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History of Egyptian Medicine and Philosophy

Author: Lynn Bellair

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When medical knowledge past is considered, lack of aseptic technique, pain-killing drugs and antibiotics are an accepted part of our modern legend of these ancient healing practices. You will find that none of this is true when it comes to Ancient Egypt. These erroneous ideas were partially propagated through an over reliance on carved inscriptions and tomb art. Then as now, the majority of the literature, medical knowledge and science of a civilization is never inscribed on indestructible materials. Another factor has been the academic and cultural prejudice that treats the past's achievements as the product of near savages with nothing of importance to teach us know-it-all moderns. It is only in the last few years the discovery and translation of a few papyri has broadened our understanding of the skill and ability these ancient healers developed over the millennia.

Some of the texts are perhaps even older than the Egyptian civilization. The introductions to two medical documents give us some hint of this. For instance, the Berlin Medical Papyrus states in its introduction: "found in ancient writings in a chest containing documents under the feet of Anubis in Letopolis in the time of the majesty of King Usephais, deceased; after his death it was brought to the majesty of King Sened, deceased, because of its excellence ... It was the scribe of sacred writing, the chief of the excellent physicians, Neterhotep, {who made} this book."

Similarly the London Medical Papyrus states: "This book was found in the night, having fallen into the court of the temple in {Khemmis}, as secret knowledge of this goddess, by the hand of the lector of this temple. Lo, this land was in darkness, and the moon shone on every side of this book. It was brought as a marvel to the majesty of King {Khufu}."

In fact the ancients wanted their techniques kept secret, it was good for business and brought worshipers with offerings to the temples. Over time many of these secret processes and remedies became part of medical folklore of the Mediterranean world. The word "alchemy" comes from the ancient name for Egypt "kmt" in pharaonic, "chemi" in Coptic.

The ancient medical community was much like today in that they advised preventative medicine. The prescription for a healthy life, which was almost always given by a member of the priesthood, was first for an individual to take part in the regular purification rituals. These included bathing, often shaving one's head and body hair, and maintaining certain dietary restrictions (often against raw fish and other animals considered unclean to eat). It was also common for the Egyptians to undergo dream analysis to find a cure or cause for illness, as well as to ask for a priest to aid them with magic. Religious magical rites and purificatory rites were intertwined in the healing process as well as in creating a proper lifestyle.

Physicians were trained through apprenticeships. There were taught certain conventions such as to always introduce the diagnosis by the words: "Thou should say 'concerning him [the patient] this is' and end with one of these three statements:

1. 'An ailment which I will treat.'

2. 'An ailment with which I will contend.'

3. 'An ailment not to be treated.'


The student physician was then instructed to treat the patient in one of three ways:

A. 'Until he recovers.'

B. 'Until the period of his injury passes by.'

C. 'Until thou knowest that he has the reached decisive point.'"


Medical books were expensive because they had to be hand copied. The government maintained a library called the House of Life. It contained papyri on many subjects including medical, purification, ritual, astronomy and interpretation of dreams. It served as a scriptorium and university to the population. Physicians in training were required to spend time there learning the art of the scribe so they could both read and copy the texts.

Hesyre was the oldest known physician in history. He was the "Chief of Dentists and Physicians" at the time of King Zoser (3rd dynasty, 2700 - 2625 BC). Peseshet was the first female physician in the world, practicing at the time of the pyramids (4th dynasty). She was titled "Lady Overseer of the Lady Physicians". She oversaw a group of women who were qualified physicians, not just midwives. She also taught midwives at the peri-ankh (medical school) of Sais.

The physician was called "swnw" (sunu). The medical profession was organized, with the swnw at the bottom, "imy-r swnw", the overseer of physicians next, then "wr swnw" or the chief physician , followed by the "msw swnw" or eldest physician, next was the "shd swnw" inspector of physicians, and finally Overseer of Physicians of Upper and Lower Egypt. Magic physicians also existed, and were named "sau". In between "swnw" and "sau" are priests and priestesses of Sekhmet who can inflict death and disease. Her chosen can heal those whom she punishes. They were medically trained but not enough to have the title "swnw". All types of physicians coexisted peacefully.

There were no pharmacists in ancient Egypt. The physician herself compounded the remedies, just as she probably gathered the necessary ingredients and stored them in her house. In the ancient recipes relative quantities were often specified when describing mixtures of various materials. The eye of Horus was used as a device to express such fractions.





This method of measuring was related to the ancient myth in which the eye of the god Horus was torn apart in a fight with the god Seth, but it was reassembled by the god Thoth. Consequently, the parts of the "whole eye" came to be used as practical shorthand to represent fractions of ingredients to be used in preparing drug mixtures. Today we use the character Rx to designate the word 'prescription' - a direct descendant of the symbol for the 'Eye of Horus'.

The fractions themselves came from medical teachings that divided senses by their importance, and therefore the amount within a normal human body.

1/32 heqat Taste

1/16 heqat Hearing

1/8 heqat Thought

1/4 heqat Sight

1/2 heqat Smell


There was something like hospitals as well. The temple of Hathor (Hwt-Hrw) at Dendra was composed of buildings that were used for this purpose. At this location the sick were cared for by priestesses with baths, special diets, medical incantations and prayers. These priestesses also acted as midwives for the community.



Medical Knowledge and Philosophy



Egyptians believed that disease and death were never natural or inevitable. The most
commonly held hypothesis stated that disease was caused by some powerful spirit which might
use any means, natural or unnatural, visable or invisable to cause the disease. This was
refered to as wekhedu (translated as morbid principle or rot). The medical papyri make
specific mention of these things which enter the body from the outside. "The breath of life
enters into the right ear and the breath of death enters into the left ear" Ebers
papyrus(854f). Another mention is from the Edwin Smith Papyrus (Case 8) "As for something
entering from the outside, it means the breath of an outside god or death. It is not an
entering of that which is created by his own flesh."

Egyptian physicians had developed a theory of "metu" (translated as tubes). The metu
included blood vessels, arteries, ducts, nerves, tendons and muscles. These tubes ran between
the heart and the anus and then went to various parts of the body. In the medical texts the
physician often specifies what the particular met (singular form of metu) was carrying, such
as blood, air, mucus, urine, semen, water, feces and good or evil spirits.

In this theory, disease arises when wekhedu travels through the metu. Once inside, it
could stick, grow and spread, causing dental problems, stomach cramps, eye infections,
fevers, mental illness, tumors and so on. Early scientists and physicians had so closely
observed the course of disease they could theorize there was an unseeable thing (wekhedu)
that infected the patient (their words "stick, grow and spread"), causing illness. Today we
believe that unseen (without a microscope) bacteria and viruses invade the body from the
outside, stick, grow and spread, causing illness. Not so different after all.

Many of the citizen's problems were caused by the environment. Sand blown by the wind
caused lung and breathing diseases. The sand also found its way into food, especially bread,
the dietary staple. Eaten daily these grains of sand wore down the people's teeth, causing
tooth decay and abcesses. Evidence of this can be seen as eroded holes in the cheeks and jaws
of many x-rayed mummies. Additionally the Nile River contains several species of parasites
that infect humans, causing lifelong illness and health problems. These created a
considerable additional need for effective medical treatment beyond the contagious disease,
childbirth and injury we commonly consider.

Ancient surgery was surprisingly successful. There was an excellent chance of recovering
from an operation. Several examples exist of cranial surgery, probably to repair skulls
smashed during battle. There are only a few examples of trepaning (cutting a hole in the
skull for unknown reasons) that are often seen in other ancient cultures. All of those found
however, show bone growth around the removed bone section. This indicates that the patients
lived after the surgery for some time. Evidence of bone setting, draining cysts, pulling
teeth and removal of growths has been found during examination of mummies. A recently
examined mummy, found in the necropolis at Thebes, had a delicately carved wooden prosthetic
toe complete with toenail to replace one that had been amputated. It had attached to her foot
with a fine linen lace. In later periods caesarian sections are attested to by two tomb
paintings. There is no evidence of other abdominal surgery.

Wounds were treated with willow bark (the original source of asprin) and moldy bread
compresses (known to contain antibiotics), kept clean through ritual bathing and infection
free through the regular application of honey (known even today as an excellent anti-
bacterial). Before operations, patients were given numbing agents including opium and
belladonna, as well as others. The knives and scalpels were heated to cauterize wounds which
stops bleeding. This provided an (at the time) unknown benefit, sterilized instruments. These
facts help put to rest the idea that ancient people's medical knowledge was undeveloped,
potentially dangerous and mostly ineffective.






All medical information contained in this article was taken from the text of the translated medical papyri or


Ancient Healing

Various Authors
Publications International 1997


The Oxford Companion to Archaeology

Edited by Brian M. Fagan

Oxford University Press 1996


Hathor Rising

Alison Roberts

Inner Traditions International 1995


The Book of the Dead

Translated by E.A. Wallis Budge

Gramercy Books 1960


Ancient Wisdom

Cassandra Eason

Sterling Publishing Company 1997


Life Under the Pharaohs

Leonard Clttrell

Holt, Reinhart and Winston 1960

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