Long ago, when writing was a secret science, the Egyptian scribe was not a simple copyist. He had the combined training of a calligrapher, a philosopher, a scholar and a scientist. Many physicians prided themselves on bearing the title of scribe among their others, and like Hesyreh, had themselves portrayed with the palette and reeds, the sesh, symbol of that learned class. The actual copying was probably performed in the pir-ankh or Houses of Life that were attached to the temples and where the scholars, physicians, philosophers and scientists of the time used to meet.
Proof comes from burial sites, tombs and underground temples where archeologists have found extensive sets of medical documents and scrolls, including the Ebers Papyrus, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, the Hearst Papyrus, and the London Medical Papyrus, which contained the earliest documented awareness of tumors. The most famous plant – medicine “encyclopedia” is the Ebers Papyrus, a 110 page scroll which rolls out to be about 20 meters long.
We know of nine principal medical Papyrus. They are called after their original owners (Edwin Smith, Chester Beatty, Carlsberg), the site of their discovery (Kahoun, Ramesseum), the towns were they are kept (Leyden, London, Berlin) or their editor (Ebers).
The Kahoun Papyrus is the most ancient scroll and was discovered at Fayoum and was called by mistake the Kahoun Papyrus. It dates from 1950 B.C. And has on its back an account from the time of Amenemhat III (1840-1792 B.C.). Not only is this the oldest known papyrus, but the original from which it was copied seems also more antique than the originals of the other papyri.
It consists of three sections, one dealing with human medicine, the second with veterinary science, and the third with mathematics. It is written in hieratic handwriting like the other papyri, except the veterinary section which, possibly because of its greater antiquity, is written in hieroglyphic, a script usually reserved for theological writings.
The medical section is composed of three leaves; the first, found in a very fragmentary condition, was already repaired in ancient times with strips from other papyri pasted on the back.
The first two pages contain 17 gynecological prescriptions and instructions without titles. No surgery is prescribed; substances recommended are beer, milk, oil, dates, herbs, incense and sometimes repulsive substances. Use is often made of fumigations, pastes, and vaginal applications.
The third page contains 17 prescriptions concerning the assessment of sterility and of pregnancy, and the ascertaining of the sex of unborn children. Many of the indications concerning pregnancy and childbirth refer to the state of the breasts, their firmness and to the color of the face and eyes.
The Ramesseum IV and V papyri were probably written about 1900 B.C., i.e. At about the same epoch as the Kahoun Papyrus.
Papyrus IV is very similar to the Kahoun Papyrus; it contains many identical prescriptions and also is concerned with labor, the protection of the newborn on the day of its birth, the prognostication of its viability, and it contains one anti-conceptional formula made out of crocodile dung which completes a similar one in the Kahoun papyrus.
Papyrus V is purely medical. Even though its beginning and end are lost it still contains 20 prescriptions of which many are dealing with relaxing ‘stiffened’ limbs. This papyrus is written in hieroglyphic script, and not in hieratic. The titles are written in horizontal lines at the top of the pages and the prescriptions are listed underneath in vertical columns.
The Berlin Papyrus was found at the time of Usaphais in an old chest containing antique writings. The legend states that it was found in a chest with scribe’s tools, under the feet of a statue of Anubis at Letopolis under Usaphais, the 3rd Pharaoh of the 1st dynasty. It covers 25 pages and contains 240 recipes, of which three are written in a different handwriting. A large part of its contents consists of a word-for-word repetition with many errors and careless copying of certain paragraphs of the Ebers and Hearst documents. Included are sections on rheumatism, a treatise on vessels similar to the second book on the heart, in the Ebers papyrus, a gloss that completes the latter, and a note on its origin, more detailed than that which is found in Ebers.
The London Medical Papyrus lies midway between a medical papyri and a non-medical work of pure magic. It contains 61 recipes of which only 25 are medical. The rest, of which part is of foreign origin, is purely magical. It claims to be discovered by the priests of the temple of Tebmut in the sanctuary of the goddess: ‘Behold! The darkness of the night enveloped the Earth but the moon cast her beams upon all pages of this book and it was brought to the treasury of His Majesty King Khufu.’
The Hearst Papyrus covers 18 and a half pages and describes 260 medical cases of which 96 are found in the Ebers Papyrus. It contains also a chapter on bone affections. On the whole, it is considered inferior to the Ebers papyrus, although it improves on it in certain passages.
The Ebers Papyrus is the longest of all the known papyri and the most important, considering the physiological and medical knowledge it reveals. It is complete in 108 pages and bears the date of the 9th year of the reign of Amenophis I (1550 B.C.).
The Ebers does not constitute a book in our modern sense. It is rather a mosaic of leaves and extracts drawn from different sources and compiled at the scribe’s will.
In parts of the papyrus we find theological tendencies and attributions of many of the prescriptions to the gods.
Other sections contains information on digestive diseases and worms and their treatment, sections on the treatment of eye diseases, on the care of the skin and hair, on fractures and burns, resembling very much the Edwin Smith papyrus; on the treatment of stiffened and painful limbs, on gynecological disease which often repeats in the Kahoun papyrus, a treatise on the heart and vessels which is the only one dealing with anatomy and physiology, and finally a surgical section limited to tumors and abscesses.
Whereas the previous papyri are mainly collections of prescriptions, the 877 paragraphs of this compilation contain, besides the therapeutic recipes, diagnostic notes and, for the first time in history, theoretical considerations on the problems of life, health, and disease devoid of religious or magical considerations. Some of the illness identified include anasacra, leprosy, fevers, dysentery, different kinds of worms, heart disease, dropsy, faintness, rheumatism, stiffness of joints and limbs, liver diseases, polyuria (possibly diabetes), intestinal obstructions, gangrene, burns, blisters, affection of the ears, nose, tongue, gums and teeth, sections on how to stimulate hair growth, diseases of the breast, gynecological diseases, contraceptive measures, and methods to help childbirth and gonorrhea.
The descriptions are pretty, often poetic. A weak person is compared to a ‘breath that passes away.’ Many are remarkable in their precision such as those of angina pectoris, aneurysm and hernia.”
“The physician was taught to deal gently and meticulously with his patients. Reading the papyri one is constantly struck by the kindness shown to the maimed and the diseased. Whatever their illness, the sick were never considered, as in some other civilizations, untouchable, demon-possessed creatures. The wise Amenemope says, ‘Do not mock at the blind; do not scoff at dwarfs; do not injure the lame; do not sneer at a man who is in the hand of God (of unsound mind).’ A suffering person is not to be left without help: Go in to him, and do not abandon him.’ (Ebers 200)
During clinical consultations there was a detailed examination in the course of which the physician had to exert his powers of observation to the utmost to detect as many symptoms and to elicit as many signs as he could. According to the available clinical descriptions, it started with a detailed history-taking and questionnaire.
So we can see that great care was taken to listen to how the body was functioning.
Egyptians took their health very seriously. Herodotus, in the 5th century B.C. Expressed his admiration of the health of the Egyptians, saying that they were the healthiest in the world after the Libyans. Diodorus Siculus in the 1st century A.D. Stated that, “…the whole manner of life of Egyptians was so evenly ordered that it would appear as though it had been arranged according the rules of health by a learned physician rather than by a law-giver.”
“The importance of health to the average ancient Egyptian is seen in the composition of personal names and in the forms of daily greeting. Many names were formed with the word snb (seneb) which means healthy, not with the negative meaning of health, i.e. Absence of disease, but with the positive sense of vigor and efficiency. Such names as “I possess health,’ ‘Let your father be healthy,’ were very common. All forms of greeting formula, all letters, addresses, salutes and travel recommendations ended with wishes of good health.”
Egyptians consumed raw garlic and onions for endurance and to heal asthma and bronchial-pulmonary issues. Many of their herbs were steeped in wine and used as oral medicine. These were natural herbs, untainted by pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, or fluoridated water. The Egyptians documented use of myrrh, frankincense, fennel, cassia, thyme, juniper, and even aloe. Fresh garlic cloves were peeled, mashed and macerated in a mixture of vinegar and water and used as a rinse for sore throats and toothaches.
Egyptians knew about the healing powers of honey. The first official recognition of the importance of honey dates back to the first Egyptian Dynasty and the “Sealer of the Honey.” In Niuserre’s Sun temple, bee-keepers are shown in hieroglyphics blowing smoke into hives as they are removing honey-combs. The honey was immediately jarred and sealed and could therefore be kept for years, and it was used for the production of medicines and ointments. They even used it as a natural antibiotic.
The main land for bee-keeping was in Lower Egypt where there was extensive irrigation feeding thousands of flowering plants. The Bee was chosen as a symbol for the country and the gods were associated with the bee. One pharaoh’s title was Bee King and his Royal archers protected the bees like they were his holy temple. The temples were actually homes for the bees, in order to satisfy the desire of the gods. Canaan was called the “Land of Milk and Honey” in the Hebrew tradition.
The Edwin Smith papyrus is still benefiting modern medicine, and is viewed as a learning manual. Treatments consisted of ailments made from animal, vegetable, fruits and minerals. But the Ebers Papyrus is the most voluminous record of ancient Egyptian medicine known. The scroll contains some 700 remedies including empirical practice and observation. The papyrus actually contains a “treatise on the heart,” which recognizes the heart as the center of the blood supply, with vessels attached.
In the way of thinking of the time, these were not mere words. The Egyptians believed in the importance of names and words and their power in shaping the present and the future. It was important in shaping a newborn’s future life. It is fairly certain that hygiene in ancient Egypt must have occupied the best minds, and reached, at least for those times, a high degree of perfection. It would appear that the concepts of health deteriorated after the Ptolemaic era, especially under the Ottoman occupation.
Bodily cleanliness was an important aspect of the early Egyptian life, “even the Greeks thought excessive the care that Egyptians took of their bodies. All their travelers talk with admiration of the Egyptian customs of washing the hands and the crockery, and of taking purgatives and emetics every month. These customs were certainly in large part due to the example and teaching of the priests, who practiced an extremely fastidious ritual of cleanliness and of whom Herodotus wrote that they must certainly have received many benefits to submit to these innumerable observances.”
There appears to be enough evidence that demonstrates the value the Egyptians placed in being healthy and preserving their health. They had their successes and failures, as we have our success and failures. But, they appeared to be experienced clinicians knowing the resources and limits of their art.
Remedies from the ancient Ebers Papyrus scrolls:
Herbs played a huge role in Egyptian medicine:
• Aloe vera was used to alleviate burns, ulcers, skin diseases and allergies
• Basil was written up as heart medicine
• Balsam Apple (Apple of Jerusalem) was used as a laxative and as a liver stimulant
• Bayberry was prescribed for diarrhea, ulcers and hemorrhoids
• Caraway soothed digestion and was a breath freshener
• Colchicum (citrullus colocynthus or meadow saffron) soothed rheumatism and reduced swelling
• Dill was recognized for laxative and diuretic properties
• Fenugreek was prescribed for respiratory disorders and to cleanse the stomach and calm the liver and pancreas
• Frankincense was used for throat and larynx infections, and to stop bleeding and vomiting
• Garlic was given to the Hebrew slaves daily to give them vitality and strength for building the pyramids
• Licorice was utilized as a mild laxative, to expel phlegm, and to alleviate chest and respiratory problems
• Onion was taken to prevent colds and to address cardiovascular problems (How did they know?)
• Parsley was prescribed as a diuretic
• Thyme was given as a pain reliever and Tumeric for open wounds
• Poppy was used to relieve insomnia, as an anesthetic, and to deaden pain
• Coriander was taken as a tea for urinary complaints, including cystitis
• Pomegranate root was strained with water and drunk to address “snakes of the belly” (tapeworms). The alkaloids contained in pomegranate paralyzed the worms’ nervous system and they relinquished their hold.
• Persian henna was used against hair loss
The Smith Papyrus was written in Egyptian hieratic script around the 17th century BCE
Magic and Medical Science in Ancient Egypt