The healers and their art

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  • If one had to be ill in ancient times, the best place to do so would probably have been Egypt. Not that an Egyptian's chances of survival would have been that much better than those people who lived in other countries of that time, but at least he he had the satisfaction of being treated by physicians whose art was well-respected all over the ancient world.

  •   Unlike the injuries caused by accidents or fighting, which were dealt with by the physician or scorpion stings and snake bites for which the exorcist (priest who performs ceremonies to remove evil spirits) of Serqet, knew the appropriate spells and remedies, illnesses and their causes were mysterious.

  • The Egyptians explained them as the work of the gods, caused by the presence of evil spirits or their poisons, and cleansing the body was the way to rid the body of their influence.

  • Incantations, prayers to the gods - above all to Sekhmet the goddess of healing; curses, and threats, often accompanied by the injection of nasty smelling and tasting medicines into the various parts of the body , were hoped to prove effective.

  • Preventive measures included prayers and various kinds of magic, above all the wearing of amulets (charms).

  • The importance of the diet was partially recognized, and the natural human craving for diversity (food choices) and rich well-irrigated soil resulted in a diet which was mostly reasonably balanced: carbohydrates from cereals, vitamins from fruit and vegetables, and proteins mostly from fish. Milk and milk products were just occasionally consumed, as were legumes, seeds and oil.

The healers and their art

  • The Egyptian priest-physician, had a number of important functions.

    • First, to discover the nature of the particular 'demon' possessing the person and then attack, drive it out, or otherwise destroy it. This was done by some powerful magic for which rituals, spells, incantations, talismans and amulets were used. Sekhmet priests seem also to have been involved in the prevention of plagues, inspection of sacrificial animals and even veterinary medicine.

    • The role deities (gods and goddesses) and their servants played in the healing process is described in the story of Bentresh, a daughter of the chief of Bekhten, who fell ill, and Ramses II sent her Thutemhab. After Thutemhab had seen the princess and concluded that she was possessed of a spirit, he returned to Egypt, and that Khonsu-the-Plan-maker, the great god, smiting the evil spirits should be sent to Bekhten:

  • Physical medicines such as herbs were mostly expected to relieve the pain only, while magic effected the cure.

  • A section in the Papyrus Ebers (a historical document) is about charms and invocations used to encourage healing. One spell, recited before taking an herbal remedy, reads as follows: "Come Remedy! Come thou who expellest (evil) things in this my stomach and in these my limbs!"

  • Not all of Egyptian medicine was based on wishful thinking (moreover we should never disregard the effect faith can have on our health). Much of what they believed was the result of experimentation and observation.

  • Apart from spiritual healing and herbal medicine, they practiced massage

    • Examination of a woman aching in her legs and her calves after walking
      You should treat it with a massage of her legs and calves with mud until she is well

  • The practice of medicine was very specialized. Each physician treats just one disease. The country is full of physicians, some treat the eye, some the teeth, some of what belongs to the abdomen, and others internal diseases. Herodotus

  • Nothing certain is known about the way physicians acquired their medical knowledge, but one surmises that after their formation as scribes, they were apprenticed to practicing healers. It has also been suggested that the Houses of Life, associated with Sekhmet, were teaching centres for physicians.

The diseases

  • Everyday complaints like stomach upsets, bowel trouble and headaches went probably mostly untreated, even if the physicians could offer remedies:

For the evacuation of the belly:
Cow's milk, 1; .grains, 1; honey 1; mash, sift, cook; take in four portions.
To remedy the bowels:
Melilot (?), 1; dates, 1; cook in oil; anoint sick part.
To refresh an aching head:
Flour, 1; incense, 1; wood of
wa, 1; waneb plant, 1; mint (?), 1; horn of a stag, 1; sycamore (?) seeds, 1; seeds of [ (?)], 1; mason's plaster (?), 1; seeds of zart, 1; water, 1; mash, apply to the head.
To renew bowel movements in a constipated child:
An old book, boil in oil, apply half on the belly to reestablish evacuation.

  •   The common cold plagued the ancient Egyptians as it still does us today, and their remedy, the milk of a mother who has given birth to a boy, was probably as effective as anything we have got today. Moreover they had a tried and true spell to go with it.

  • While some Egyptians lived to a ripe old age like Ramses II , the age at death was only in a minority of cases above thirty-five years, with bilharziasis (schistosomiasis) - a disease difficult not to contract in a country flooded for months every year  - a common cause of other diseases and subsequent death.

  • Insect borne diseases like malaria and trachoma, an eye disease, were common; plagues spread along the trade routes and a number epidemics reported in Egyptian documents are thought by some to have been outbreaks of bubonic plague .

  • Mosquitoes also spread worms which caused the disfiguring elephantiasis . This disease was not very common but caused immense suffering to its victims.

  • Infectious diseases were rampant in the relatively densely populated Nile valley, where practically the whole population lived within a narrow strip of land along the river, which at times was only a few hundred metres wide, and their incidence was dependent to some degree on the seasons. Smallpox, diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, jaundice and relapsing fever were responsible for many deaths, above all during spring and summer. The presence of water during the inundation brought with it a different set of ailments, chief among them probably malaria, which were the main cause for death in late autumn; while the cooler weather of autumn and winter seems to have favored the outbreak of respiratory illnesses.

  • Trichinae afflicted the pigs (pork), parasitic worms  and tuberculosis the cattle, and these illnesses were occasionally passed on to the human population.

  • Human tuberculosis . Leprosy on the other hand, was apparently relatively rare, possibly because of an immunity TB sufferers acquired. Some think that leprosy originated in Egypt and spread to Europe along the migration and trade routes, others contend that there is no proof of its existence in ancient times.

  • Silicosis of the lungs, the result of breathing in airborne sand particles, is documented and was a frequent cause of death, as was pneumonia .

  • The various kinds of malignant tumors were almost as frequent then as they are nowadays in comparable age and gender groups.

  • Eye infections are a common complaint in Africa. In ancient Egypt they were at least in part prevented by the application of bacteria preventing eye paint. The ingredients of some of the remedies may not have been as difficult to come by in a civilization, where the brain of the dead was removed in little bits from the skull during mummification and discarded, as it would be in a modern western country:

  • The hard physical toil, often repetitive, caused great harm to the bones and joints of the laborers after only a few years of being subjected to it. Those who survived into old age were victims of the same infirmities that still plague the aged like cardio-vascular diseases, arthritis, from which Ramses II suffered, and probably dementia.

  • Congenital (birth) diseases were not infrequent and often brought about early death as the burials of infants bear out. Their causes may have been environmental, nutritional or social.

  • Inbreeding, (brothers/sisters, cousins/cousins, etc.) not infrequent among the royals, was probably also not rare among the common people largely bound to the soil (farmers).

  • The occurrence of a sixth finger or toe in mummies, interpreted by some as the result of inbreeding, has been noted a number of times, as has the high incidence of spina bifida.

  • Open wounds were often treated with honey, but sepsis (infection) was one of the commonest causes of death. When lockjaw set in due to a tetanus infection, physicians knew they were powerless against this affliction:

Herbal Medicine

  • Herbs played a major part in Egyptian medicine. The plant include opium, cannabis (marijuana), myrrh, frankincense, fennel, cassia, senna, thyme, henna, juniper, aloe, linseed and castor oil - though some of the translations are less than certain.

  • Cloves of garlic have been found in Egyptian burial sites, including the tomb of Tutankhamen and in the sacred underground temple of the bulls at Saqqara. Many herbs were steeped in wine, which was then drunk as an oral medicine.

  • Egyptians thought garlic and onions aided endurance, and consumed large quantities of them. Raw garlic was routinely given to asthmatics and to those suffering with bronchial-pulmonary (lung - respiratory) complaints. Onions helped against problems of the digestive system.

  • Garlic was an important healing agent then just as it still is to the modern Egyptian and to most of the peoples in the Mediterranean area: Fresh cloves are peeled and mashed in a mixture of vinegar and water. This can be used to gargle and rinse the mouth, or taken internally to treat sore throats and toothache. Another way to take garlic both for prevention as well as treatment is to mash several cloves of garlic in olive oil. Applied as an external liniment (cream) or taken internally it is beneficial for bronchial and lung complaints including colds. A freshly peeled clove of raw garlic wrapped in muslin or cheesecloth and pinned to the undergarment is hoped to protect against infectious diseases such as colds and influenza.
        Coriander, was considered to have cooling, stimulant, and digestive properties. Both the seeds and the plant were used as a spice in cooking to prevent and eliminate flatulences (farting), they were also taken as a tea for stomach and all kinds of urinary complaints including cystitis. Coriander leaves were commonly added fresh to spicy foods to moderate their irritating effects. It was one of the herbs offered to the gods by the king, and seeds were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen and in other ancient burial sites.
        Cumin, is an herb native to Egypt. The seeds were considered to be a stimulant and effective against flatulence. They were often used together with coriander for flavoring. Cumin powder mixed with some wheat flour as a binder and a little water was applied to relieve the pain of any aching or arthritic joints.

  • Tannic Acid, derived from acacia seeds commonly helped heal burns.

  • Castor oil, figs, and dates, were used as laxatives.

  • Tape worms, the snakes in the belly, were dealt with by an infusion of pomegranate root in water, which was strained and drunk. The alkaloids contained in it paralyzed the worms' nervous system, and they relinquished their hold.

  • Ulcers were treated with yeast, as were stomach ailments.

  • Honey and grease formed part of many wound treatments.

  • Mother's milk was occasionally given against viral diseases like the common cold

  • Fresh meat laid on open wounds and sprains, and animal dung was thought to be effective at times 

  • Malachite used as an eye-liner also had therapeutic value. In a country where eye infections occurred often, the effects of its germicidal qualities were appreciated even if the reasons for its effectiveness were not understood.


  • At Saqqara there is the tomb known as The Tomb of the Physician. In one of the wall pictures two men are having their extremities treated and they are variously explained as either a manicure, massage or surgery. In the accompanying text the patient implores the physician: Do not let it be painful.

  • At any rate, people at least occasionally survived surgery. Bodies of amputees from as early as the Old and Middle Kingdoms have been found which display signs of healing. Prostheses (artificial limbs) which show signs of wear, have also been discovered. The reasons for these amputations are unknown and none of the surviving medical texts mention the possibility of, let alone reasons for amputation as a therapeutic treatment

  • The knives used had stone blades. Flint or obsidian have edges sharper than modern surgical steel. It is small wonder that physicians would hesitate to replace sharp flint blades with comparatively dull metal ones, made first of bronze and later of iron. When metal instruments were finally used to any extent, the act of cauterizing (super heating) accompanied it. In some procedures, the blade was heated until it glowed red, and then used to make incisions. It cut as well as sealed up the blood vessels, limiting bleeding.

  • In the temple of Sobek there are reliefs of medical instruments: bone saws, suction cups, knives and scalpels, retractors, scales, lances, chisels and dental tools

  • Trepanation (tool for cutting holes), practiced in many early cultures for a number of reasons, is not mentioned in any of the medical historical literature, but seems to have been performed occasionally using mallet and chisel. Just 14 skulls, some healed or partially healed, have been found. Limb amputations were also performed.


  • As their diet included much abrasive material (sand and small stone particles from grinding the corn) the teeth of elderly ancient Egyptians were often in a very poor state.

  • Cavities and the destruction of the enamel caused the loss of teeth at an early age and often killed as well.

  • On the other hand, if there was no abrasion due to lucky circumstances, a person of the people would have a minimal incidence of cavities and thus a perfect set of teeth thanks to the lackof sugar in the diet of the ancient Egyptians.

  • The well-to-do, whose food was more refined, seem to have suffered more from cavities than the poor. During Roman times the incidence of cavities appears to have grown among the population at large, possibly due to an increased consumption of sweeteners, but the level of tooth wear decreased, perhaps thanks to better care.

  • Swollen gums were treated with a concoction of cumin, incense and onion. Opium, the toxicity (level of poison) of which was well known, might be given against severe pain. At times holes were drilled into the jawbone in order to drain abscesses.

  • But extraction of teeth, which might have saved the lives of many a patient, was rarely if ever practiced. For most of ancient Egyptian history there was little or no effective dental treatment available and sufferers mostly could only hope that infected tooth would fall out.

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