“All of it adds up to a larger idea, though: the belief that the human body, however temporary and fragile it might be, also contains incredible power, and that this power can be transferred to others. And other than extinguishing that power, death can oftentimes be the key to unlocking its fullest potential. All you need is a human corpse, a pressing need, and a very strong stomach.”
Ever wonder why a person would consume ground-up human skull? Would rub his/her sore gums with the tooth of someone who died a violent death? Would drink warm blood from the slashed throat of a gladiator, or eagerly have a hanged man’s hand brushed over their own? If so, then this is the Lore episode for you.
“Word of Mouth,” the latest installment of Aaron Mahnke’s hit podcast, opens with a discussion of sympathetic magic (the belief that “objects could have power related to their appearance or origin story”) and the macabre artifact known as the “Hand of Glory.” Invoking the likes of Galen, Paracelsus, and Pliny the Elder, Mahnke sketches the development of the practice of “corpse medicine”: the seeking of the allegedly healing powers of the deceased, particularly the bodies of criminals who have just experienced a violent death. The episode provides wonderful insight into the way the masses used to relate to the capitally punished (I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the executioner, whose public service apparently extended beyond the hanging or axing of the convicted).
Mahnke’s narrative builds towards the topic of “medicinal cannibalism” (sufferers invest in a cure for their various ailments by ingesting human corpses!). Our host, though, does not allow us to dismiss all of this as the crazy lengths our less-enlightened ancestors once went to in order to feel better. No, Mahnke takes pain to show that the line between primitive superstition and modern medical science is a blurry one at best.
To its credit, “Word of Mouth” is filled with intriguing background information and limited in its resort to illustrating anecdote (save for one extended story concerning the 1861 beheading of a German murderer). As I listened to Mahnke treat the purported restorative result of drinking human blood, I kept waiting for him to bring vampire lore into the discussion. While this never happens, the closing segment does tie in another figure familiar to Universal Monster-lovers: the Egyptian mummy.
As an avowed van of this podcast, I often fret that at a certain point Mahnke will inevitably run out of interesting things to relate. But “Word of Mouth” proves that he still has plenty to relate. Luckily for us, after 113 episodes Lore remains the epitome of grimly fascinating.