The 400-year-old love letter and the mummy

A neat story from Archaeology magazine of a Korean mummy that was found with a 427 year old love letter, from the dead man’s wife, writing about their unborn son.

Here’s a small portion of the letter/eulogy:

You always said, “Dear, let’s live together until our hair turns gray and die on the same day. How could you pass away without me? Who should I and our little boy listen to and how should we live? How could you go ahead of me?

When I give birth to the child in me, who should it call father?

I know it shouldn’t surprise us that people from 427 years ago loved the same way we do.  But I think sometimes we practice a bit of historical “out of sight, out of mind.”  Almost the reverse of anthropomorphising, where we think of history in less human, and more grand, terms.

I got a book a few years back, which I’ve started but still have to finish, about a day in the life of Ancient Rome.  It pieces together tons of arcane details from the archaeologic record and walks you through a real, typical day in Ancient Rome, going so far as to describe the typical home (and then the typical wealthy home), the colors they used on the walls and the furniture, what the streets looked like, and more.

They don’t just give life to history, they give mundacity to it (and I mean that in a good way).  We tend to think of history as a series of important, defining, grand (there’s that word again) moments.  But they didn’t necessarily feel well-defined (with a clear beginning and end end) or grand to the people who there at the time.

Anyway, I like this kind of stuff.  I have a historical document from England that I posted on the blog a few years back, that a lot of you helped to crowd-source translate from abbreviated business-Latin of the late 1600s.  I like old things.  Touching them, and feeling for a moment the connection through the time, and the real-ness of the past.

You can get more details from Archaeology, but here’s the note, and below is the translation.

A 427 year old love letter, found on a Korean mummy. (Photo: Courtesy Andong National University)

A 427 year old love letter, found on a Korean mummy belonging to a man named Eung-tae. (Photo: Courtesy Andong National University)

Here’s the text of the letter:

To Won’s Father
June 1, 1586

You always said, “Dear, let’s live together until our hair turns gray and die on the same day. How could you pass away without me? Who should I and our little boy listen to and how should we live? How could you go ahead of me?

How did you bring your heart to me and how did I bring my heart to you? Whenever we lay down together you always told me, “Dear, do other people cherish and love each other like we do? Are they really like us?” How could you leave all that behind and go ahead of me?

I just cannot live without you. I just want to go to you. Please take me to where you are. My feelings toward you I cannot forget in this world and my sorrow knows no limit. Where would I put my heart in now and how can I live with the child missing you?

Please look at this letter and tell me in detail in my dreams. Because I want to listen to your saying in detail in my dreams I write this letter and put it in. Look closely and talk to me.

When I give birth to the child in me, who should it call father? Can anyone fathom how I feel? There is no tragedy like this under the sky.

You are just in another place, and not in such a deep grief as I am. There is no limit and end [to my sorrows] that I write roughly. Please look closely at this letter and come to me in my dreams and show yourself in detail and tell me. I believe I can see you in my dreams. Come to me secretly and show yourself. There is no limit to what I want to say and I stop here.

(I’m told that in order to actually see my Facebook posts in your feed, you need to “follow” me – so say the experts.)

Made me think of this Indigo Girl’s song, “Virginia Wolf,” too.  Similar theme in a sense.

CyberDisobedience on Substack | @aravosis | Facebook | Instagram | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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20 Responses to “The 400-year-old love letter and the mummy”

  1. 1strepublic14thstar says:

    In Arab countries it’s common to call a father by his eldest son’s name. If the son is Sajad, the father would be called “Abu Sajad.”

    Abu is the Arabic word for father.

    Referring to the father as “Abu Sajad” is meant as an honorific. It demonstrates that the father is a man of substance who has responsibilities and a leadership role in the family, rather than a young man with no cares.

  2. Anonymous says:

    This is beautiful; it really could have been written today.
    Hate to be negative, but it must be said… People talk about the “good old days” when they want to excuse backwards, barbaric behavior. But even people centuries ago were clearly not as ignorant or inhumane as some people are now. This is proof.

  3. houstonray says:

    Oh my, I loved reading that. I told my partner that it’s fascinating to read how similar their use of words were to today. That sounded like anything that could be written today. Her pain was palpable. I’ve always thought that about history, all too often we don’t really think of them as being like us and having the same thoughts and feelings and dreams, when in reality, though we may be separated by time (and technology), at our core, we all share a commonality that transcends everything.

    It’s like old black and white photos…not too long ago, some great old photos were found in an archive somewhere that were from the depression era…and they were COLOR. Not colorized but real color photos from a fairly rare camera that was being used. Seeing something we had only ever seen in sepia tones, now in bright color, was fascinating. It really makes history seem more connected.

    I’m rambling…thanks for sharing, that was fascinating and I might just have to look for that book as well.

  4. Perilous says:

    Ha! Excellent. I can’t wait to dig into it. I hope youll post about it when you’re done.

  5. MyrddinWilt says:

    We do that as well. All the parents know each other by their children’s names.

  6. I ordered it anyway!

  7. Perilous says:

    I shall do so!

  8. BeccaM says:

    I adore this kind of thing, too. So very, very human.

  9. pappyvet says:

    Really enjoyed this John. I am reminded of the Sullivan Ballou letter.

  10. Mia Carla says:

    Yes In Korea it is very common for women who have children with their husbands to actually call their husbands by their sons name. So for example if you and your significant other had a child and named it JeonHyun.. she would call you JeonHyun Abpah (Dad). Same for he to her.. JeonHyun’s Eomma (Mom). Its a term of honor as well as endearment. So most likely she was talking about the little boy they already had.

  11. Mike_in_the_Tundra says:

    I detect some anger in her letter. I now know that’s normal, but I didn’t know that when my husband died. I thought something was wrong with me, because I felt some anger with my grief. I went to a grief and lost support group and found out that’s normal. His death took from me what I imagined the rest of my life would be. It makes a lot of sense.

    John, we use to collect books like that. They were expensive but interesting. Maybe it’s time to bring them out again.

  12. Oh that’s a good point, though who knows

  13. Cletus says:

    John, I think you’re misinterpreting the children written about here. She couldn’t have known back then she was carrying a boy, so she must be speaking of two children: her living son and a yet to be born child.

  14. Oh neat, if you think about it, email me after you’re reading the book, to let me know how the translation is. What I’ve read is quite interesting in Italian, just that Italian is not my best foreign language, so it takes time.

  15. Monoceros Forth says:

    Oh, my. Honestly, I’m misting up a little.

  16. Indigo says:

    How deeply touching.

  17. karmanot says:

    This is delightful post, one of intense human interest–grief and loss. Generic history recounts the great waves of events which create the reality of super state adventures. I found in my studies that most compelling was the composite portrait of times revealed in diaries, letters, and everyday reflections that created a deeper and clearer understanding of evolving history.

  18. Perilous says:

    Thank you so much! I appreciate your fast response.

    I found the book on Amazon after I posted, and figured this is the one you were talking about. This is a translation by Gregory Conti. Perhaps you can add it to your library to get through it more quickly, and then go back to the original Italian to read it.

    I too am a history buff. This was a fascinating article – what a heart-wrenching letter.

    I’ll be looking up more about this letter and the mummy, and I’ll be ordering this book about Ancient Rome and eagerly awaiting the opportunity to read it!

    Cheers. :)

  19. It’s in Italian (thus the reason it’s been taking me a while), and I don’t know if it’s in English too – in English it would be something like “A day in Ancient Rome.” Though could be “A day in the life of Ancient rome.”

  20. Perilous says:

    What was the name of that book about Ancient Rome?

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