The use of human body parts in medicine has a long history. For example, the medieval weapon salve was a popular treatment for wounds of conflict in the dark ages. It was believed that enacting a cure upon the weapon that had inflicted an injury could heal wounds. Paracelsus, the renowned 15th century Swiss alchemist, provided the following recipe for one such weapon salve.
“Take of moss growing on the head of a thief who has been hanged and left in the air; of real mummy; of human blood, still warm – of each one ounce; of human suet, two ounces; of linseed oil, turpentine, and Armenian bole – of each two drachms. Mix all well in a mortar, and keep the salve in an oblong, narrow urn.”
One would imagine that such practices would have been abandoned in today’s modern era of antibiotics. However, in Africa where belief in witchcraft and magic is still very prevalent, there are continuing reports of similar practices. Earlier this month, police in Gabon arrested a gang of grave robbers who had been removing body parts to be used in Muti (magic) rituals. According to the article, skulls in particular were valued around $620 on the black market, which is a vast amount of money in such an impoverished country.
At least the donors were already dead. What is more worrying are the reports of murder of individuals for body parts. For a sufficient amount of South African Rand, a witch doctor or Muti man can bury a beckoning human hand at the entrance of your new shop to encourage trade. The practice is, of course, illegal but that does not stop Muti killings that take place each year to satisfy the demand for body parts.
And it is no longer restricted to the African continent. The dismembered floating torso of the boy (referred to Adam) found in the London Thames river in 2001 was widely regarded as first example of a ritualistic Muti killing in the UK. It is no coincidence that the victims are often children. Not only are they the most vulnerable but they are also regarded as most potent in vital energy. Belief in vital energy that can be absorbed by another is one dark side of human irrationality.
Later I hope to post how such beliefs have infiltrated the cosmetics industry.
I wanted to update you on the Adam story with this fascinating interview with the botanical expert at Kew Gardens who analysed the contents of the victim’s stomach… what an extraordinary clash between modern science and voodoo… Listen out for the completely tasteless remark from the linking journalist at the end of the piece.