Medicine at the Time of the Pharaohs

If our knowledge of Mesopotamian Medicine is obviously full of holes, that of the Egyptians is much better known to us.  We have many, copious sources.  The most remarkable is uncontestably the papyrus baptised Ebers, the name of the Egyptologist who bought it from peasants-tomb robbers in 1872.  This papyrus dates from the beginning of the XVIIth Dynasty but it copies several older texts which have not come down to us.  These passages go back to the Ancient Empire (2800-2300 before the present era).  Because of this, the Ebers Papyrus can be considered as one of the oldest in the world, if not the oldest.  It is twenty metres long and comports no fewer than one hundred and eight pages of remedies.  We have here a sort of medical dictionary constructed according to a real plan, but where, from our point of view, the best and worst are side by side.

Another major, even capital, source:  The Edwin-Smith Papyrus, bought in 1862 by an American archeologist.  It measures 4.68 metres and is entirely consecrated to traumatic pathology analysed in forty-eight chapters.  It dates from the XVIIIth Dynasty.  For Ange-Pierre Leca, it is a model of its type which admirably anticipates Hippocrates’ medical treatises.  He exposes:

“Here, there is no black magic, but facts of an astonishing, clinical observation, no mysterious malady where incantation often takes the place of a remedy, but well-observed lesions, correctly described, to which were applied physical treatments.”

The language is that of today’s clinicians.  Circumspection is the rule, diagnosis is drawn from attentive observation of the symptoms.  Here is one example:

“If you examine a man having an open wound in his head, penetrating right to the bone and perforating his cranium, you must palpate his wound;  if you find him incapable of looking at his two shoulders and his chest, if his neck is painful and stiff… “

The treatment follows:

“Now, after having stitched it, you must apply fresh meat on the wound on the first day.  You must not bind it […]  You must then treat it with fat, honey and dress it each day… “

The great Medicine historian, Charles Lichtenthaeler, does not hide his admiration.  For him, the Edwin-Smith Papyrus is the first known document to class in good order all of the illnesses and traumatisms, according to the schema “from the head to the feet”.  The presentation of today’s medical manuals derives from this classification invented in Egypt, thousands of years ago.  He also points out that the Egyptian practicians were the first to highlight the causal relations between the clinical phenomena..  He cites this particularly pertinent observation of that which we call paraplegia:

“If you examine a man having a luxation in a vertebra of the neck and if you find that he can no longer control his two arms and his two legs because of this, while his penis is in erection because of this and that urine is falling from his member without him being aware of it…  You will say about him:  a man who has a luxation in the vertebra of his neck [this is] a malady for which we can do nothing.”

Apart from the Ebers Papyrus and the Edwin-Smith Papyrus which constitute major references in Egyptian Medicine, there are other sources which are more minor for they are specialised (in gynaecology, proctology, paediatrics) or very encumbered by medico-magical formulae, which reduce their interest, at least in our eyes.  For, from the Egyptians’ point of view, Magical Medicine was extremely important and exercised a seduction that was very much superior to the Empiric Medicine prescribed by the Edwin-Smith Papyrus.  But there again, we must not imagine that there was a distinct separation of the two.  In the same way that today, we can entrust the disappearance of our warts, either to the healer or the dermatologist, so could the Egyptian patient call upon either the doctor or the healer, both competences sometimes melting into one and the same person.

The magical action obeyed the homeopathic precept:

“Same attracts same”.

Therefore, an illness diagnosed as a cancer of the uterus, where the odour of the tumour smells like burnt flesh, was treated by fumigations of burnt meat…  Another action could guide the therapist:  that which sees in the illness the incrustation of demons inside the organism which must be chased out, in particular by incantations recited by the patient himself, his doctor, his family, his servants, and repeated according to a magical number, four or seven times.  Here are a few samples:

“Flow onto the ground, pus!  Flow onto the ground!”

“Disappear, larva which comes in the dark, which slyly enters through the nose […]  Have you come to embrace this child?  I will not permit you to embrace him… !”

“Turn back, serpent, take away your poison which is in the member of him whom you have bitten.  See, Horus’ magical virtue is stronger than yours!”

To chase away demons, they counted a lot on amulets which preserved from illness.  The most common are the ankh cross, the djed pillar, the oudjat eye, the knot of Isis…  All amulets which can be found in abundance in funeral furniture.  They do not prevent recourse to a pharmacopoeia based on diverse dejections of donkey, snake, lizard, hippopotamus, crocodile or ibis which act by “sympathetic magic”.  These excrements are supposed to push the illness which is devouring the patient, out of his body.  Such is the meaning of this exhortation:

 “Oh death, death, disguised, hidden, which resides inside my body, in my members!  Here, I bring you excrements to eat!”

To safeguard their health, all Egyptians placed themselves under the protection of divinities to whom they assigned a specific role:  Bes, the grotesque dwarf brought protection and comfort to him who was sleeping;  Thoueris, the goddess-hippopotamus concerned pregnant women;  Hekket, the goddess with the frog’s head provoked successful births…  But it is Horus who was the most frequently used:  it was enough to drink water in which the ink of a magical formula had been dissolved, or which had flowed over a stela representing Horus surrounded by crocodiles, serpents and scorpions, to be cured of one illness or another, or to be protected from bites and stings.


To be continued.