Mumia: The Grossest Aphrodisiac You’ll Ever Hear Of
Image Credit: European apothecaries dispensed mumia for a range of conditions, including as an aphrodisiac. iStock

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JUNE 6 marks Sweden’s National Day: 500 years since Gustav Vasa was elected king, marking its foundation as an independent state. But the Scandinavian nation has been in the news recently for less stately reasons. Reports claimed that the Swedes had gained official recognition for sex as a sport, and the first-ever European Championship would soon be hosted for the now competitive endeavour. 

Of course, some things just are a little too good to be true, and as Hindustan Times reported, the Riksidrottsförbundet — the sports confederation tasked with supporting and developing sports in Sweden — had actually rejected the Swedish Sex Federation’s application. Be that as it may, the news still set us off down a merry rabbit hole of foods that fuel sexual prowess, and the aphrodisiacs our ancestors relied on, and suchlike. 

And what we found was this: that among the cornucopia of artichokes (incidentally — and this ties in nicely with the abovementioned inspiration for our musings — fed by Swedish wives to their husbands when they failed to perform in the bedroom) and eggs (Arabic texts prescribed ingesting vast quantities of it, to men who wished to impress) and asparagus (preferred by the ladies of the French court to nibble on daintily as they flirted from behind their fluttering fans) and oysters (imbibed by the French men at court who were being flirted with) and pomegranate (which may really have been what Eve enticed Adam with, and not the apple) and onion (of which the Roman poet Martial had this to say: “If your wife is old and your member is exhausted, eat onions in plenty”, which we do think is a bit sexist and also was probably unpleasant for the wife in question — has anyone ever been turned on by onion breath? — although, in the interests of fairness, we concede that things were probably different in the 1st century AD when Martial was going about doing his thing), there were some not-so-savoury substances as well.

But before we get there, lets round up the other foods that find mention as aphrodisiacs: spices  (ginger, pepper, saffron, nutmeg, cinnamon), herbs (mint and parsley), spirits (wine), garlic (made into a concoction with coriander), mustard, carrots and celery. Then there were aromatics like incense, sandalwood, essential oils and so on. More dubious inclusions were antlers, horns and specific organs of certain animals, none with any proven efficacy but still prized nonetheless (to the detriment of the poor animals). 

It would seem that this extensive list would be more than enough for the casual aphrodisiac-seeker to make do with. Apparently not. For, in the quest to find miracle cures for boudoir boredom, some folks experimented with a substance known as “mumia” — which, in plainspeak, means powdered up mummies.

Now how did mummy-powder come to be known as an aphrodisiac? Blame medieval Latin translators. Working from Arabic texts that described the medicinal properties of bitumen, a series of confusions led scribes to note down desiccated mummy as the wonder drug rather than mineral pitch (the actual substance being referred to).

On the back of this mistranslation, the mummy powder was dispensed by apothecaries in Europe to treat everything from “genitourinary diseases, diabetes, jaundice, adiposity, enlarged spleen, digestive disorders, epilepsy, nervous diseases, elephantiasis, tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, asthma, anemia, amenorrhea, dysmenorrhagia, eczema, leprosy, anorexia, fracture of bones, and osteroporosis”, as well as being “useful as an aphrodisiac, rejuvenator, alternative tonic, internal antiseptic, diuretic, lithontriptic” (i.e. all the conditions the Arabs had originally described as being helped by the bitumen treatment). 

The demand for the miracle medicine soon outgrew supply, and there simply weren’t enough mummies to go around. One imagines that tombs were routinely looted and antiquities destroyed, until Egypt took note of the problem and outlawed the export of mumia altogether in the 16th century. 

Some enterprising souls then hit upon the novel scheme of creating fake mumia — mortal remains of the recently deceased that were embalmed and dried in the sun, sprinkled with wine, ground up, and sold as the powders of bona fide mummies. To spare the sentiments of our readers, we will refrain from going into a “recipe” shared by German physician Oswald Croll for creating the finest quality mumia.

Renaissance thinkers in Europe finally put an end to mumia madness when they brought forward the correct translation. Undoubtedly, many an aphrodisiac adherent must have then dearly wished that they’d simply stuck to artichokes.