Honey is a truly remarkable substance. It’s one of the few natural foodstuffs that has an infinite shelf life. It’s lauded as a natural antiseptic, and has been used in a variety of medical treatments, including eczema ointments, medicated shampoo, burn salves and others. For what’s essentially bee vomit, honey is practically a panacea.
Of course, besides its uses as a sweetener, condiment and implement in regrettable college shenanigans, there have been some pretty weird applications for honey across history. From an embalming technique to a torture implement, here are some of the stranger ways nature’s gift has been used over the ages.
The use of honey as a trap—for either enterprising bears or simply people who like honey—is an ancient one. Back in the day when you couldn’t just steal packets of the sweet stuff from a dining hall, honey was a hot commodity since it was packed with calories and tasted like something that wasn’t gruel.
It was only to be expected, then, that when an army of Greek invaders in Turkey discovered a pot of honey by the road, they went nuts. After they gorged themselves, the soldiers began to suffer ill effects: dizziness, a slowed heart rate, nausea and a paralyzation of the limbs.
The culprit? Grayanotoxins. Derived from rhododendron blossoms, bees who take nectar from the flowers transfer the poison to their honey. The Turkish defenders knew this and placed a few pots of deli bal (“mad honey”) in the invaders’ tracks. Though the toxin isn’t deadly, it was unpleasant enough to send the soldiers home to Greece.
Honey is a famously long-lasting substance. It technically bears no expiration date, and is a hostile environment for many bacteria and microbes, which makes it an excellent antibacterial. This also makes it a top-notch embalming fluid.
The Egyptians have been known to make “honey mummies” by placing the bodies of the deceased in containers filled with honey. Alexander the Great, in fact, was said to have been buried in a sarcophagus full of honey. The ancient Chinese, however, took it a step further.
According to a Yuan Dynasty account, a man could donate his body to the process of mellification (“making into honey”). When he approached the age of death, he would eat, drink and bathe in only honey, until he excreted nothing but honey and died of kidney failure. The corpse would then be interred in a stone coffin filled with honey and left to ferment for about 100 years or so. When the body was “ripe” (so to speak) the coffin would be opened, and the honey and, er, the bits inside would be used as a miraculous medical cure.
Of course, nobody knows if this is true, as the account was second-hand. Let’s hope it’s not.
Sweet things don’t always have sweet uses. The ancient Persian method of Scaphism was a particularly horrible way of condemning someone to die. Victims would be fed milk and honey until they got diarrhea. They would then be strapped between two boats—one on top of the other, like a walnut shell—with only their heads and limbs sticking out. More honey would be poured over the body, and the whole shebang would then be sent afloat on a stagnant lake. Insects would then come, attracted by the honey and the smell, and start chomping on the unfortunate victim, leaving them to die a slow and gruesome death. Makes the whole concept of “milk and honey bath” a little less attractive, no?
Alternatively, honey could be used as a sort of spermicidal barrier. The Egyptians, according to a sheet of papyrus detailing various medical procedures from BC 1500, recommended that women take unripe acacia berries (which were just as much of a health craze back then as they are now), dates and a bit of honey, mash it up, and shove it up their, ah, “honey pot.” While this sounds like a great way to get a yeast infection, the lactic acid in the dates and berries would have actually served as a spermicide. With condoms available nowadays, however, I think you can pass up this method.
As we live in the modern day, count yourself lucky that we have access to modern medicine and preservation techniques—and that the worst torture you’ll ever encounter is an 8 a.m. English lecture. Do, however, take a moment to consider the strange innovations that the human race has developed over the past few decades. Be sure to stay sweet—and weird.
Mark Wezenski is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org