Book Review: How To Mellify A Corpse

How To Mellify A Corpse, And Other Human Stories Of Ancient Science & Superstition, by Vicki Leon

In reading a book like his you have to understand where the author is coming from and what they are trying to convey to the audience. In this case, the author is sufficiently open about her agendas that the work is largely transparent in its attempt to convey something of the superstition of the ancient world as a way of providing a critique on the contemporary world. If this was a hidden agenda it would be easy and proper to condemn it, but in this case the agenda is open and so the reader can take it or leave it. The fact that the author is open in using the folly of the past to shine a light on the similar follies of the present–the damaging consequences of lead use are compared to our fondness for plastic and other more contemporary products, while the fondness of the ancient world for superstitious explanations is compared with the contemporary fondness for horoscopes and lucky objects and the like–does not mean that the book is devoid of problematic perspectives, though. In particular, it must be recognized that the author is hostile to religion, especially Christianity, in a way that does not speak to the author’s soundness in perspective.

This book is about 300 pages long and is divided into six chapters that contain a somewhat scattered and chaotically organized discussion of various stories from the classical Mediterranean world that are regionally organized after a fashion. After an introductory section where the author discusses names, places, dates, and costs, as well as a more formal introduction to the work, the book begins with a discussion of some stories about Athens and its surrounding area (1). These stories range from Socrates to the milky way, from the hazards of deforestation to the origins of moonlighting, from ancient thoughts on genetics to special effects. After that the author discusses stories from Greece and the Greek Islands (2), similarly balancing the stories between speculating on the fava bean allergies of Pythagoras with a discussion of ancient achievements in acoustics, efforts at understanding flight, dream interpretation, ghosts, and the underworld. After that comes a look at Greek culture in Asia Minor and the Middle East (3), including a discussion of the trade politics of myrrh and frankincense as well as ancient hydrocarbon use. This is followed by a discussion of Rome and its provinces (4), Italy & Sicily (5), and North Africa and Mesopotamia (6), all of which show a similar comparison between ancient people whose achievements the author judges worthy of recognition, ancient struggles with relevant contemporary problems, and ways that the author can poke fun at humans for some aspects of irrationality and folly, especially of the religious kind. After this the book ends with acknowledgements, a bibliography, and an index.

Even with the author’s unsound and anti-religious perspective, there is still something of worth that can be gained from a book like this one. The author’s tales of the past are entertaining and illuminating. The ancient technologies of making concrete and building arches and the occasional insights of ancient thinkers as well as the ability to recognize patterns between fossils (even if they were not recognized at the time) and gold deposits speak highly of the capacity of ancient Greeks and Romans to at least think soundly some of the time about some things. The same may be said for the author, that if her perspective blinds her to certain aspects of truth and certainly moral excellence in her belief system and practice, that her God-given gifts of reason and insight do not completely fail her and allow her to stumble upon nuggets of worth that can be passed along to the reader. If you have a willingness to see the ancient world as possessing things worth knowing and appreciating and respecting, and even worth learning from on occasion, this is by no means a bad book at helping to encourage such tendencies. To be sure, one wishes that the book had a broader perspective in celebrating elevated moral standards of Jews and Christians and was more interested in the excellence of civilizations other than the familiar Greeks and Romans, but one reads the books that are, not the ones we would wish to read.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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