or healing properties, they did retain vestiges of the substance in which they were buried. The final result was not "human rock candy," as the ancients expected. Archeologist Zurab Makharadze told National Geographic

"We didn’t find actual honey on their bodies ... it was long gone. Their bones were simply covered in flower pollen, and in bees’ broken toes.”

As the article explains, the relics unearthed in Ananauri 3, a Bronze Age grave site that discovered in 2012, were also veritably covered in the substance:

"The samples, in this case, were wild berries... astonishingly well preserved. They were still red. They were 4,300 years old. They had been carefully cured with ancient honey... bushels of other ceremonial offerings in the tomb, such as hazel nuts, were slathered in honey. So were wicker baskets of chestnuts. Even some of the weavings and other organic perishables."