Friday, 27 August 2010

How to Mellify a Corpse (by Vicki Leon)

This post represents one of my occasional forays into popular history, rather than popular fiction. Like the Horrible Histories series, How to Mellify a Corpse collects some of the most fascinating and unusual pieces of information we have about the ancient world and presents them in a witty and informal text, though this book is designed for adults, not children (there are fewer cartoons, but there are some humorously labelled pictures!). The book is written in American vernacular – I have the American edition so I don’t know whether this has been edited a little for other countries – which gives it the pleasantly informal feel of a lively seminar (although I would rarely commit such thoughts to writing outside of this blog, I have often described various characters in ancient history in similar colloquial and not always entirely flattering terms to those employed here).

The subtitle of How to Mellify a Corpse is ‘and other human stories of ancient science and superstition.’ The word ‘science’ could be expanded to include technology and philosophy, as the book covers all these aspects of ancient ‘scientific’ thinking, and it is in these sections – which I think form a small majority of the content of the book – that León really shines. The Introduction explains straight away that the word ‘science’ was not used in the ancient world, and the concept as we know it did not exist, but the book explores what we might term ancient scientific thinking, and does so in a thorough and thoroughly engaging manner. Since this is a popular history book, precise references are not given, but León nearly always explains broadly where the information comes from and in the case of ancient authors, it should be possible for the very interested to explore each section further for themselves (archaeology is a little more tricky, but the reader does always know whether they’re looking for archaeology or written sources, so they have a place to start).

Perhaps the best sections of all are those in which León introduces us to most of the major philosophers of the ancient world. There is a strong narrative element to these sections, as León describes each philosopher in unashamedly broad and often judgemental terms (‘geek’ is one of the milder ones!). These, while clearly personal and biased one way or the other, give the reader a clear and immediate picture of the personality of the philosopher concerned (and for once, León being the author of the ‘Uppity Women’ series, these are not all necessarily male). This technique allows the writer to create a narrative of the history of the philosopher that takes into account the various thinkers’ personal prejudices and foibles and that is comprehensible and, most importantly, interesting to a read. Each philosopher’s life history, relationships and major thoughts, theories or discoveries are described and León always makes sure to inform the reader whether we know the philosopher in question from his own works or those of others. These sections present a beautifully engaging introduction to ancient philosophy which could relatively easily be followed up on by anyone wanting to know more.

Equally impressive are the book’s descriptions of ancient technology in action. Although, thanks to the wide-ranging nature of the sources, these cannot always provide such precise information on the nature of the evidence, they present a vibrant picture of life in the ancient world, allowing the reader to learn about both the better known aspects of daily life, like make-up and gladiatorial arenas, and the less well known, such as the corpse-mellification (preserving it in honey) of the title. My personal favourite, because I once spent a summer cataloguing the cement library at RMC (Ready Mixed Concrete) Rugby, was the excellent section on Roman concrete.

The Pantheon in Rome, a masterpiece of ancient design and concrete

One other aspect of the book that I, as a Classicist, particularly appreciated was León’s careful and precise attention to language. Going well beyond the usual descriptions of how the English word ‘geography’ derives from the Greek words for ‘earth’ and ‘write’ and so on, León includes many references to the precise vocabulary of the ancient world and to the meaning of each word in context for the Greeks and Romans, as well as pointing out common English derivations. This also provides an excellent foundation for anyone who wants to study the subject further.

(Though, while I'm on the subject of language - the book translates the name 'Heracles' as meaning 'the glory of Hera' and describes this as a 'puzzling non sequitur'. For anyone who's interested, the name is more usually understood as meaning something like 'glory because of Hera', or words to that effect: Heracles gained his great fame and kleos, glory, because Hera made his life so miserable and, directly or indirectly, forced him to perform so many glorious deeds).

Just as the ‘science’ side of the book covers science, technology and philosophy, the ‘superstition’ side covers religion, superstition and myth (which I am defining broadly as stories with a religious element for the time being, for simplicity’s sake). Whereas many of the ancients would have been equally likely to lump all the ‘science’ subjects together, eliding the differences between religio, superstitio (very different concepts in antiquity, though the dividing line can be difficult for modern scholars to draw) and myth does present a slightly distorted picture of ancient ideas about the world, particularly if the reader comes away with the idea that literary myth inspired the same sort of ‘belief’ as, for example, adherence to ancient methods of divination. However, this is perhaps inevitable, since the whole concept of ancient ‘belief’, so very different to and more pluralistic than the dogmatic religions best known in the western world today, is quite spectacularly complicated and it is not the purpose of this book to get into an academic debate about the nature of ‘belief’ (Paul Veyne’s Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths? is the place to start on the complexities of ancient ‘beliefs’).

The book also follows the current popular trend of describing ancient ‘science’ as something held back by religion and superstition, and tends to describe most beliefs and ideas as subscribed to by nearly everybody. This is somewhat contrary to the position I take personally – I tend more towards the argument that the extent to which people do or do not ‘believe’ in various ideas, particularly those on the more superstitious end of the scale, has not changed as much as all that, despite the rise of the concept of atheism (which was a very minor belief in the ancient world – Lucian lumped atheists as a minority group in with Epicurians, who had pretty similar ideas, and Christians – to an ancient thinker, abandoning the traditional gods for a single deity was in the same broad bracket as atheism!). You can read my thoughts on the subject in more detail in the conclusion to my PhD thesis, which is freely available online here (do skip to the last couple of sections of the conclusion, unless you’re very interested in ancient dreams!). However, the argument León follows is an entirely valid academic argument and, indeed, one of the more popular around at the moment – the fact that I like to be awkward does not detract from the meticulous research that has gone into the book.

Mellify is indeed meticulously researched, and introduces a wealth of material from across the ancient world. The book is divided according to geographical area. Although this has the disadvantage of disrupting the chronology of the narrative (again, unfashionably, I have a fondness for chronological arrangements!) it has the great advantage of providing a real sense of place and of the subtle differences in the cultures that surrounded the ancient Mediterranean. Since it can be far too easy to divide the ancients into very basic categories (Greek, Latin-speaking, Egyptian and so on) this gives the book a welcome extra dimension and enriches the picture of the ancient world that emerges.

Pythagoras again. I like him. Even though he made my life a misery in maths class.

In this book, León has compiled an eclectic mix of the most outrageous, exciting and generally interesting stories of the ancient world. In most cases, those that seem really unlikely are flagged up (in the best tradition of Herodotus, who is covered with perfect balance under both his titles, ‘Father of History’ and ‘Father of Lies’) and in some cases, León offers tentative guesses about the truth of the matter that, while hard to impossible to back up with evidence, are nevertheless fascinating and entirely plausible – it had never occurred to me that Pythagoras might simply have been allergic to beans! The book gives plenty of background to the historical places and periods it covers, and each chapter explains who it is talking about and their background even if they have appeared before, so the themed sections can be read out of sequence it you want to. A very enjoyable read!


  1. I'm with you on chronological presentation. Not only does it help you understand where you are in time and space, but it can help elucidate where and how things and ideas developed. Suetonius went for thematic grouping and look what it did to his reputation. He's often considered a scandalmonger just because he lumped all the naughty bits together.

    On the Herakles front, the "strength because of Hera" sounds like hand-waving to explain away something odd to me. I think it more likely that the name and character reflect an earlier version of the stories where the goddess was more on his side. (Or is that too Gravesian?). Or maybe it was meant to be ironic.

    The ancient view of monotheism being a form of atheism is interesting. I wonder if Richard Dawkins is aware of it. He has said similar things along the line of he simply chooses to believe in one less god than most people.

  2. Actually, ironically, I quite like Suetonius' structure - I like the combination of the chronological order overall, with each emperor leading to his successor, but with thematic groupings within each section. But generally yes, I agree, I like chronological structures better, it gives it somethign of a narrative to follow, if that makes sense - though I think it's a little out of fashion at the moment, especially in academic work.

  3. Oh, on Heracles - it's not 'strength because of Hera' it's 'glory because of Hera'. In order to win kleos, glory, you have to perform great deeds, fight battles etc, which Hera gave Heracles the opportunity to do.

  4. Wonderful review Juliette :)

    I really enjoyed reading Vicki's book as well - I must admit that the thematic arrangement really helped me along. It perhaps suits the way I think and organise facts, which is definitely not chronological!

    eg. when I think of the three graces/charites in art, I think of: Botticelli, Raphael, Pompeii, Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece. This is almost exactly the reverse of the chronological order of their appearance!

    In Vicki's book, the thematic arrangement adds to the narrative and flow of the topics presented, plus you still get the dates along the way. A rigid chronological arrangement would have definitely disrupted this.

    Because of the sheer multitude of facts in these type of books, I'm hoping publishers will wake up to the 21st century and release them in digital formats where you can switch between a narrative and chronological view with a press of a button on your favourite reader device!

    Despite the astounding statistics on the sales of digital works, academic publishers in the Humanities may as well be in the 1600s.

    Refreshingly, Medical publishers came to the party a while ago - having to cart around those immense anatomy and physiology textbooks was hard work back in my day!

    For those that enjoyed Juliette's review of Vicki's book, feel free to have a read of my Q&A with Vicki earlier this year - which also includes a link to a recent podcast Vicki did with National Public Radio in the US.

    Kind Regards
    H Niyazi

  5. Glory, of course. Strength would be -sthenes. But I still think the "because of/through" structure sounds forced. Without the stories, everyone would assume the name means "Glory of Hera" and move on. An older story cycle makes sense to me.


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