|Health and Medicine in Ancient Egypt
Historical Deception: The Untold Story of Ancient Egypt – 2nd Ed.
By Moustafa Gadalla
We continuously hear of ‘western medicine’, ‘modern medicine’, ‘scientific medicine’, ... etc. All these terms infer that medicine from other regions and other ages do not count. So we seek the definitions of the words Health and Medicine, in the Webster dictionary.
Health: “Physical and mental well-being; freedom from disease, pain or defect; normality of physical and mental functions, soundness.”
Medicine: “The science and art of diagnosing, treating, curing and preventing disease, relieving pain, and improving and preserving health.”
The practice of health and medicine in ancient Egypt is closer to the above definitions than ‘modern medicine’.
Good health, to Egyptians, meant wholeness, integration and preservation. Healing, for them, was the search for wholeness, not just for our bodies, but for our souls, our minds, our spirits, our relationships, and for the environment around us.
As modern studies progress into such areas as the psychological aspects of healing, and effects of sound waves upon the body (ultrasound is commonly used in advanced surgery; infrasound is known to have powerful disruptive capacities), ancient Egyptian magic and the incantation may come in for serious consideration.
Surgical operations were performed by the ancient Egyptians, even in pre-Dynastic times. Mummies were found which have very neatly cut parts of the skull, indicating a highly advanced level of brain surgery. A number of skulls have been found indicating the nature of the operations; and that the patient sometimes survived, as is proved by the fact that the severed section of the skull had knit to the parent bone.
When the first Egyptian medical papyri were deciphered, the German scholars responsible were shocked. They called Egyptian medicine “sewage pharmacology” because Egyptians treated various inflammations, infections and wounds by applying dung and similar substances.
The later invention of penicillin and antibiotics in recent decades has made us realize that the ancient Egyptians were applying rudimental and organic versions of these remedies. What the Germans described as “sewage pharmacology” was recently ratified as “modern medicine”. Moreover, Egyptians knew of the different types of antibiotics. The Egyptian prescriptions called for specific types of antibiotics to correspond to specific maladies.
Academia studying the ancient Egyptian techniques of furnishing statues with inlaid eyes concluded that the Egyptians must have understood not only the anatomy of the eye but also its refractive properties. The Egyptians approximated those properties by using combinations of stones and crystals (up to four different kinds, in a single eye). When photographs are taken of these Egyptian statues, the eyes actually look real.
Today’s familiar sign for prescription, Rx, originated in ancient Egypt. In the 2nd Century, Galen used mystic symbols to impress patients. Accordingly, he borrowed from the Egyptian myth: the eye of Heru (Horus). The myth tells how Heru attacked his uncle to avenge his father’s murder. In the fight, Heru’s eye was torn into fragments, whereupon Tehuti (Thoth) restored it completely. The complete eye had come to mean whole, unharmed and was used in hieroglyphic writing to represent wholesomeness and unity.
The eye symbol has gradually evolved into today’s familiar sign for prescription, Rx, which is used throughout the world no matter which language is used.
Many of the Egyptian remedies and prescriptions have been passed on to Europe via the writings of Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen and other Greek writers.
Warren R. Dawson, in The Legacy of Egypt, writes:
The works of the classical writers are...often merely the stepping-stones by which much of the ancient medical lore reached Europe, apart from direct borrowings...From Egypt we have the earliest medical books, the first observations in anatomy, the first experiments in surgery and pharmacy, the first use of splints, bandages, compresses and other appliances, and the first anatomical and medical vocabulary...
It is evident that the medical science of the Egyptians was sought and appreciated in foreign countries. Herodotus told us that Cyrus and Darius both sent to Egypt for medical men. In later times too, they continued to be celebrated for their skill: Ammianus says it was enough for a doctor to say he had studied in Egypt, to recommend him. Pliny also mentioned medical men going from Egypt to Rome.
The care which the Egyptians took of their health was a source of astonishment for foreign observers, particularly Greeks and Romans. Pliny thought that the large number of doctors meant that the population of Egypt suffered from a great number of diseases — a paradoxical piece of logic. Herodotus, on the other hand, thought that there were no healthier people than the Egyptians.
The names and titles of more than a hundred doctors were determined from archeological findings, with sufficient detail to uncover an overall picture of the medical practice. The name of Imhotep has become forever linked with Egyptian medicine. He was vizier, architect and chief physician to the Pharaoh Djoser (3rd Dynasty). During the Greek Period he was deified and identified with Asklepios, the Greek god of healing.
As far back as the Old Kingdom, the medical profession was highly organized, with doctors holding a variety of ranks and specialties. The ordinary doctor was outranked by the ‘overseer of doctors’ the ‘chief of doctors’, the ‘eldest of doctors’ and the ‘inspector of doctors’. Above all these practitioners, was the ‘overseer of doctors of Upper and Lower Egypt’. A distinction was made between physicians and surgeons, the latter being known as the ‘priests of the netert Sekhmet’.
Man, for ancient Egyptians, was the embodiment of the laws of creation. As such, the physiological functions and processes of the various parts of the body were seen as manifestations of cosmic functions. The limbs and organs had a hidden function quite apart from their practical purpose. The parts of the body were, in a general way, consecrated to one of the neteru (divine principles).
Egyptians divided the sky into 36 sectors of 10o each, called decans.
Like the sky, the human body, in ancient Egyptian medicine, was also divided into 36 sectors and each came under the protection of a certain neter/netert (god/goddess) such as:
Auset (Isis) for the liver
Duaw for the eyes
Nebt-Het (Nephthys) for the lungs
Selkit for the intestines
Neit for the stomach
Each physician was well trained, and practiced only in his area of specialization. There were eye doctors, bowel specialists ‘Guardians of the Anus’, physicians who specialized in internal diseases ‘who know the secret and specialize in the body fluids’, nose doctors, ‘sickness of the upper air passages’, doctor of the abdomen, and dentists.
Childbirth was basically the province of the midwives. Herodotus saw in that a sign of scientific advancement, and the result of truly profound knowledge.
The Conduct & Practice
Egyptian doctors were highly specialized. Herodotus points out that “they could practice no branch other than their own”.
Egyptian doctors had a special status. Physicians administered their treatments in accordance with a written law, which was composed in ancient times by many famous physicians. After being authorized to practice their art, on completion of certain prescribed studies, they were officially approved and drew their salary, like any other civil servant, from public funds. They could be summoned at any moment and had to provide care for the needy, free of charge. They were under State supervision. If their patients failed to get better, or died, the State could inquire into the reasons for such a failure, and make sure that the doctor had followed the rules of his art. Diodorus thought that these rules were based on the belief that tradition and past experience were the safest guarantee of any therapy. A doctor who was proved negligent was subject to punishments, in accordance with the applicable laws.
Some surgical tools and instruments are depicted in tombs and temples, such as:
The Tomb of Ankh-mahor, at Saqqara which contains several unique medical and surgical reliefs. Among them was a flint knife which some considered as evidence of its remote origin. The most recent surgical research is vindicating the flint instruments of antiquity. It has been found that for certain neurological and optical operations, obsidian possesses qualities that cannot be matched by the finest steel, and an updated version of the old flint knife is coming back into use.
On the outer corridor wall of the temple at Kom Ombo, a box of surgical instruments is carved in relief. The box includes metal shears, surgical knives, saws, probes, spatulas, small hooks and forceps.
Although no surgical scars have been reported in mummies (apart from embalmers’ incisions), there are thirteen references in the Smith Papyrus to ‘stitching’. The Papyrus also mentions wounds being brought together with adhesive tape which was made of linen. Linen was also available for bandages, ligatures and sutures. Needles were probably of copper.
Egyptian doctors distinguished between sterile (clean) wounds and infected (purulent) wounds. The former were written using the determinative for ‘blood’ or ‘phlegm’ and the latter, using the determinative for ‘stinking outflow’ or ‘feces’. A mixture of ibex fat, fir oil and crushed peas was used in an ointment to clean an infected wound.
Each temple had a full-scale laboratory, where medications were made and stocked.
The Medical Library
Some time ago in pre-Dynastic Egypt, there were six books on medicine, which were attributed/inspired by or dedicated to Tehuti (Thoth). He is the personification of divine intellect, the patron of Learning and Literature. The first of these medical books was related to anatomy.
Another book on anatomy was written during the reign of Athothis (c. 3000 BCE).
According to a Christian writer, Alexandrinus Clemens, living in Alexandria in about CE 200, the priests of Early Dynastic Egypt had written the sum total of their knowledge in forty two (42) sacred books which were kept in the temples and were carried in religious processions. Six of these books were concerned totally with medicine, and dealt with anatomy, diseases in general, surgery, remedies, diseases of the eye and diseases of women. No examples of these books survived, nor of the anatomy books, said to have been written during Athothis’ reign.
Several medical papyri have survived the ages. They contain prescriptions for treating diseases of the lungs, liver, stomach, and bladder and for various afflictions of the head and scalp (including recipes for preventing the hair falling out or turning gray). They also contain prescriptions for rheumatic and arthritic complaints and for woman’s diseases. The following is a summary of the major medical papyri:
Edwin Smith Papyrus
It has been dated to about 1600 BCE The presence of Old Kingdom words in the text, suggest that the Papyrus was copied from earlier work around 2500 BCE when the pyramids were built.
This is the earliest book of surgery in the world. It contains a total of forty-eight surgical cases, of traumatic nature, methodically arranged from the head and generally going down the body to the lower limbs.
Each case is preceded by a brief caption expressing a summary diagnosis, followed by another detailed diagnosis, a brief but clearly formulated prognosis and sometimes the therapy.
The diagnosis was established, after extraordinarily precise observations had been made. In its conclusion it proposed three possibilities: a doctor could act with full success, he could try, with some chances of success, or he stood no chance at all, in which case he should do nothing.
The techniques were numerous and varied. Fractures were properly set, splints were applied, and wounds were sutured. There was a sort of adhesive plaster that worked wonders with broken bones. Perfectly healed fractures can be seen in numerous mummies.
The most exciting sentences are to be found right at the beginning of this papyrus:
The counting of anything with the fingers [is done] to recognize the way the heart goes. There are vessels in it leading to every part of the body ... When a Sekhmet priest, any doctor ... puts his fingers to the head ... to the two hands, to the place of the heart ... it speaks ... in every vessel, every part of the body.
The medical papyrus proves that the Egyptians understood the relationship of the heart to the circulation of the blood, and that they believed the heart to be the source of life within the body, and they felt the pulse and measured it, by comparison with their own pulses.
The Egyptians also believed that all the ‘inner juices of the body’ flowed through vessels radiating from the heart and collected at the anus, whence they could again be redistributed to various parts of the body. Air, blood, urine, mucus, semen and feces flowed around the system, usually in harmony, but occasionally getting out of hand and thence causing an illness.
The Smith Papyrus contains what is probably the first documented description of the human brain:
When you examine a man with a ... wound on his head, which goes to the bone; his skull is broken; broken open is the brain of his skull ... these windings which arise in poured metal. Something is there ... that quivers (and) flutters under your fingers like the weak spot in the head of a child which has not yet grown hard ... Blood flows from his two nostrils.
Advances in modern neurology prove that the Egyptians understood, in detail, the workings of the nervous system, and the relationship between the areas of the brain and the manner in which these areas controlled the bodily functions.
Ebers Medical Papyrus
The date of its origin is about 1555 BCE. It is considered to be a manual for the teaching of anatomy and pharmacy.
It contains 876 remedies and mentions 500 different substances used in medical treatments.
The Ebers Papyrus describes treatment of and prescriptions for stomach complaints, coughs, colds, bites, head ailments and diseases; liver complaints, burns and other kinds of wounds; itching, boils, cysts and the like, complaints in fingers and toes; salves for wounds and pains in the veins, muscles and nerves; diseases of the tongue, toothache, ear pains, women’s diseases; beauty preparations, household remedies against vermin, two books about the heart and veins, and diagnosis for tumors.
It has been dated between 1350 and 1200 BCE.
It deals with childbirth and infants.
It contains a test for pregnancy, which recognized that urine, carried the pregnancy factor. It calls for steeping some wheat and some barley in her urine. If the wheat sprouts, it will be a boy, if the barley sprouts, it will be a girl.
In 1963 Ghalioungui found that, whilst urine from non-pregnant women prevented the growth of (modern) barley and wheat, it proved impossible to detect the sex of an unborn child from the rate of growth of either grain, possibly because the grains and the soils were both different in ancient Egypt. Nevertheless, the fact that the Egyptians recognized that urine carried the pregnancy factor was remarkable. The standardization of reliable urine tests for pregnancy did not occur until 1929.
It is astounding to know that this Egyptian recipe found its way to Europe, for in an ingenious book of the seventeenth century, Peter Boyer wrote: “Make two holes in the ground, throw barley into the one and wheat into the other, then pour into both the water of the pregnant woman, and cover them up again with earth. If the wheat shoots up before the barley, it will be a boy, but if the barley comes up first, thou must expect a daughter.”
There is also a little English book, called ‘The Experienced Midwife’, in which this recipe appears, in a somewhat modified form.
It has been dated to about 1550 BCE and it appears to be the guideline for a practicing physician.
It contains over 250 prescriptions and spells, and has a section on bones and bites, afflictions of fingers, tumors, burns, diseases of women, ears, eyes and teeth.
Cures & Prescriptions
Homer, in the Odyssey, describes the many valuable medicines given by Polydamna, the wife of Thonis, to Helen while in Egypt, “a country whose fertile soil produces an infinity of drugs, some salutary and some pernicious; where each physician possesses knowledge above all other men.”
Pliny frequently mentioned the Egyptian products, and their use in medicine.
The ancient Egyptians had full knowledge of the uses of herbs and natural therapies, to the extent that they perfected the procedure of embalming the corpses of their dead, a feat which modern man is yet unable to conquer.
The various prescriptions in the Ebers and Hearst papyri, as well as other medical papyri, seem to be quite rational and natural applications, for the alleviation of symptoms. These prescriptions are the product of knowledge of general physiological properties and actions of plants, animals and minerals as well as the human body.
The Ebers Papyrus, alone, contains 876 remedies and mentions 500 substances, used in medical treatment. It gives recipes for many remedies, such as plasters, balms and ointments, of vegetable, mineral and also animal origin.
The ingredients were sometimes crushed, and sometimes boiled or blended. They may be sifted through a piece of fabric. They may be diluted with clear water, beer, wine, oil, or milk.
From the Ebers Papyrus we learn that a single prescription may include as many as 35 substances.
Prescriptions were given in different forms, either as a drink or in the form of pills or as a rubbing oil or fomentation. Some prescriptions were inhaled.
They weighed and measured their prescriptions very carefully.
Dosages of medicine varied according to the age, weight and sex of the patient.
Incantations (magical spells) were spoken over various remedies in order to endow them, with the right power. (Read about the meaning of magic in ancient Egypt, in the previous chapter).
Medical plants were well known. Dozens of them were used as ingredients for medicine, such as those in castor oil.
Medical plants not native to Egypt were introduced during the Dynastic Period and continue to flourish to the present time.
Many important raw materials, used in the manufacture of medicines, came from outside Egypt. From Syria and Asia Minor came fir (Abies cilicia Carr.), its pungent resin, invaluable as an antiseptic and an embalming material. Oil of fir was used as an anthelmintic, and to clean infected wounds. From eastern Africa came aloe, used to ‘expel catarrh from the nose’, and cinnamon (Cinnamonium zeylanicum Nees), an essential ingredient in an unguent for ulcerated gums and in incense.
An important constituent in most remedies was honey. Honey is highly resistant to bacterial growth. It also has an antibiotic action due to the presence of a bactericidal enzyme called inhibine. In modern studies honey has proven to be effective against staphylococcus, salmonella and candida bacteria. It is also used to treat surgical wounds, burns and ulcers, having more rapid healing qualities than conventional treatment.
Another bee product called propolis (bee glue) is a hard, resinous material derived by bees from plant juices, and is used by bees to seal cracks in their hives. Propolis also has antibiotic as well as preservative properties. A small mouse, which crept into an ancient Egyptian hive 3,000 years ago, was found perfectly preserved, covered with propolis, and with no sign of decomposition.
Beer is also mentioned as an agent by which many drugs were administered, and beer was a popular and healthy drink.
They knew and used the benefits of yeast, applying it raw to boils and ulcers, and swallowing it to clear digestive disorders. Yeast contains vitamin B as well as antibiotic agents.
Earlier we mentioned the use of antibiotics in ancient Egypt, to treat wounds or open sores.
Their dentists adopted a method, which was recently implemented in our times, of capping teeth with gold, as evident from some mummies of Ta-Apet (Thebes).
Health and Medicine in Ancient Egypt – Excerpt from Historical Deception: The Untold Story of Ancient Egypt