Ancient Egyptian Medicine – Part 1 of 2

180px-Luxor_Sekhmet_New_Kingdom

Proper nutrition, exercise, emotional and spiritual fulfillment were important to keep a person in complete health according to the Ancient Egyptians.  A person had to keep their body in complete check making sure the above were fulfilled in order to keep the body in harmony with the internal and external cosmos and therefore ensuring it would serve as a just vehicle for the Ka (vital force) which is present in all things.

Ancient Egyptian medicine goes back thousands of years – even before the written word and so is classified as one of the first healing modalities.

The Ancient Egyptians believed in a holistic approach to wellbeing and so encompassed the whole person when treating them. The kind of illness or injury determined what method of treatment to be used and which approach was appropriate.

Many healers in Ancient Egypt used a combination of magic and physical remedies to cure the populace of their ailments.  With the combination of the two it was said to eliminate physical and spiritual evil that caused suffering.  They believed in order to effectively treat the patient they needed to do so physically and emotionally as the two worked together in the benefit or detriment of the person.

heka-

DEVELOPMENT OF MEDICINE AND WORKING WITH MAGIC

The Ancient Egyptians had ways to observe the skeletal and muscular systems of the body through observation.  They never actually performed dissections as it was considered a desecration of the body.  They believed the body was reborn into the land of the dead and even in death kept it in the most impeccable condition.  Observations were made through the treatment of patients and thus with more practice and through the experience and information from others before them, they were able to update their findings as time passed.

The Ancient Egyptians concept of the nature of disease varied from the magical to the pragmatic.  A particular disease could be derived from the curse of another or through evil spirit interference.  This was due to the fact that the cause and outcome was hard to predict with their limited scientific knowledge, so magic was an important factor in healing the inflicted person. In regards to injuries such as broken bones and cuts they were assigned to logical reasoning and were treated as such with the help and blessing of some magic to stop infection and speed up the healing process.

The therapeutic effect of magic was quite significant in the healing process.  Even in today’s modern world the suggestion and expectation of a cure can heal a person – the power of the mind can do anything if the will is strong and the Ancient Egyptians believed this whole-heartedly.  If the patient was negative and felt as if there was no solution, there was more of a possibility the patient would not be cured.  Healers made use of magic and invocation as a means to cure as it had a placebo effect.  Love for example was energy used to cure the sick as it is extremely potent and a common energy which everyone experiences in their lives at one time or another.  It was used to cure patients of their afflictions and in this day and age we see this being repeated by showing tender love and care to those who are sick.

The use of medicines such as herbs were said to have improved therapeutic effect if used in combination with blessings and magic. If medicine and magic was used together they complimented each other and thus had a more potent effect.

The Ancient Egyptians followed the principle of “similia similibus” where they used remedies that resembled the part of the body that needed the treatment because it was said that the characteristics would increase the potential of a cure.  This was done using herbs, crystals, animal parts, amulets and even human excrement.

The Ancient Egyptian pharmacopoeia comprised of treatments derived from animal, vegetable and mineral origins as they all had their valued therapeutic effects.  The collection, preparation, containers and dosages were extremely important and great care was taken.  The administration of treatment was by mouth, anus, vagina, penis, external application to skin, hair and nails , fumigation and inhalation.

sunrise-in-karnak-temple-luxor-egypt-1600x1065

WHO PRACTICED ANCIENT EGYPTIAN MEDICINE?

 There were various categories of those who practiced medicine in Ancient Egypt.  These included the Swnw, Priests of Sekhmet and Magicians.  All were thought to be healers although the Swnw were considered superior in the healing arts.  They were trained through specialised schools (such as temples) or through transmission of knowledge from a family member or friend.  Many healers had to be able to cure themselves of illness before they were able to heal others or show they were in complete equilibrium with all aspects of themselves.

Swnws were the conventional doctors and used physical examination, diagnosis based on what they could see and what they believed was to be the cause (it being spiritual or not) and a plan of treatment using animal, vegetable and mineral remedies with the blessings and aid of certain deities.  Some Swnw even specialised in certain areas such as veterinary care, teeth and gums, infections of the eye and women’s health.

The Priests of Sekhmet were healers as well as priests.  They worshiped the Goddess Sekhmet who was the Goddess associated with healing and medicine.  They practised using a combination of rational medicine along with ritual magic.

Magicians practiced in small communities where a priest or swnw was unavailable.  Some magicians even worked in close relationship with a Swnw.  Magicians usually practiced using prayers, incantations, concoctions and amulets as their basis for cure.  An example of an Ancient Egyptian magician was a Hekay who used Heka – a practice of magic through the spoken word to heal the sick.

There were others also involved in the healing process and these included people who were not necessarily doctors, priests or magicians.  These included pharmacists, nurses, midwives, physiotherapists and bandagers.  These were healers in their own right but since no school was available they learned their craft through word of mouth, from a family member, friend or paid a person to teach them who was skilled in the area.

WHERE WAS MEDICINE PRACTICED?

Places of healing included temples, the healers practice rooms or the patient’s home.  Some patients could stay in the healing temples (such as the one in Dendera) and be given special infusions to drink or specially prepared food to eat and then left in special rooms to spend the night.  This would be in the hope of inducing a dream which would show them the cause and cure of their affliction.  Some temples even had a special room called a Mammisi which were birthing rooms, but these were usually left for royal births or high births.  Healers also had their own practice rooms and also made home visits if required or preferred much like the doctors of today.

To be continued….

(c) T. Georgitsis 2001 (First published in Axis Mundi Issue 52, June 2012)

REFERENCES:

Brier, B. 1981, Ancient Egyptian Magic, New York: Quill

Harris, N. 1997, Ancient Egypt (Culture and Lifestyle of The Ancient Egyptians), London: Hamlyn

Jacq, C. 1998,  Magic and Mystery in Ancient Egypt, London: Sourvenir Press

Manniche, L. 1999, An Egyptian Herbal, London: British Museum Press

Manniche, L. 1999, Fragrance, Aromatherapy and Cosmetics in Ancient Egypt, London: Opus Publishing Limited

Nunn, F. 1996, Ancient Egyptian Medicine, London: British Museum Press

Tierra, M. 1998, The Way of Herbs, New York: Pocket Books

Wilson, H. 1995, Understanding Hieroglyphs, London: Michael O’Mara Books Limited

Advertisements

One comment on “Ancient Egyptian Medicine – Part 1 of 2

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s