25 March 2008

Maladies & Treatments:
Ancient Egypt

By Jean Adams

If you had to be ill in ancient times, the best place to do so would probably have been Egypt. Not that it would have been a picnic even there. Unlike the injuries received through accidents or fighting, or scorpion stings and snake bites, 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 bodily orifices, were hoped to prove effective.

Preventive measures included prayers and various kinds of magic, above all the wearing of amulets. The importance of the diet was partially recognized, and the natural human craving for diversity 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 only occasionally consumed, as were legumes, seeds and oil.


The Egyptian priest-physician had a number of important functions. First, to discover the nature of the particular entity 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 also seem to have been involved in the prevention of plagues, inspection of sacrificial animals and even veterinary medicine. Other healers seem to have had recourse to the same methods and scriptures..

Physical medicines such as herbs were mostly expected to assuage the pain only, while magic effected the cure. A section in the Ebers Papyrus 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!" The wording of these spells is often followed by a recommendation, such as: "Truly excellent. Millions of times."

Not all Egyptian medicine was based on wishful thinking (and we should never disregard the effect faith can have on our health), much was the result of experimentation and observation.

Nothing certain is known about the way physicians acquired their medical knowledge, but we assume that after (or in parallel to) their formation as scribes they were apprenticed to practising healers.

Medical Knowledge

A few papyri have survived, from which we can learn about Egyptian medicine, one describing surgical diagnosis and treatments and another is on ophthalmology, diseases of the digestive system, the head, the skin and specific maladies like aAa, which some think may have been a precursor of aids and others, perhaps more reasonably, consider to have been a disease of the urinary tract.

The treatments in these texts are often organized into groups. The Edwin Smith Papyrus for instance opens with eight texts concerning head wounds, followed by nineteen treatments of wounds to the face (forehead, eyebrows, nose, cheeks, temples, mouth, chin), six descriptions of how to deal with injuries to throat and neck, five dealing with collar-bones and arms, and seven with chest complaints. It appears that all this knowledge dates to the third millennium BC, even though the papyrus itself is of a much later date.

This knowledge reached Greece through the doctors of Alexandria.

Herbal Medicine

Herbs played a major part in Egyptian medicine. The plant medicines mentioned in the Ebers papyrus for instance include opium, cannabis, 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 Tutankhamun and in the sacred underground temple of the bulls at Saqqara.

As we still do today, the 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 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, mashed and macerated 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 macerate several cloves of mashed garlic in olive oil. Applied as an external liniment 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. There was a whole raft of healing herbs in Egypt, too many to address here.


Egyptian physicians were much sought after in the Ancient World, despite the fact that little was added to the knowledge after the First Intermediate Period (about 2000 BC). Ramses II sent physicians to the king of Hatti and many rulers, the Persian Achaemenids among them, had Egyptian doctors in attendance.

Their treatments were based on examination, followed by diagnosis. Descriptions of the examination - the most exacting part of a physician's job - are lengthier than both the diagnosis or the recommended treatment

Treatment was conservative: if no remedy was known then only such steps were to be taken which would not endanger the patient. Some head wounds for instance, considered as an ailment not to be treated might just be anointed externally with an unguent forestalling infection or the patient might be tied at his mooring stakes, until the period of his injury passes by in order to prevent him from causing further damage to himself.

On the other hand many of the ancient medical practices were ineffective, if not suspect: e.g. excrement used in medicines will only in the rarest of cases prove to be wholesome, and if applied as wound dressing may well cause tetanus poisoning, yet dung continued to be used in Europe until the Middle Ages. The reliance on magic and faith may well have retarded the development of more rational views of the causes of diseases and their cures.

Nevertheless, Egyptian theories and practices influenced the Greeks, who furnished many of the physicians in the Roman Empire, and through them Arab and European medical thinking for centuries to come


ETERNAL HEARTS by Jean Adams, Highland Press, Spring 2008
Book Video
A PLACE OF HEALING, TBA, Wild Rose Press, Champagne Rose
PRINCE OF SECRETS, third place, opening hook, Wallflower, 2007