Bringing the ancients alive

Vicki León’s new book, ‘How to Mellify a Corpse’ opens a widow on the bent and bizarre beliefs of early Greeks and Romans

slinn@thetribunenews.comAugust 30, 2010 

Author Vicki Leon with a stack of books she's written over the years. Photo by Joe Johnston 08-17-10

JOE JOHNSTON — Tribune Buy Photo

When people ask her how she finds her material, Morro Bay author Vicki León can’t help but smile.

“There is so much material I am just literally swimming in it,” León said with a chuckle. “There’s a lot left from the past and it takes a lot of sorting out.”

Author of more than 30 books, including the “Uppity Women” series, León digs through contemporary accounts of ancient times, checking her facts with archeological digs, art, ancient coins and laundry lists scrawled on papyrus scraps.

“I tell people I’m a historical detective,” León said. “The whole idea of finding clues, sorting them out and deciding what should have more weight is very much like historical research.”

She’s currently working on a trilogy about “the unsung and unheralded and quirky side of life in ancient times.”

“Working IX to V: Orgy Planners, Funeral Clowns and Other Prized Occupations of the Ancient World” hit the shelves in 2007.

“How to Mellify a Corpse and Other Human Stories of Ancient Science and Superstition” was published this summer, and a book on medicine, biology and sexuality — tentatively titled “First You Take a Hippo’s Forehead” — is due out in 2012.

“People are always surprised to learn about the scientific advances of the ancient world,” León said. “They’re interested, and they’re kind of tickled to think that these things were done thousands of years ago.”

A blithe, breezy book packed with user-friendly facts, “How to Mellify a Corpse” spans nearly a millennium and covers an area reaching from Athens to North Africa to Asia Minor.

The title refers to the practice of preserving dead bodies using honey, a method used to keep Alexander the Great’s corpse pristine for centuries. “Honey was not only used for curing wounds but that it had these preservative powers,” said León, noting that modern-day Iraqi researchers have successfully used honey to mummify animals and human fetuses.

Greek and Roman physicians used honey to treat burns and abscesses, while military men drugged their enemies with “mad honey” made by bees sucking poison nectar from azaleas, laurels and rhododendrons. The sweet, sticky stuff was even used as a vaginal contraceptive.

According to León, the ancients were responsible for significant advances in such fields as architecture, astronomy, mathematics, sanitation and transportation.

The Scythians, pioneers in germ warfare, dipped their arrows in a potent blend of snake venom, feces, blood and rotting snake meat.

Roman engineers created “super-concrete” and devised a system of aqueducts to deliver fresh water to baths, fountains and latrines. The theater-loving Greeks, meanwhile, invented surround sound.

One of the most impressive ancient achievements, León said, is a rudimentary computer that mimics the movements of the planets, the sun and the phases of the moon. Sponge divers discovered the so-called Antikythera Mechanism in the early 1900s off Crete, but it took scientists decades to decipher its purpose.

“There are thousands and thousands of items sitting in museums around the world today (and) the curators don’t know what they are,” said León, describing the 21st century as a “golden age of archeology and related fields. There’s still a great deal more to discover.”

León devotes several chapters to inventions and intellectuals including Archimedes, Pythagoras and Socrates. She also explores the superstitions that plagued commoners and nobles alike.

“They had so many choices about how they could placate the gods or avoid the fates,” she said. “It was like a big supermarket.”

Ancient peoples had plenty to fear, from the so-called “evil eye” — which traditionally targeted babies, brides and triumphant generals — to vampires, gorgons and gold-guarding griffins. They fought back with phallus-shaped amulets and a host of home remedies.

Iron nails pried from tombs warded off nightmares, León said. Spiteful ghosts were kept at bay via an elaborate ritual that incorporated spitting, hand washing and banging on brass pots.

Celestial bodies also governed many aspects of daily life, from agricultural practices to beauty rituals.

According to León, balding men cut their hair when the moon was waxing to encourage lush locks. Their hairier cousins got out the clippers when the moon waned.

Although some ancient practices sound like lunacy, León notes that they’re not that far removed from modern times. Friday the 13th still causes consternation among some, she said, and millions of Americans avoid breaking mirrors, walking under ladders and opening umbrellas indoors to escape bad luck.

As León writes in “How to Mellify a Corpse,” “We still have much to learn from ancient successes, and much to heed from their failures and mistakes.”

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