How to Mellify a Corpse

How to Mellify a Corpse

by Vicki Leon

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In How to Mellify a Corpse, Vicki León brings her particular hybrid of history and humor to the entwined subjects of science and superstition in the ancient world, from Athens and Rome to Mesopotamia, the Holy Land, Egypt, and Carthage. León covers subjects as diverse as astronomy and astrology, philosophy and practicalities of life and death


In How to Mellify a Corpse, Vicki León brings her particular hybrid of history and humor to the entwined subjects of science and superstition in the ancient world, from Athens and Rome to Mesopotamia, the Holy Land, Egypt, and Carthage. León covers subjects as diverse as astronomy and astrology, philosophy and practicalities of life and death (including the titular ancient method of embalming), and ancient mechanical engineering. How to Mellify a Corpse of course invokes legendary thinkers (Pythagoras and his discoveries in math and music, Aristotle's books on politics and philosophy, and Archimedes' "Eureka" moment), but it also delves deeply into the lives of everyday people, their understanding and beliefs.

A feast for the curious mind, How to Mellify a Corpse is not only for those with an interest in the experimental: it's for anyone who's inspired by the imagination and ingenuity humanity uses to understand our world.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this delightful follow-up to IX to V, her entertaining look at work in the ancient world, León explores the tangled webs of science and superstition in Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and other ancient societies. With her characteristic deadpan humor, verve, and wit, she brings to life the practices of ordinary folks as they sought practical ways to avoid the evil eye, battle stronger enemies, and understand strange and marvelous astronomical events. Copulating during a strong north wind and ingesting magical potions were believed to guarantee a male child. Greeks and Romans placed gouty limbs on electric eels in order to ease their pain. Scythian warriors dipped their arrows in snake venom, human blood, and feces to ensure their targets would die a slow and gruesome death. Many ancient cultures touted the antiseptic properties of honey, using honey-soaked bandages to bind wounds. Many Greeks attributed the visions of soothsayers and diviners to "mad honey" made from the nectar of laurel and oleander plants. León’s rollicking tour helps us see that the daily lives and worries of the ancients were not far removed from our own. (July)
From the Publisher

“In this delightful follow-up to IX to V, León explores the tangled webs of science and superstition in Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and other ancient societies. With her characteristic deadpan humor, verve, and wit, she brings to life the practices of ordinary folks as they sought practical ways to avoid the evil eye, battle stronger enemies, and understand strange and marvelous astronomical events … León's rollicking tour helps us see that the daily lives and worries of the ancients were not far removed from our own.” —Publishers Weekly

“A captivating read from start to finish.” —Alan Hirshfeld, astrophysicist and author of Eureka Man

“MARVELOUS STUFF! León deftly combines modern research with ancient lore to lift the lid on the classical world's weird and wonderful, from solar fountains to lethal lipstick.” —Ruth Downie, New York Times bestselling author of Medicus

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Walker & Company
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And Other Human Stories of Ancient Science & Superstition

Walker and Company

Copyright © 2010 Vicki Léon
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8027-1702-3


During a meditative stroll around his home turf, the region of Turkey that the Greeks of old called Asia Minor, a keen-eyed thinker named Thales stumbled across naturally occurring magnets called lodestones. Experimenting, he discovered their ability to attract iron; back in 600 B.C., this amounted to headline news. Giving the world its earliest sound bite, he exclaimed, "Lodestone made the iron move—it has a soul!" With that statement, he rejected the prevailing belief about inexplicable events: that the gods must have done it. That took courage.

Thales spent his life inquiring into the animating principles of the universe, the deeper nature of matter. Like other Greek seekers, he embraced learning from more ancient cultures, studying geometry and astronomy with the Egyptian sages. With his newly won knowledge he was able to accurately predict a solar eclipse, forcing armies to cancel a perfectly good battle slated for that day. This insightful eccentric has been called the first Greek scientist.

In the same era, his class act was echoed by Pythagoras, who sought answers to the universe in numbers and in music. A Greek born on the island of Samos, Pythagoras chose to establish his community of three hundred like-minded geeks, male and female, in southern Italy. It would grow to include thousands of adherents, including his wife and daughters, and thrive for centuries.

These beginnings of real science coincided with the birth of Greek philosophy, literally the love of wisdom, a framework for contemplating the "what's it all about?" questions. No one used the Latin-derived word scientist yet. Instead, Thales and Pythagoras called themselves natural philosophers or physicists, from the Greek physika, meaning "to come into being."

Whatever moniker they chose, these lovers of wisdom had a feverish curiosity about the world, seen and unseen. Philosophers from Aristotle to Zeno developed strong opinions on natural phenomena, on morality, on what constituted the good life. Some, such as Democritus, Heraclitus, and Lucretius, explored the unseen, from germs to atoms. Others, including Empedocles and Theophrastus, did pioneering work in ecology, botany, climate, and evolution. Still others, such as Hipparchus and Anaxagoras, studied the heavens, predicting eclipses and meteor crashes, all while trying to square the circle for the first time.

These early inquirers weren't confined to what we think of as Greece, either. Their hometowns ranged from Pellas in Macedon to Lampsacus in Asia Minor, from Sinope around the Black Sea to communities near the Dead Sea. Syracuse on Sicily, which for five centuries rivaled Athens in size, wealth, and scientific brilliance, boasted numerous philosophers and physicists. So did Alexandria, Egypt, and Crotona, Italy.

They joyously wallowed in words, sparring in debate, reading their works aloud at the Olympics and other Great Games, polishing their theories to a high gloss, and defending them in print. Their book titles (sometimes all we have left of those works) show the zeal of these early inquirers: they wrote on smells, comets, volcanic eruptions, fainting, old age, giant bones, animals that gore, litigation, the gods, each other. (Sad to say, the lottery of time bypassed Thales and others, leaving nothing of their work except excerpts and mentions in others' books.)

From the intellectual framework constructed by these men (and a surprising number of bold women, from Aglaonice to Arete, Hipparchia to Hypatia) came vocabulary and concepts now indispensable to us: logic, hypothesis, enigma, idea, criterion, symbol, stoicism, cynicism, skeptic, platonic, xix utopia.

In the second century B.C., after Greeks had long been the pinnacle of scientific thought, the Roman powerhouse arrived. Ever practical, they followed the Greek model, then zigzagged in succeeding centuries to exploit technology, ignoring most efforts at pure science research. Only a few protested the stagnation, one being Pliny the Elder, a military careerist and encyclopedist turned science buff, who would later expire from a too-close encounter with an erupting Mount Vesuvius. He denounced the anti-intellectualism of his day, saying, "In spite of official patronage, no addition whatsoever is being made to knowledge by means of original research, and in fact even the discoveries of our predecessors are not being thoroughly studied."

At first glance, it seems clear to us why these ancient societies didn't make more scientific progress. Their dependence on an enslaved workforce, for example. Slave labor undoubtedly did undercut demand for more efficient machines and better use of draft animals. In addition, there were a surprising number of war-free years during Roman-dominated centuries. Peace created an urgent need to keep men in those huge standing armies busy with road building and other long-term projects.

Often we overlook a key fact: Most ancient literary output was written by aristocrats, who emphasized the rigid barriers between pure science and its applications. These armchair erudites would have snorted at the idea of physical proofs. Testing hypotheses, setting up experiments, getting reproducible results? Please. Such hands-on activities were for technitai, thetechnicians—a disparaging label given to inventors as well as blacksmiths.

Such writers would point to the misguided efforts of Heron of Alexandria, whose da Vinci-like ingenuity created a working prototype of the steam engine. Like most ofhis inventions, it went nowhere. Instead, Heron's dream works largely served to amuse as toys of the wealthy, or amaze with whiz-bang special effects at the temples of one god or another.

Theoretician Archimedes, the Einstein of his age, became another example. Although obliged to spend much of his time developing weaponry, he also pioneered mathematical physics while perfecting the major mechanical underpinnings of technology. Three centuries after his death, the Greek writer Plutarch asserted that Archimedes had so despised his practical inventions that he refused to write down how they were made.

Maybe it was Plutarch who had the attitude problem. He was one of a host of historians and scientists from his time right down to ours, who admired long-ago scientific theory yet dismissed its execution. As you'll see in this book, there is growing evidence that early imagineers not only theorized but put their theories into sophisticated practice.

Take the conundrum of the Antikythera Mechanism, only now understood to be a complex calculating machine/analog computer. Its very complexity implies that it could not have been the first device of its kind.

But several factors did blight the full flowering of ancient science. Exhibit A? The opposing core values held by Greeks and Romans. The real estate we call "Greece" today was once a mix of land and sea, dotted with small, wary entities called city-states. They fought, formed alliances, and backstabbed, never forming a single nation despite their shared tongue and cultural beliefs.

When city-states ran low on resources, they'd send colonizers abroad. These far-flung bits of Greekness took hold in Gaul, along southern Italy's coast, on Sicily, around the Iberian peninsula. Dozens dotted the Black Sea shores and flourished in Asia Minor and along the North African coast. Thales' city-state of Miletus alone gave birth to ninety colonies.

That fierce go-it-alone spirit made the Greeks vulnerable—first to Alexander the Great, then to his rapacious successors. And finally, to Rome, who in 196 B.C. conquered them, at times enslaving Greek populations. The Introduction better educated losers became the teachers, doctors, architects, and artisans of the winners. Over time, countless thousands won their freedom. Respect, however, was harder to win. Elite Romans educated their sons in Athens but remained contemptuous of Greek intellectual power. Emperors like Hadrian, who appreciated Greek culture, were ridiculed for not having enough Roman gravitas. Behind his back he was called "Greekling," a tag with a tinge of slavishness that implied loser, lightweight, too artsy by half. Small wonder, then, that few young Romans cared to seek careers in the early sciences.

A second somber thread ran through Greco-Roman society, one that severely undermined attempts to find rational answers to scientific problems. We'd call this tangled skein of beliefs superstition.

The majority of ordinary folks around the Mediterranean paid little attention to scientific bulletins or philosophical pronouncements. Instead, the Greek- or Latin-speaking masses alternately marveled at the world or cursed it, shrugging off the idea of seeking to understand. Weather, the fate ofa newborn, a harvest, a journey; illness, slow death, or miraculous recovery—all events were in the laps of the gods.

Nearly everyone also believed in weaver-goddesses called the Fates, picturing them as three crones spinning thread, measuring it, cutting it to end a human life. In Latin, the root of our word destiny meant "that which is woven or bound together with threads." Today when we declare that an event is "bound to happen," we're actually invoking the ancient binding power of destiny.

This universal belief in the implacability of fate meant that the game of life was fixed from the beginning. The only sensible action in the here and now was to placate the powers that be. An easy task, since the ancient world teemed with gods and goddesses, from the dysfunctional Olympians and their extramarital antics to state-endorsed patron deities, demigods, and legendary heroes who could be hit up for favors.

Deity worship eventually extended to regular humans, beginning with a dead emperor or two, followed by living ones. The second-century reign of Emperor Hadrian saw a first: an empire-wide chain of temples to the newly deified Antinoos, the emperor's gorgeous curly-headed boyfriend who'd gone for an unsuccessful swim in the Nile.

As they went about their everyday lives, ordinary people coped by carrying out magical actions. They sought help with decisions through divination of all sorts. For supernatural aid on small stuff, quick answers could be had by mirror gazing or casting lots. For major matters, such as marriage or illness, it made sense to pay an augur for a bird flight interpretation or sacrifice a lamb to read its shining entrails.

Adults from all walks of life firmly believed in the evil eye, in prophetic dreams, in love charms and curse tablets, in malignant ghosts that needed cosseting. The Greeks in particular spent a remarkable amount of time warding off bogeymen and -women, outwitting vampires, combating malign glances, and pacifying sinister forces at crossroads. And even more time, telling horror stories about those who failed to do so.

The pseudoscience bestseller? Astrology, which ultimately garnered the most widespread following, starting in the last century B.C. with an easy-to-follow horoscope based on the zodiac sign at the time of birth.

This bargain bin of options produced a supermarket of superstitious wares, a giant Walmartian chain of magical answers that operated 24/7 around the Mediterranean basin. By comparison, the philosophical seekers, the elite academies of Plato and Aristotle, the mathematical trailblazers from Euclid to Hypatia, and the generations of science researchers at the Great Library and Museum of Alexandria were low-traffic, mom-and-pop stores of precious, often ignored knowledge.

With our historical hindsight, we're amused by the naivete of the Greeks and Romans, seeing the flaws in their mix of logic and supernatural beliefs. Time for a reality check: magical thinking continues to have a firm grip on cultures around the world, American society included.

Studies during the past decade at Harvard, Cornell, and Princeton have revealed an unsettling amount of irrational thought among college-degreed young adults. Psychologists examined the large number of rituals that people habitually perform throughout their waking hours. They found that such rituals—from wearing lucky clothing to avoiding certain actions—buoyed participants' spirits, soothed fears, and warded off mental distress at threatening situations. They also found that even the well-educated brains of science majors loved to make snap judgments, being quick to link coincidental events as cause and effect—for example, "The day after I began praying for her recovery, she emerged from the coma." Or conversely: "In my argument with Grandma, I called her an old bat, and that week she fell and broke her hip."

Although we'd prefer to think otherwise, we're deeply tied into that ole black magic when it comes to common superstitions. In the United States and the United Kingdom, Friday the thirteenth still causes consternation—and huge work absenteeism. Avoidance of bad-luck traditions is routine for millions of Americans, such as walking under ladders, opening an umbrella in the house, breaking a mirror, or leaving a hat on the bed, as is the more recent belief that failure to pass along chain e-mails will bring ill fortune.

Good-luck rituals have equal staying power: touching or knocking on wood, throwing salt over the shoulder, or picking lottery numbers that have personal significance. Other studies confirm that we twenty-first-century sophisticates tend to believe that our wishes for the success—or failure—of something can influence the outcome, whether it's a football game or an election.

Like millions of men and women in ancient times, we cling to horoscopes and astrology for financial matters, job advice, and affairs of the heart. What the stars foretell is firmly imbedded in our consciousness—and our wallets. A majority of all U.S. newspapers (and untold galaxies of Web sites) carry daily horoscopes, dozens of magazines devote themselves entirely to astrology, and the American Federation of Astrologers boasts 3,500 professional members. On both sides of the Atlantic, astrologers with real star power reach millions of readers and reap astronomical sums for their prognostications.

Despite the magical thinking that infected millions in the Greco-Roman cultures and that still pervades our modern societies, scientific reason, commonsense beliefs, and logical actions did triumph at times—and in our times as well. We still have much to learn from ancient successes, and much to heed from their failures and excesses.

Take, for example, this clear-eyed assessment from the Greek historian Herodotus. Twenty-five centuries ago, he observed the ferocious, highly mobile Scythian people around the Black Sea and a shudder went through the jovial historian. His prescient words about the hordes that would later overrun his society could apply to our own world today: "The Scythians were more clever than any other people in making the most important discovery we know of concerning human affairs, though I do not admire them in other respects. They have discovered how to prevent any attacker from escaping them and how to make it impossible for anyone to overtake them against their will. For instead of establishing towns or walls, they are all mounted archers who carry their homes with them and derive their sustenance not from cultivated fields but from their herds. Since they make their homes on carts, how could they not be invincible or impossible even to engage in battle?"

For half a century, I've been besotted by the Greeks and Romans of long ago. Although it took years to come to fruition, my own destiny was to learn more by living among their descendants in Mediterranean lands, studying the ruins and remnants of their ancient civilizations, researching and later writing about them. While digging into material for this book on their cultures, I got caught up in the often invisible dance between scientific theory and practice, the push-pull between Greco-Roman thought and seat-of-the-pants advances in applied technology.


Excerpted from HOW TO MELLIFY A CORPSE by VICKI LÉON Copyright © 2010 by Vicki Léon. Excerpted by permission of Walker and Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Vicki León is a writer, traveler, and historian who has built a wide readership with her Uppity Women series. She lives in Morro Bay, California. Her website is

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