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Offline jessica

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Brain food: the history of skull drinking
« on: April 23, 2014, 07:40:41 am »

Brain food: the history of skull drinking

The Cheddar cave dwellers who used skulls as drinking cups were in good company – many have gone much further
Richard Sugg

 Friday 18 February 2011 08.29 EST   

It is now more than 15 years since I paid a visit to the sleepy town of Sedlec, just outside Prague. But I can still vividly recall the strangeness of leaving the sunlit graveyard to descend into a church where huge bell shapes had been formed from human skulls and bones, along with a skeletal coat of arms and a chandelier fashioned from every bone in the human body. The skeletons had been disinterred because the site was so popular as a burial place, having been supposedly sprinkled with earth from Golgotha in about 1278. The Kostnice ossuary is a striking example of how the sacred can legitimise seemingly macabre or taboo uses of the body.

This week, Ian Sample has reported on a more primitive but broadly similar use of the human skull in caves in Cheddar, Somerset, where research shows  they were "skilfully fashioned into cups, with the rest of the bodies probably being cannibalised". When body parts become artistic or domestic objects we find ourselves caught between repulsion and ambivalent fascination – especially when a skull is used as a drinking vessel.

This friction between "civilised" artistry and "savage" man-eating looks rather different if we remind ourselves of the very strange things done with human skulls and bodies by educated Christians during the peak of Britain's artistic and scientific revolutions. For much of the past 500 years, the big question regarding skulls has not been "should you drink from them?" so much as "should you drink the skull itself?"

Reasons for doing so were usually medical or magical, but there were other motivations. The "barbarous Scythians", for example, were held to eat their enemies and drink blood from their skulls. Later, in a notorious Renaissance tale, an adulteress was compelled by her husband to drink from the gilded skull of her lover at supper each night, and the skull of James IV of Scotland was used as a flowerpot in the English royal conservatory. Opposed to these kind of negative, punitive uses existed a range of positive ones: at least since Herodotus, it has been reported that the Issedones decorated with gold the skulls of their dead parents, using them as commemorative drinking cups in following years.

In the 17th century, privileged medical patients paid very high sums not to drink from skulls, but to drink the skull itself. Skull could be taken either powdered or in the more refined form of a liquid distillation. It was taken and indeed made by Charles II – a figure who, having paid perhaps thousands for the recipe, became so closely associated with this therapy that it was soon known as "the king's drops". These were used on Charles's own deathbed in 1685, and on that of Queen Mary in 1698.

Others went further: should you drink only the skull, or the whole head? The Belgian chemist Jean Baptiste Van Helmont believed that you should allow the brain matter to dissolve into the skull, which – nicely marinaded over time – then absorbed the body's vital powers. And if you balked at this, you could still use a kind of moss found on unburied skulls. Usually powdered, this was thrust into the nostrils of those suffering nosebleeds: Robert Boyle, among others, swore by it. Such treatments – part of a widespread tradition of "medicinal cannibalism" using flesh, fat, blood and bone – were so popular that come the 18th century, there were customs duties on skulls imported from the battlefields of Ireland.

Although the educated had abandoned such habits by about 1900, the poor had not. In Bradford in 1847, a father gave his daughter grated skull for her epilepsy and in Ruabon, Wales, a mother did the same in 1865. But the most enduring piece of "skull medicine" in the UK is one that very closely resembles the habits of the Cheddar cave dwellers. It was believed that certain conditions could be cured if the sufferer drank from the skull of "a suicide". Such use was recorded in England in 1858, while in the Highland parish of Nigg in the 19th century an epileptic boy was given powder from the skull of someone who had killed themselves – to obtain which, "a journey of well over 60 miles had to be made". Mary Beith tells of how, as late as 1909, a Scots epileptic resorted to a healer in Lewis after two years of professional treatment in Edinburgh: "The sufferer was also directed to drink out of a copann-cinn (skull-pan) taken from an old cemetery on a small island, which he did for some weeks, reporting ... that 'the peculiar taste was fresh in the mouth the next morning as it was on the previous night'."

Clearly, then, "civilised" people could do far more surprising things with corpses than the savage cannibals of Cheddar. And we can also now see two possible reasons why the cavemen made skull-cups: it may well have been to honour and remember their dead; but it may also have been to try and imbibe magical or healing powers from their dry bones.

Offline rigato

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Re: Brain food: the history of skull drinking
« Reply #1 on: May 16, 2014, 07:03:22 pm »
You have great articles, I never stumble upon something like that


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