The Ancient Egyptians, like the Ancient Greeks and Romans, have provided modern historians with a great deal of knowledge and evidence about their attitude towards medicine and the medical knowledge that they had. This evidence has come from the numerous papyruses found in archaeological searches.
Like prehistoric man, some of the beliefs of the Egyptians were based on myths and legend. However, their knowledge was also based on an increasing knowledge of the human anatomy and plain commonsense.
In Ancient Egypt, the treatment of illnesses was no longer carried out only by magicians and medicine men. We have evidence that people existed who were referred to physicians and doctors.
“It is seven days from yesterday since I saw my love,
And sickness has crept over me,
My limbs have become heavy,
I cannot feel my own body.
If the master-physicians come to me,
I gain no comfort from their remedies.
And the priest-magicians have no cures,
My sickness is not diagnosed.
My love is better by far for me than my remedies.
She is more important to me than all the books of medicine.”
An Ancient Egyptian love poem written in about 1500 BC.
Archaeological digs have also found evidence of men titled physicians. The hieroglyphics on the door to the tomb of Irj described him as a physician at the court of the pharaohs. Irj lived about 1500 BC. He was described as a:
“palace doctor, superintendent of the court physicians, palace eye physician, palace physician of the belly and one who understands the internal fluids and who is guardian of the anus.”
Physicians lived even earlier in Ancient Egypt. Imphotep was the physician to King Zozer and lived in about 2600 BC. Imphotep was considered so important that he was, after his death, was worshipped as a god of healing.
Almost all of our knowledge about Ancient Egyptian medical knowledge comes from the discoveries of papyrus documents. The very dry atmosphere in Egypt has meant that many of these documents have been very well preserved despite their age. Numerous papyrus documents have come from the era 1900 BC to 1500 BC. It is from these documents that we know that the Ancient Egyptians still believed that the supernatural caused some disease.
When there was no obvious reason for an illness, many Ancient Egypt doctors and priests believed that disease was caused by spiritual beings. When no-one could explain why someone had a disease, spells and magical potions were used to drive out the spirits.
Some of these spells were:
“These words are to be spoken over the sick person. ‘O Spirit, male of female, who lurks hidden in my flesh and in my limbs, get out of my flesh. Get out of my limbs!” This was a remedy for a mother and child.“Come! You who drives out evil things from my stomach and my limbs. He who drinks this shall be cured just as the gods above were cured.”This was added at the end of this cure: ‘This spell is really excellent – successful many times.’ It was meant to be said when drinking a remedy.
This was a remedy for people going bald:
“Fat of lion, fat of hippo, fat of cat, fat of crocodile, fat of ibex, fat of serpent, are mixed together and the head of the bald person is anointed with them.
The Ancient Egyptians also had a god who would frighten away evil spirits – Bes.
Despite this use of remedies that come from a lack of knowledge, the Ancient Egyptians also developed their knowledge as a result of education. Ancient papyrus inform us that the Ancient Egyptians were discovering things about how the human body worked and they knew that the heart, pulse rates, blood and air were important to the workings of the human body. A heart that beat feebly told doctors that the patient had problems.
The Ancient Egyptians wrote down their knowledge and this is found on what is known as the Papyrus Ebers:
“46 vessels go from the heart to every limb, if a doctor places his hand or fingers on the back of the head, hands, stomach, arms or feet then he hears the heart. The heart speaks out of every limb.”
The papyrus continues:
“There are 4 vessels to his nostrils, 2 give mucus and 2 give blood; there are 4 vessels in his forehead; there are 6 vessels that lead to the arms; there are 6 vessels that lead to the feet; there are 2 vessels to his testicles (and) there are 2 vessels to the buttocks.”
The document actually gives names to organs such as the spleen, the heart, the anus, the lungs etc so they must have known that these exist. One papyrus, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, has a detailed description of the brain in it so this organ was also well researched by the standards of the time. It is probable that this knowledge came as a result of the practice the Ancient Egyptians had of embalming dead bodies.
The work of an embalmer was described in detail by Herodotus who was from Greece but was visiting Ancient Egypt in the 5th Century:
“First they take a crooked piece of metal and with it draw out some of the brain through the nostrils and then rinse out the rest with drugs. Next they make a cut along the side of the body with a sharp stone and take out the whole contents of the abdomen. After this they fill the cavity with myrrh, cassia and other spices and the body is placed in natron for 70 days.”
Those organs that were removed in the embalming process, were put in a jar along with preserving spices and put into the tomb of the person being buried. Though religious law forbade the embalmers from studying the body, it is almost certain they would have gained some knowledge of the human anatomy simply from the work that they did.