MEDICINE IN ANCIENT EGYPT

 

MAGIC AND RELIGION

Religion acknowledges the superiority of the divine. A deity is deserving of worship, but may be asked to intervene to help the worshipper. Magic, on the other hand, claims control over the supernatural. A magician does not ask for, but rather demands a favorable result. A well known example would be the rabbit that pops out of a hat when the magician says the magic phrase.

The Ancient Egyptians knew that physical trauma could cause injury, and they knew that snake and scorpion bites could cause serious illness. Although they had no idea how it happened, they also realized that some diseases could spread from one person to another, but  they knew nothing about bacteria and viruses and tended to assume that any medical problem they did not fully understand must, at least in part, be caused by malignant demons.

    If the supernatural causes illness, it is reasonable to use magic to try to get rid of it. A sympathetic god or goddess might be invited to save the patient. A magic spell might be spoken to drive the demon away. While some medicines did or were thought to have curative powers, others were deliberately repulsive in the hope the demons causing the illness would be driven away. Religious treatments usually involved an incantation creating an association between the patient and a deity. A disease causing demon could be expected to run away if it thought it was toying with a major god or goddess.

    The following incantations are quoted from John F. Nunn, Ancient Egyptian Medicine (2003) The British Museum Press:    

Flow out, poison. Come forth. Go forth on to the ground. Horus will exorcise you. He will punish you. He will spit you out.

Repelled is the enemy that is in the wound. Cast out is the evil that is in the blood....I am under the protection of Isis; my rescue is the son of Osiris.

I am Horus, the young child with his finger to his mouth; the sandal of Horus is what tramples the nekhi snake.

    We do not know anything about medical training in Ancient Egypt. Presumably, physicians learned their skill the same way everyone else did: by watching their father. We do know that some Egyptians were called swnw, and this word is translated as physician. Other people who offered help to the sick were called magicians. Occasionally we see reference to individuals who carried both titles. Some priests were also available to provide help to the sick by calling on the gods to intervene on behalf of the patient. 

    The importance of religion and magic in effecting a cure ought not to be minimized. The so-called placebo effect is well known to drug researchers of the modern world. Many people get just as well by taking fake medicine as the people taking the real medicine. Believing you are going to get well is often all that is necessary. We should not be surprised, then, to find the Ancient Egyptians placing reliance on cures that our modern skepticism would argue ought not to work.

    Egyptian physicians were trained to begin by questioning and examining the patient. They then announced a diagnosis and made one of three pronouncements:    1. I can treat this condition

                                                                2  I can contend with this condition

                                                                3. I can do nothing for this condition

    Medications were typically mixed with one or more of six vehicles: water (sometimes called dew), honey, milk, oil, wine or beer. The vehicle of choice depended on the kind of solvent the active ingredients need to be dissolved and on the method of application. Some botanicals will dissolve only in alcohol, others only in water, etc. Honey or oil were useful if you needed something that would stick to skin. There were five ways to give the medicine to the patient: oral, rectal, vaginal, external and fumigation. For a woman, the later usually involved producing fumes that entered her body through the vagina.

    Egyptologists have a number of difficulties in assessing ancient medications. The most serious one is that we cannot always recognize the modern name for every plant in the recipe. A modern scientist might know that the first seven ingredients in a recipe could not possibly cure the named illness, but without knowing the identity of the eighth ingredient it is impossible to be sure that this medicine is useless. The second serious problem is that it is not always clear what disease the physician is attempting to treat. In come cases the symptoms are too vague. In other cases there is no diagnosis at all. 

    The practice of mummification gave the Egyptians a good picture of the various organs inside the human body, but not much information on the function of those organs. They knew nothing about the circulation of blood through arteries, veins, the heart and the lungs. They thought of the heart, not the brain, as the thinking part of the body. They knew that the bite of scorpions and certain snakes could cause serious illness, but they had no understanding of the role of bacteria and viruses in the transmission of disease. 

    Despite these deficiencies, Egyptian physicians were very clear about the need to determine the nature of the illness before attempting to provide the treatment. All too often they had no idea as to the cause but they did realize the need to make the treatment match at least the specific symptoms. As a result, Egyptian physicians had an excellent reputation and were often called upon by the royalty of foreign lands.

 

EXAMPLES OF TREATMENT  

  1. Raw meat was applied to wounds. This is not dissimilar to the modern practice of applying steak to a black eye. The meat treatment was often followed by the use of honey and oil. Bacteria cannot grow in honey, so this was probably an effective treatment.

  2. The ricinus communis plant, from which we make castor oil, was well known in Ancient Egypt. It was said that a woman could make her hair grow by grinding the beans, adding some oil, and rubbing the resulting mixture on her head.

  3. Natron, best known as the agent which removed moisture in the mummification process, was recommended as a means of drawing pus out of a boil. The exact composition of natron varied from region to region but it was a sea salt containing sodium chloride, sodium sulphate, sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate. 

  4. Ground malachite was used as a cosmetic (it has an attractive green color) but it was also used to treat various eye diseases and for a wound "that had gone foul". While the Ancient Egyptians knew nothing about bacteria, they did recognize that malachite could cure the symptoms we today know were caused by bacteria.

  5. A mixture of equal parts of the fat of a lion, hippopotamus, crocodile, cat, snake and ibex, was said to be a cure for baldness if rubbed in the scalp.

  6. A mouse cooked in oil could be used to prevent hair turning gray.

  7. A mouse roasted to a cinder and ground into a basin of milk was said to be a cure for whooping cough. The mouse was a prime ingredient in a number of remedies, but the reasoning behind this remains a mystery.

  8. Pain Killers: The Ancient Egyptians certainly knew of the water lily and lotus, cannabis, the poppy, and the mandrake. There are hints, but no unequivocal evidence that they knew of the narcotics in each and the use to which they could be put to control pain.

  9. Gynecology: 

    • A Test for Fertility:

      • Place an onion in a woman's vagina. If the odor is present in her mouth the next day, then she is able to become pregnant.

    • A Test for Pregnancy:

      • Emmer wheat and barley seeds are moistened every day with a woman's urine. If the seeds sprout she is pregnant. If the barley sprouts first, the child will be male; if the emmer grows first the child will be female. (Modern science has shown a fair degree of accuracy in the pregnancy aspect of the test but none in the sex-determination aspect.)

      • New oil is smeared on the breasts and shoulders of a woman as she lies down. If in the following morning, her blood vessels are "fresh and good, none being collapsed" then she will bear children satisfactorily.

    • Birth Control:

      •  Put crocodile excrement in the vagina. It is likely that this prescription refers to a hardened plug of dried crocodile dun inserted at the mouth of the uterus to block the entrance of sperm, but the papyri are unclear.

      • lint, moistened with a mixture of acacia, carob, and dates ground into honey, "should be placed at the mouth of the uterus."

    • To Prevent Breasts Sagging

      • Smear the breasts, belly and thighs with the blood of a woman whose menstruation has just begun.

  10. Obstetrics:

    The medical papyri are silent on the subject of a normal delivery. Presumably Egyptian physicians and pregnant women would have felt that giving birth was too normal a process to need a doctor. There is no word in Egyptian for midwife, suggesting that deliveries were assisted by whatever women happened to be in the area at the time and not by women specially trained for the task. Egyptian women gave birth while squatting on two birthing bricks. The only text we have that describes a delivery refers to the birth of a future king who had been fathered by a god. Four goddesses attended the event: one knelt at the front of the mother, while another knelt at the rear. Presumably their role was to catch the newborn infant. 

    • To Induce Labor

      • The Medical Papyri contain many remedies intended to induce labor. Unfortunately it is not yet possible to identify all of the ingredients, but none that have so far been translated would have any effect on the uterus. Depending on the prescribed remedy, it could be placed in the vagina, sat upon, taken by mouth, or applied to the abdomen.

    • Treatment For Birth Injury

      • New oil should be soaked into her vagina.

  11. Migraine

    Anoint the head with the skull of a cat-fish fried in oil.

 

 

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