Ancient Egyptian Medicine



The Healing Arts of the Ancient World

A partial listing of various techniques used by physicians and healers throughout the ancient world.

Disclaimer: The Virtual Temple is not responsible for any problems resulting from the use of these techniques without first consulting a physician or health care professional. The Virtual Temple does not seek to prescribe or recommend. All information is presented for historical interest only.

Cure for Headache:

This is a remedy which is most celebrated. Found in the Ebers Papyrus; 250:

"....a remedy for suffering (meret) in (half) the head(Ges-tep). The skull of a cat-fish (nar) that has been fried in oil. Anoint the head therewith.
Cure for Diarrhea:                 

1/8th cup figs and grapes, bread dough, pit corn, fresh Earth, onion, and elderberry.

                  

To Cure a Displaced Uterus in a Woman:

Place a wax ibis on coals and allow the smoke to penetrate the sex organs.

 

Cure for Aging:                   

Let there be bought a large quantity of heayet fruit. It should be bruised and placed in the sun. Then when it is entirely dry, let it be husked as grain is husked and it should be winnowed until only the fruit remains. Everything that comes therefrom shall be measured and let it be sifted after the manner of the threshing floor with the sieve. Mix with water and cook over the fire, making sure that it boils. Place in a costly stone vase and anoint a man therewith. It is a remover of wrinkles from the head. When the flesh is smeared with it all signs of age and weakness will disappear.

 

Cure for Lesions of the Skin:       

After the scab has fallen off put on it: Scribe's excrement. Mix in fresh milk and apply as a poultice.

 

Cure for Cataracts:

Mix brain-of-tortoise with honey. Place on the eye and say:

There is a shouting in the southern sky in darkness, There is an uproar in the northern sky, The Hall of Pillars falls into the waters. The crew of the sun god bent their oars so that the heads at his side fall into the water, Who leads hither what he finds? I lead forth what I find. I lead forth your heads. I lift up your necks. I fasten what has been cut from you in its place. I lead you forth to drive away the god of Fevers and all possible deadly arts.

To regulate urination:                   


A measuring glass filled with water from the bird pond with elderberry, fibers of the asit plant, fresh milk, beer swill, flowers of the cucumber, and green dates - make into one, strain and take for four days.

 

Reference Used:                                   

Brier, Bob  "Ancient Egyptian Magic"
Breasted, J.H. "The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus"
Bryan, P.W. "The Papyrus Ebers"
Buikstra, J.E."Diseases of the Ancient Egyptians"
Germond, Phillipe"Sekhmet Et la Protection du Monde"
Ghalioungui, Paul"The Physicians of Pharaonic Egypt"
Ghalioungui, Paul"Magic and Medical Science in Ancient Egypt"
Hoenes, Sigird-Eike"Untersuchungen Zu Wesen Und Kult Der Gottin Sachmet"
Majno, Guido"The Healing Hand"
Nunn, John F."Ancient Egyptian Medicine"
Roberts, Allison"Hathor Rising"
Shaw, Ian"The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt"

Sekhmet Netjert (Goddess) of Healing

Ancient Kemetic (Egyptian) medicine was incredibly advanced. The Ancient Kemetic People were probably the first people in the world to have based their knowledge off of careful and astute observations, as well as trial and error. By careful observation, early doctors or physician priests of ancient Kemet began healing practices that were world renowned. Theirs was a medical system that was developed over three thousand years and gave much toward the advancement of medical science worldwide, and any monarch or noble to have an Egyptian physician in their employ was a mark of high status. There was not the exact separation of Physician, Priest and Magician in Ancient Kemet that we think of today. Many times there was crossover from one "specialty" into that of another. An example of this would be that i would not be considerd at all unusual in antiquity for a patient to receive treatment for a dog bite, for example, whereby this would be bandaged up with a paste of berries and honey and an incantation would be given to the patient to be said over the wound. He or she might recieve it written on a piece of papyrus as well and choose to wear it as a type of magical amulet. Magic however was not always a part of the healing arts. Many scholars think that the Ancient Kemetic People were overly superstitious and thought that all injury and illness was caused by "demons" or curses. This definitely was not the case.

It is a widespread yet quite erroneous belief among the lay public and some scholars alike that the Ancient Kemetic people necessarily thought that all or most illnesses or injury was the work of hostile powers. This is quite incorrect. Although many of Ancient Kemet's physicians were products of their day, and they very much were aware of the power of magic, many a scientific mind was able to discern and observe practical clinical case studies and documented them extensively. However, some of the more superstitious emphasis with regards to medicine, seems to have been a late development in Ancient Kemet's history, for initially in early extant medical papyri, there is little and sometimes absolute no mention of magical incantations or spells. As with anything, there will always be those who believed in the ultimate influence such hostile forces and as such would seek protection from such forces. Sometimes it was thought that ultimately these forces would have some influence over the living. Spells or incantations were written on small papyri and worn about the neck to protect the wearer and were fairly common. A supernatural type of adversary, be they male or female, a spirit or a dead person, possibly that of an ancestor who was angry or insulted at having been slighted or ignored, would be blamed for illnesses or injuries. Letters to the dead imploring them to cease their curses on the living were common. This is at least part of the reason that magicians, as well as physicians and priests were concerned with the welfare of the people and curing their ills and injuries. Insect, snake and scorpion bites were all very frequent in Ancient Kemet. These could be treated by physician, magician or priest. Though we have no evidence of specific herbs or ointments or other medical means of practical treatments that may have been used, but we do have various papyri depicting many different "spells" and incantations, it is believed that magic was regarded as a more effective means of treatment. However, in dealing with Ancient Kemetic medicine, it is good to remember that the evidence is very sparse, and that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

The practices of Ancient Kemetic (Egyptian) physicians ranged from embalming, to energy or "faith" healing to surgery. Healing was an art that was addressed on all levels of being: mind, body and spirit. And the greatest prescription for maintaining a healthy life, or living a life of Ma'at, (which is very similar to the Chinese concept of the Tao) was almost always given by a member of the priesthood, many times those of Sobek or Sekhmet. This level of purification, would have meant that the person would have undertaken a series of regular purification rites, which of course would include regular baths in natron and other herbs and prescribed treatments for the patient to follow. Often times this would also involve the complete removal of all body hair including that on the head and genital area was required for issues requiring strictest purity. The patient could also be required to maintain a specific diet, and many times, if this were also members of certain sects of priests, they would additionally be required to avoid consumption of fish, or other animals deemed to be unclean. Such restrictions could also go to require the abstinence from certain vegetables such as beans. And while the patient was undergoing such purification's and lifestyle changes, the Ancient Kemetic people viewed dreams as being of primary symbolic importance. Texts exist for various dreams and their interpretations. Again, in this way, the Egyptians realized by treating the person as an integrated whole it was far more likely to diagnose and to find a treatment or cure for a specific illness or disease. Priests of various types and even physicians were able to also aid the the patient with magical spells or prayers to invoke Netjer or the person's ancestors or Akhu. Healing involved magical, purification and practical means that were completely integrated. This is what made the Ancient Kemetic physicians quite advanced in the ancient world. Their understanding of a complete and integrated healing process as well as creating and maintaining a proper lifestyle made this a practical reality.Some healing techniques did center upon both the religious ritual - which was at the very cornerstone of life in Ancient Kemet.

Physicians, Magicians, Priests

There is a good deal of documentation with regard to priests and magicians who resided in the villages and countryside. In these outlying areas, outside of regions connected to a temple or healing center, there existed a more primitive means in which the population addressed issues of healing and medicine. Extant texts both inscriptional and on papyri, mention doctors, priests, magicians and also mention their titleary as oculists, dentists and other specialists. There was even a certain sect of the priesthood of Sekhmet which included veterinarians who inspected cattle and other animals for sacrifice.

Doctors and physician priests did tend to keep detailed notes that described the various conditions encountered, as well as their specific diagnosis and the treatment that was applied. Papyri exist for specific areas such as gynecology, surgery diseases of the eye and their treatment. This common ailment which was cause by the dusty and arid climate in Kemet were treated with herbs, minerals and other agents that even today scientists regard as being effective treatments. Some minerals used in cosmetics, and considered somewhat toxic if used in large quantities were actually quite effective in arresting certain diseases of the eye.

Within Ancient Kemetic medicine there are extant texts on anatomy , physiology and diagnosis. These texts clearly show a high degree of understanding and knowledge of the human body. Clearly the ancient Kemetic swnw(t) had a good degree of understanding of the body's anatomy and workings. There are passages within the Edwin Smith surgical papyrus that offer great insight into the human body and anatomy. The heart and blood vessels were mapped out well considering the existing technology that these people had at their disposal. One such document was the 'treatise of the heart' found in the Ebers Papyrus. It is believed that they did not understand the kidney system and its workings however and its importance.

Surgery

It is believed that they came to their knowledge of surgery through the care of traumatic wounds and autopsy. The use of autopsy very probably came through the extensive and lengthy embalming and funerary practices of the Ancient Kemetic People. It was not unlikely that an an embalmer or funerary priest or Setem Priest would have examined the body and perhaps would have been able to ascertain the cause of the illness or injury that killed the deceased. The use of surgery also evolved from a knowledge of the basic anatomy and embalming practices of the Ancient Kemetic People. Surgery, including that of the bone was also considerably advanced in consideration of the technology available to the Ancient Kemetic people. The Edwin Smith Papyrus deals extensively with the setting of bones, traumatic injury such as dislocation of the jaw, arm or shoulders, bruises, various fractures which include those of the limbs, ribs, nose, and skull. The Ancient Kemetic physicians and physician priests were also cognizant that they could not treat every injury or disease. When faced with such cases, it was often that the following passage would be written: "An affliction for which nothing can be done". No doctor, not even ones in antiquity could have been happy about facing such cases. In the Edwin Smith Surgical papyrus there are 58 cases, only 16 of which were deemed to be without treatment, leaving 42 detailed accounts as to diagnosis and treatment, most of which are of a purely surgical nature.

Dentistry

The Ancient Kemetic dentists also were known to have used gold wire as a means to bind a loose tooth to a neighboring tooth that was sound, Another thing that the Ancient Kemetic dentists would be to fill them. Sometimes the patient would have their jaw bone drilled in order to drain an abscessed tooth or teeth. Teeth were filled using a type of mineral cement, and gum disease were also treated by using myrrh and other antiseptic herbs.

Prescriptions & Treatment:

Many prescriptions exist today, showing treatment of many disorders and the use of a variety of substances, plant, animal, mineral, as well as the droppings and urine of a number of animals such as crocodiles, hippos, and the like which were indigenous along the Nile in fairly vast numbers. Later, however some animals due to superstition, such as the hippopotamus, were thinned out considerably by hunts. It was probably because of the antibiotic properties found in these droppings that they were recommended so liberally. Also the effectiveness of these fecal materials in birth control, for example the dung of the crocodile was used in preventing conception was widely known.

Honey and milk were routinely prescribed by physicians for the treatment of the respiratory system, and throat irritations. The Ancient Kemetic swnwhad a keen awareness of how to use suppositories of garlic, herbal dressings and enemas and they widely made use of castor oil and understood the powers of aromatherapy in healing issues.

Medications used for the urinary tract show that they, as do their modern Egyptians, suffered from bilharzia (a parasite). Myrrh was sometimes used as well as various vermifuge herbs to help expel these parasites. Head injuries were very often successfully treated by trepanning. This procedure involves the opening of an area of the skull in order to relieve pressure. This would include migraine headaches, which very rightly could be attributed to dental trouble, or accidents or illnesses that involved the eyes.

Ashoma, a specific disease of the eye was a common complaint. This disease was usually caused by the excessive amount of dust in their environment, as well as insects such as flies and other water insects or poor hygiene. There are several prescriptions for this that have been discovered. One of these involved the use of an animal liver. To this day extracts of liver are used to treat this and now modern doctors have also discovered its effectiveness in treating certain forms of cataracts.

It is probably that many of the treatments used by the Ancient Kemetic doctors are less than appealing to those of us in the modern era. Some however, if looked in their proper context could be considered to be quite astute. Ancient Kemetic medicine was acknowledged by both Hippocrates and Galan as having contributed in large part to their own information and knowledge. They freely admitted that this had come from Egyptian works which they had studied at the temple of Imhotep in MenNefer (Memphis).

Sanctuaries of the various names of Netjer had healing sanctuaries associated to the temple itself. These would allow for physicians,and/or physician-priests to treat the patients. There are reports of "miraculous healings" that were attributed to various names of Netjer. One such document discusses the various treatments and cures performed by Amenhotep, son of Hapu,. Imhotep, an Old Kingdom physician and architect being the most remembered among them and later he was declared a God in his own right. Even today, many medical schools, including the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics have a statue of Imhotep that watches over them.

Herbal Remedies used by the Ancient Egyptians