The Magic and Science of Ancient Egyptian Medicine
We are lucky that today we have advanced methods and techniques of dealing with our illnesses and injuries. Lazers, CAT scans and blood tests enable contemporary physicians to accurately diagnose and treat whatever it is ailing us. These physicians have also had years of training and have studied medicine in depth. Imagine not having any of the conveniences of modern medicine; no well-trained doctors to treat and no modern machine to help with diagnosing. What was available were (up until about 150 years ago) “doctors” who were self-taught, usually by dissecting exhumed corpses andor by trial and error on living patients.
One can only think the latter being highly unpleasant. However, falling ill or being injured in Ancient Egypt might not have been all that bad. The ancient Egyptians referred to medicine as a “necessary art” (Ghalioungi 1973:xi). This name alone tells us that medicine was as essential skill and it was practiced by people who were skilled in the science of medicine. Egyptian medicine was not a pure science though. It also consisted of magical and mythical aspects. Upon the administering of the medicinal aspect (science), incantations were said (magic) to speed up the healing process.
These incantations were directed at the deity responsible (myth). When one takes the magic and myth away and is left with the pure science of Egyptian medicine, it is quite intriguing to note that the remedies used thousands of years ago, are still used today, or form the foundation of modern treatments. For example, in Ancient Egypt, a broken nose would be treated by putting rolls of linen up each nostril in order to hold the nose’s shape during healing. Page 2. Today, broken noses are treated with an external splint and internal packing.
Also, a spinal cord injury, resulting in paralyses, was known to be untreatable, as it is today. A wound to the inner ear, or perforation of the ear drum, also share the same, nearly identical ancient and contemporary treatment; the aforementioned used grease, to keep the ear dry and honey, to prevent infection, while the latter makes use of antibiotic ear drops and stern instructions to keep the ear dry, as it is unlikely that anyone today, would be willing to put grease into their ears. But how did we come to know about these ancient medical treatments? . THE EDWIN SMITH PAPYRUS The Edwin Smith Papyrus is an ancient Egyptian medical text on surgical trauma and has been dated to the 16th-17th dynasties of the Second Intermediate Period, ca. 1600BCE. This papyrus is different to the Ebers papyrus and the London Medical Papyrus in that it deals with medicine in a scientific and rational manner, rather than being a medical text based on magic. The Papyrus begins by dealing with head injuries and then continues with treatments for neck, arm and torso injuries.
Some of the titles include, “Instructions concerning a wound above his eyebrow” (Edwin Smith Papyrus: Case 10) and “Instructions concerning a crushed vertebra of his neck” (Edwin Smith Papyrus: Case 33). In this case, they speak of a man being “unconscious of his two arms and his two legs” which means the man is paralysed from the neck down. The diagnosis is “An ailment not to be treated. ”, just as we are unable to treat paralysed patients today. When one reads the Edwin Smith Papyrus, it is very apparent that it was written during a war in order to treat war injuries. Page 3. 1. AUTHOURSHIP
There has been much debate as to who the author was. A major part of the papyrus was written by one scribe, with only a small section being written by another. Some attribute the text to Imhotep, an architect, high pries and physician of the Old Kingdom (3000-2500BCE). Imhotep was a famous magician but “medicine was the mistress he most zealously wooed. ” (Hurry 1926:23). The highest office that he held during his lifetime, was that of vizier to the Pharoah and that title must have held him in high regards with his patients. He moved in the highest of social circles and rendered fine service the bodies and spirits of this he treated.
It has even been said that he, Imhotep, rather than Hippocrates, is the true father of medicine. 3. THE EBERS PAPYRUS The Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550BC) is full of incantations and disgusting applications, which are intended to turn away disease-causing demons and it also includes 877 prescriptions. It may, if ancient medical terminology has been correctly interpreted, contain the earliest account of tumors. Even though it consists of incantations, which are meant to turn away disease-causing demons, it also contains evidence of empirical practice and observation.
Some examples of remedies found in the Ebers Papyrus include: For cancer, which is “a tumor against the god Xenus”, it recommends “do thou nothing there against. ” Today, we know that cancer is “a group of cells that has lost its normal control mechanisms and thus has unregulated growth. ” (Beers 2004:944) and has nothing to do with annoying a deity. A similarity, however, is that in some cases there is nothing that can be done for some cancers. Dracunculiasis (Guinea Worm) was treated by wrapping the emerging end of the worm around a stick and slowly pull it out. 3500 years later, the treatment has not changed.
Page 4. These two examples are not too extreme or odd, but the other remedies are somewhat ridiculous. Ebers Prescription Number 465 offers a remedy for baldness, which involves making a mixture of: the fat of 1 lion, the fat of 1 hippo, the fat of 1 crocodile, the fat of 1 tom-cat, the fat of 1 snake and the fat of 1 Nubian Ibex. The mixture must then be rubbed into the head of a bald man. Prescription Number 250 has a unique take on curing a headache. Boil the skull of a catfish in oil, and daub the head with it for 4 days. These remedies may seem rather strange to us, but 2000 years ago, they made perfect sense.
Just as we trust our modern day physicians, so did the ancients trust theirs. 4. HUMAN ANATOMY AND PHYSIOLOGY Most of what the ancient Egyptians knew about the human body and its physiology came from the process of mummification. During this process the internal organs were removed and more than likely studied, providing an excellent opportunity for a physiology lesson. They also learnt through observation. For example, pregnancy would have been diagnosed by pulse-rate, inclination to vomit, as well as the appearance of the eyes, breasts and skin pigmentation. (Grahlin 2007:197). 1. HEAD, HEART AND THORACIC CAVITY
The Egyptians knew, just as we know today, that the head contained the vitally important brain. By reading the Edwin Smith Papyrus, it becomes very clear that they know the importance of the contents of the head. Case numbers 1-4 indicate how a head injury, that does not involve damaging to skull, should be treated. Page 5. Case numbers 5-8 indicate that an injury that has smashed the skull to any degree, must not be treated. This shows that they knew that if anything touched the brain, the effects could be serious of even fatal. The ancient Egyptians also knew about the functioning of the heart.
They knew that it was the center of the blood supply with vessels attached for every member of the body. (www. crystalings. com/egyptmedicine. html:9) They also knew what a pulse was because they felt it in the head, hands, arms and legs. It is unclear whether they knew what the exact function of the liver was, but the Ebers Papyrus does give a cure for a liver complaint. Prescription number 478 says that drinking the following will cure you of your liver complaint. It is unclear what the exact complaint was. 1/8 figs, 1/8 raisins, 1/16 prt-Snj,1/16 jsw plant, 1/64 incense, 1/32 yellow ochre, 1/32 water.
All this much be pressed through a sieve, and be drunk over a period of 4 days. Unusual, yes. Effective, unkown. 2. LIMBS AND INJURIES Injuries to limbs were commonplace in ancient Egypt, especially among the laborers. Dr Zahi Hawass excavated more than sex hundred pyramid workers’ tombs. None of the workers were mummified because at that time, it was still reserved for the elite but their bones told a story of a life filled with unrelenting labour. The labourers died young and “arthritis and degenerative spinal injuries from backbreaking labour were common place. ” (Fagan 2001:93)
The builders of the pyramids were not slaves; they were freemen. They ranked amongst the finest craftsmen that were in the Pharoah’s employ. The stone was quarried and hauled by farmers, working in annual rotations. Page 6. They were even paid for their services. These workers were well looked after and even though the suffered from injuries caused by hard labour, their injuries were treated with care that was centuries ahead of its time, such as shown in the Edwin Smith Papyrus. A lucky few, probably the higher working class and the rich, were able to get prosthetic limbs and appendages made.
In the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, there is an example of a prosthetic toe. 3. DISEASE, ILLNESS AND THEIR REMEDIES AND CURES The ancient Egyptians suffered from the same diseases and illnesses as we do today but because of poor living conditions and diet, they were more susceptible to them. A common disease, Bilhazia, was caused by the Schistosoma worm, which would enter the bloodstream via the feet or legs in order to eggs in the host. It was found in standing water, so it was mainly farm workers who would get it. Diseases of the eye were also commonplace. These would have arisen from the sand particles and dirt from the environment.
Many Egyptians wore eye paint containing malachite in an attempt to ward off eye infections. Removal of cloudiness of the eye (cataract) was cured in the following way; 1 rotten wood, 1 verdigris, 1 meal of the colocynth, 1 leaf of the thorny acacia, 1 pearl of resin of the African ebony tree, 1 water of the obw-plant. These ingredients must be mixed into a dough, broken up over water and be put on the outside of both eyes. (Ebers Medical Papyrus: Prescriptions Number 415) Page 7. Problems with the digestive system were usually sorted out by using the oil of the castor plant.
If a person had problems passing the contents of their stomach, then chewing the fruit of the castor plant, with some beer “will remove the suffering in the belly of the man. ” (Ebers Medical Papyrus: Prescription Number 251). Skin conditions, such as boils, were treated with Natron. Natron was used to draw moisture out of a body during mummification and a similar process was used to dry out skin infections. A very popular cure-all was honey. Honey is as excellent anti-bacterial because with its high sugar content, micro-organisms cannot grow in it and it would stick to the skin and wound.
Raw meat was also applied to wounds. This is very similar to today’s practice of putting steak on a black eye. The meat treatment was followed by the application of honey and oil. It is unsure how the ancient Egyptians knew of these remedies, but it was more than likely through observation and trial and error, much the same way as early surgery was learnt. 5. MEDICINE AND DISPENSING Those who dispensed medicine would also have been well trained as in some instances, those who dispensed the medicine were not necessarily those who offered the cures.
Magic and medicine were very closely intertwined and while the cure was being administered, an incantation or spell was said. Page 8. In many instances, a doctor was purely a doctor and would only do the practical part of the cure, such as cleaning wounds, mending bones and making diagnoses. The priests applied the remedies while chanting or circling the wound or injury with an amulet of a certain deity. The healing came from the treatments but the ancients believed that it was a combination of the treatment and the myth that healed.
Of course, the priests were trained in their profession, as it would have been unlikely that anyone would have gone to them otherwise. 6. CONCLUSION The ancient Egyptians have always had a reputation of being good at whatever they did. From farming, to building to healing, they always managed to be ahead of their time. Of course, when it came to healing they did not always have the knowledge necessary to heal well or successfully but the written account of their attempts show us that they did seem to know what they were doing.
Some of their techniques are still used today simply because they are the best way to treat a particular disorder. They took pride in what they did and even their dead show this care and precision. The wise, ancient physician also knew when a patient was beyond help, as in the case with certain head injuries; they knew that it would be futile to try to treat a patient with a mortal wound or injury. The modern world has learnt much from the ancient Egyptian civilization and still has much to learn from it.