Mellified Man

There have been many cure-alls and mythical remedies known in history, but none so strange as the mellified man: a human mummy steeped in honey.

"The Unbearable Lightness" by Tomáš Libertíny, sculpture using beeswax and live bees
“The Unbearable Lightness” by Tomáš Libertíny, sculpture using beeswax and live bees

Always a voluntary process, mellification begins when a ‘donor’ eats nothing but honey until death from the process. Some legends tell that all their bodily fluids would begin to turn into honey before their bodies finally gave out. After the initial month of a purely honey diet, and the donor’s death, the body would be placed in a coffin which was then filled with honey. Only after being steeped in honey for over one-hundred years would the coffin be opened once more.

After being opened, the body would be a sort of confection. Small amounts are, according to legends, able to cure broken limbs (among other ailments) instantaneously. The product would be sold at a high price in street markets, making it, of course, difficult to find as well. But whether any of this is true is up for debate.

Physiologically speaking the concept behind the process is possible, as honey can remain preserved for an inordinate amount of time. Jars of honey discovered in Ancient Egyptian tombs (some dating back thousands of years) were found to be perfectly preserved and, hypothetically, edible. It’s the combination of a lack of water, high acidity, and hydrogen peroxide that prevents any growth within the honey.

An Ancient Egyptian beekeeping hive
An Ancient Egyptian beekeeping hive

The idea that a body would not only be preserved, but be free of pathogens due to honey preservation is fairly plausible in this case. Honey has been used in many topical applications for this very antiseptic property. In addition to that, Burmese priests have utilized honey in part of the preservation of Sayadaws, or chief monks, by coating the body in honey.

Whether a mellified man for medical purposes ever existed, is another problem entirely. The use of body parts in miracle cures is not unheard of in history. Dead gladiator blood was used as an epilepsy cure, and from the 12th to the 17th centuries mummy powder was a common item in European apothecaries.

Mummy powder container from the medical collection of Robert E. Greenspan, MD, FACP
Mummy powder container from the medical collection of Robert E. Greenspan, MD, FACP

A mellified man being used for medicine is only mentioned once though, in the “Bencao Gangmu” (a 16th century Chinese medical book written by Li Shizhen):

According to 陶九成 T’ao Chiu-Ch’eng in the 輟耕錄 Ch’o Keng Lu, it says in Arabia there are men 70 to 80 years old who are willing to give their bodies to save others. The subject does not eat food, he only bathes and partakes of honey. After a month he only excretes honey (the urine and feces are entirely honey) and death follows. His fellow men place him in a stone coffin full of honey in which he macerates. 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. It is scarce in Arabia where it is called mellified man.

Mr. T’ao has recorded it in this way but Li Shih-Chen the author of this Pen Ts’ao does not know whether it is true so he is recording it for others to verify.

As seen in the last sentence, even Li Shizhen didn’t know that the source was viable. And due to the fact that the confection was supposedly broken into bits and eaten, there might not be any evidence remaining. Unless a mellified man is actually found, this legend will have to remain just that: a legend.

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