ANCIENT EGYPTIAN HERBAL MEDICINE
The Ancient Egyptians had great knowledge and skill for the use of herbs in regards to their effects and subsequent cure in many different ailments. They kept records of their name, habitat, cultivation, collection, storage, characteristics, purpose, preparation and application. They used the fresh or dry seeds, roots, leaves, flowers and fruits in fumigation, inhalation, poultice, unguents, liquid, as part of hot or cold blend with other ingredients (animal or mineral) or in their natural state. Many herbs were applied as treatments even though all their properties weren’t clearly understood. Using their divinatory instinct and the use of experience through the use of trial and error the healers were able to classify herbs into categories of aiding and curing specific ailments.
When a patient was given a herbal remedy, the healer would prepare it and put it in a container with the prescription and instructions for use written on it, much like our modern day Herbalist or Naturopath does.
A typical example of an Ancient Egyptian herbal preparation is the following, which is an excerpt taken out of An Ancient Egyptian Herbal (1999):
“..one Egyptian suffering from an eye complaint was given a small cylindrical pottery vase which specified the contents and gave instructions as to their application: ‘sawdust; acacia leaves; zinc oxide; goose fat. Apply as bandage.’” (p.59)
The use of herbs in Ancient Egypt has survived into the modern day as their medicinal properties are now recognised. An example is aloe vera juice, which was used to treat fever, plague, eye diseases, swelling, digestive disorders and skin disease. Today’s Naturopath or Herbalists could prescribe a treatment using aloe vera as it is an anti-inflammatory which can be used to treat skin inflammations, sores and burns.
ANCIENT EGYPTIAN AROMATHERAPY
The Ancient Egyptians believed that because a plant had a strong aroma (being pleasant or pungent) it would naturally have a remedial quality that would have beneficial effects if inhaled. These beneficial effects were not only treating the physical body but the emotional one as these plants had different effects on the psyche and it was said to be able to touch the inner body.
Aromatherapy was used extensively and they used substances derived from plants which used the scent as the remedy. The remedy was used in various ways such as external applications, inhalations and fumigations. External applications included being massaged into the skin and hair, applied as part of a lotion, poultice or bandage dressing. Internal applications included herbal teas, oils or herbs being inhaled through water evaporation (steam baths) or being inhaled through an incense type burning.
The use of aromatherapy has survived into the modern day as Aromatherapists, Naturopaths and Remedial Therapists use some of the oils and herbs the Ancient Egyptians once did. For example cinnamon oil was used to treat scorpion bites and female ailments by massaging the oil into the effected area. Today’s Naturopath, Aromatherapist or Remedial Therapist could prescribe a treatment using cinnamon oil as it has stimulant, anti-bacterial and anti-depressant qualities and raises heat in the body which can be used to treat depression and increase the blood circulation to an area.
ANCIENT EGYPTIAN AMULETS
Amulets were also used for healing purposes as they could protect people from injury and disease and aid the cure of them. There were three different types of amulets, homopoeic, phylactic and theophoric.
Homopoeic amulets were amulets which showed parts of animals, insects or reptiles. This worked on a ‘similia similibus” as they believed by wearing the amulet showing the part of the creature it would be able to assimilate the desired effect. An example would be if someone was suffering from a heart condition, they would wear an amulet showing a picture of a lion who was believed to have great strength in his heart.
Phylactic amulets were amulets which were protective in nature. When worn they could dispel evil influences and stop harm. An example would be to wear an amulet showing the Eye of Horus which would ward away evils of the most spiritually invasive kind.
Theophoric amulets were amulets which showed the Dieties associated with healing and protection of certain types of afflictions. An example would be for a pregnant woman to wear an amulet showing the Goddess Heqet to enable her to have a healthy and safe pregnancy and birth.
EGYPTIAN MEDICINE INTO THE MODERN ERA
During the 500s BC Egyptian medicine was beginning to loose its dominance in the medical field due to the gaining popularity of Greek Medicine. Both Egyptian and Greek medicine practises were different but the two learned from one another and within a few centuries were fairly similar in nature.
In the first couple of hundred centuries AD with the disintegration of the Egyptian language, the loss of the Alexandrian library (which contained a wealth of information on Egyptian medicine) and the dawn of Christianity, Egyptian medicine was difficult to study. It was mainly passed down from generation to generation through word of mouth and so many original aspects were lost or bastardised until the deciphering of many Egyptian medical writings in the early part of the 20th century.
In today’s modern world Coptic medicine is used throughout Egypt and even though its mainly Greek medicine based its roots are classically Egyptian. The typical Egyptian indigenous population uses Coptic medicine as an alternative to western medicine because of the cost and availability. Also in the last couple of decades it has gained more popularity and is gaining a strong reputation as a better alternative to western medicine.
Ancient Egyptian medicine has retained its presence in the modern world and many holistic and natural therapies of today owe a great debt to the Ancient Egyptians who where pioneers in some of the wholistic practices of today.
In conclusion what I have covered above is only but a snippet of Ancient Egyptian medicine as it must be studied further to gain a much better comprehension of it. To gather a deeper understanding it is essential to delve deeper into its mysteries and learn for yourself the rich knowledge the Ancient Egyptians possessed.
(c) T. Georgitsis 2001 (First published in Axis Mundi Issue 52, June 2012)
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Harris, N. 1997, Ancient Egypt (Culture and Lifestyle of The Ancient Egyptians), London: Hamlyn
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