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Discover ancient Egyptian medicinal wisdom


Discover ancient Egyptian medicinal wisdom

Credit: Isabella Jusková

Ancient Egyptian civilisation is undoubtedly one of the greatest civilisations known to mankind. Their medicine and healing arts were the most respected and admired across the ancient world and among the first that were well documented. Medicine, religion and magic were intertwined. Disease was often believed to have been sent by the gods as a punishment, similar to the concept of karma, or by evil spirits that had taken hold of a patient mentally, emotionally or physically. Ancient Egyptian healing regimens included magic, spells, incantations, herbal medicines, specific foods and diets, prayer, energy healing, reflexology, massage and occasionally surgery.

The ancient Egyptians believed in Ba and Ka, two sources of vital life-force energy, similar to the concept of yin and yang in traditional Chinese medicine. They believed when the energy flow through the body became obstructed, disease would result, so balancing and harmonising that flow was imperative for good health. It was thought that a blockage or resistance could be due to gods, demons and spirits or to mental, emotional or spiritual issues within the person that needed to be addressed and healed before the physical disease manifested or could be healed.

Ancient Egyptian healing regimens included magic, spells, incantations, herbal medicines, specific foods and diets, prayer, energy healing, reflexology, massage and occasionally surgery.

Statues of the pharaohs clasp cylinder-like objects in their hands. These are Egyptian Rods of Ra or Wands of Horus, which are metal cylinders filled with quartz-containing materials used for not only for healing but for increasing psychic abilities and meditation skills. They were thought to harmonise and heal the immune, endocrine and nervous systems by balancing the Ba and Ka energies.

For the ancient Egyptians the heart was the most important organ, believed to be the seat of intelligence and emotion. It was vital to heal the heart of its fears and ailments and it featured prominently in many medical papyrus texts and depictions. One of the most special and significant events was the “Weighing of the Heart Ceremony”. The heart of the individual was weighed against the feather representing the goddess of truth, Ma’at, in a judgment process overseen by Osiris, the lord of the underworld. If the heart was afflicted with wrongdoing and heavy with sin, it would be eaten by the demon Ammut, who was waiting below the scales for the outcome. If it weighed more than the feather, it was unable to be returned to the owner for burial, who in turn could not enter the afterlife. It may be seen as a symbolic representation of the law of karma.

Priest–doctor

The famous Greek medical father of the 5th century BCE, Hippocrates, paid homage to ancient Egyptian medical practices. Physicians were highly revered in ancient Egypt as it was believed that to be a healer you had to possess the wisdom of the universe, astronomy, energy, sound and number. There was a well-organised hierarchy with different ranks and specialisations in the field of medicine and surgery. Royalty employed their own physician or swnw, hieroglyphic for the arrow and even their own specialists. Priest physicians were ranked highest and were the best trained. Lay physicians served the general population and had access to the temples and their libraries for advice.

Doctors trained in teaching institutions called the Houses of Life, situated within magnificent temples and associated with the goddess Sekhmet or Thoth, the ibis-headed god. For the priest–doctors the studies were long and arduous and few made it through the process of initiation into the priesthood. It was believed that before one could be a healer one must have healed oneself of all physical, mental, emotional and spiritual illnesses, pains and difficulties. It was believed that years of disciplined effort were needed to purify the heart and make the connection to the “higher self”, which then allowed you to heal others and see though the veil of illusion.

The ancient Egyptians believed in Ba and Ka, two sources of vital life-force energy, which flowed through the human body, similar to the concept of yin and yang in traditional Chinese medicine.

Part of this training involved seeing and connecting with the patient’s “higher self” and understanding the lesson a particular ailment was teaching them as well as the spiritual roots of the illness. With the use of incantations, prayers and meditations they connected with that knowledge and understood that mental, emotional and spiritual healing preceded physical healing. They understood that you could not heal someone of an illness if it was part of a greater learning and transforming experience for their soul.

Once the lesson had been learnt, the patient’s body could be healed and supported with medicine or surgery. The ancient Egyptian healers treated everything as a whole, understanding that an outer physical manifestation of illness was only a sign of an inner unresolved problem, essentially a spiritual cause of a physical sickness.

Sekhem

Sekhem is an ancient Egyptian healing system taught as part of the spiritual practices in the high temples. It’s similar to Reiki, although Egyptian Sekhem has a higher vibrational frequency and a powerful transformational energy. It’s a channelled energy, not your own, drawn from the limitless pouring and flow of the universal source of energy. It works energetically to harmonise and balance your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies and gives strength and support to the body’s own natural healing capabilities. Sekhem healing is considered the forerunner of all spiritual hands-on healing systems.

It’s associated with the Egyptian lion-headed goddess, Sekhmet, the guardian and protector of this healing energy. Sekhmet’s name comes from the ancient Egyptian word sekhem, meaning “power” or “might”. She was the patron of physicians and healers and her priests were thought to be the most skilled doctors. She is strongly linked with Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. She is patroness of both war and of the healing and regenerative sciences. Sekhmet serves to remove what no longer serves you and your higher purpose so you can build a true and divine self.

Papyrus medical records

Most ancient Egyptian medical knowledge comes from the discoveries of the extraordinary papyrus documents. They were written thousands of years before Hippocrates was born, confirming that the origins of modern medicine lie in ancient Egypt and not with the ancient Greeks. The most famous is the Edwin Smith Papyrus, which contains a large list of diagnoses and treatments of different diseases. It is an ancient Egyptian medical text dedicated to the management of surgical trauma. It dates back to the Second Intermediate Period in Ancient Egypt, around 1600 BCE.

It describes 48 cases of injury and trauma with incredible detail regarding the types and mechanisms of the injury, clinical examinations, diagnosis and treatment. The text is attributed by some to the most famous physician of ancient times, Imhotep, from the Old Kingdom 3000–2500 BCE. It discusses injuries to the head, spine, arms and torso. Among the treatments are closing wounds with sutures (for wounds of the lip, throat and shoulder), preventing and curing infections with honey and stopping bleeding with raw meat, which has a well-known coagulant effect. Immobilisation is advised for head and spinal cord injuries, as well as other long limb fractures. The Edwin Smith Papyrus also describes superb anatomical details and descriptions such as the cranial sutures, meninges, external surface of the brain, cerebrospinal fluid and intracranial pulsations.

For the ancient Egyptians the heart was the most important organ, believed to be the seat of intelligence and emotion.

The procedures of the Edwin Smith Papyrus demonstrate an Egyptian level of knowledge of medicine and surgery that surpassed Hippocrates, who lived 1000 years later. It served as a textbook for managing trauma from the military battles waged during those times. Edwin Smith purchased the papyrus in Luxor, Egypt, in 1862, from Egyptian dealer, Mustafa Agha. The Edwin Smith Papyrus was in the possession of Smith until his death, when his daughter donated it to the New York Historical Society, who then presented it to the New York Academy of Medicine, where it remains.

Another extraordinary papyrus is the Ebers Papyrus, dating to c. 1550 BCE. It’s at the library of the University of Leipzig, Germany. Along with the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus, which focused on women and pregnancy (c. 1800 BCE), the Edwin Smith Papyrus (c. 1600 BCE), the Hearst Papyrus (c. 1600 BCE), the Brugsch Papyrus (c. 1300 BCE) and the London Medical Papyrus (c. 1300 BCE), the Ebers Papyrus is among the oldest preserved medical documents.

The Ebers Papyrus preserves the most voluminous record of ancient Egyptian medicine. The scroll contains some 700 magical formulas and remedies. It contains incantations meant to turn away disease-causing demons and there’s also evidence of a long tradition of empirical practice and observation. The Ebers Papyrus contains a “treatise on the heart”. It notes that the heart is the centre of the blood supply, with vessels attached for every part of the body, comparing it to the flow and branches of the Nile.

Imhotep

Early historical records show that the first physician known by name was the famous and revered Imhotep (27th century BCE). He is held in esteem by all physicians who, like the eminent 19th-century British practitioner Sir William Osler, consider him “the first figure of a physician to stand out clearly from the mists of antiquity”. He was an architect, priest, scribe, sage, poet, astrologer, vizier and chief minister to Djoser (reigned 2630–2611 BCE), the second king of Egypt’s third dynasty.

As a physician, surgeon, medical herbalist and dentist, he diagnosed and treated more than 200 diseases, including diseases of the abdomen, bladder, rectum, eyes, skin, hair, nails and tongue. Imhotep treated tuberculosis, gallstones, appendicitis, gout and arthritis.

He was, together with Amenhotep, the only mortal Egyptian who reached the position of full god. He was also associated with Thoth, the god of wisdom, writing and learning, as well as medicine. Devotees bought offerings to his medical and spiritual school in Saqqara, where his tomb is found. He was later worshipped by the early Christians as one with Christ who was made to adopt one of the titles of Imhotep, “the Prince of Peace”. In Greece he was identified with their god of medicine, Asclepius. He was held in great regard by the Romans who placed inscriptions on the walls of their temples in his honour.

Materia medica

Around 50 per cent of the plants used in ancient Egypt remain in clinical use today. Ancient Egyptian physicians used dozens of herbs, spices and foods in their treatment regimens. These substances were dispensed as liquid potions, pills, inhalations, fumigations, pessaries, suppositories, ointments and eye drops. Many incantations were used to stir and invite the healing gods and spirits to activate the healing powers within remedies as well as the patients’ innate healing ability.

Gastrointestinal complaints were treated with common juniper tree, caraway and cardamom. Mint was used for bloating, flatulence and digestion. Prescriptions for laxatives included castor oil and colocynth, while bulk bran and figs were used to promote regularity. Colic was treated with hyoscyamus, which is still used today. Cumin and coriander were used as intestinal carminatives.

Musculoskeletal disorders were treated with topical applications and poultices to stimulate blood flow. Celery and saffron were used for rheumatism, and are currently undergoing scientific research. Colchicum, also known as meadow saffron, was used to soothe rheumatism and reduce swelling.

Garlic and onions were used to increase vitality, rid the body of “spirits” and, during the building of the Pyramids, workers were given daily doses of garlic to keep them healthy, purify their blood and ward off infections.

The ancient Egyptian healers treated everything as a whole, understanding that an outer physical manifestation of illness was only a sign of an inner unresolved, unaddressed problem, essentially a spiritual cause of a physical sickness.

Liquorice was used as a mild laxative, to expel phlegm, soothe the liver and pancreas, as well as for chest and respiratory problems. Frankincense, mustard and fenugreek were used for throat and larynx infections and for respiratory ailments, either taken internally or made into poultices. Henna, used widely across ancient and modern times as a dye, was used as an astringent and helped in curing diarrhoea and closing open wounds.

Poppy, mandrake and thyme were used for pain relief and as anaesthetics. Myrrh was used to relieve headaches as well as soothe gum afflictions, toothaches and backaches. Pomegranate was used to eradicate tapeworms and for vitality. The tannic acid extracted from acacia seeds was used for cardiovascular complaints and to heal burns. It also helped in treating skin diseases and easing diarrhoea and internal bleeding.

In treating skin conditions such as burns, ulcers and allergic dermatitis, they used aloe vera widely. They also treated wounds with honey, resins (including cannabis resin) and elemental metals such as silver, known to be strong antimicrobials.

Surgery

Surgery was commonly practised by ancient Egyptian doctors, particularly for managing traumatic injuries. Surgical tools found in archaeological sites have included knives, hooks, drills, forceps and pincers, scales, spoons, saws and a vase with burning incense. The mummification process required surgical skills and taught them about anatomy.

Egyptian surgeons knew how to suture wounds, placing raw meat on the wound to stop bleeding and stimulate blood production. They also used honey for its antiseptic qualities. Doctors also used mouldy bread as an antibiotic thousands of years before Fleming discovered penicillin.

The ancient Egyptians seem to have practised circumcision widely, as depicted in many ancient drawings. Boys destined for priesthood were circumcised as part of the initial ritual cleansing, which also included shaving of the whole body.

They also made prostheses, mostly cosmetic for preparation for the afterlife but also for managing walking issues and following injuries and disease. The ancient Egyptian “orthopaedic” surgeon was well trained in fracture management, reducing dislocations and splinting limbs.

Women’s health

Obstetrics and gynaecology were extremely important, since the pharaonic descent was through the female line. Fertility aids and contraceptives were developed and, although there are references to abortifacients, these were discouraged as children were highly valued, particularly as a potential source of labour. Herbs to promote fertility were used as well as chants and spells.

Often referred to as a tyet or Isis knot, cloth tampons were made by rolling up scrap fabric (often cotton) and tying a string around the centre. The name “Isis knot” refers to the goddess Isis, who according to legend used a tampon while pregnant with Horus to protect him while in the womb from attacks by the god Seth.

The determination of a child’s sex was done by having the woman urinate on wheat and barley. If the wheat sprouted she would give birth to a son; if barley, a daughter. Tests of fertility included the introduction of garlic into the vagina, which if perceptible in the woman’s breath the next day meant she was fertile.

Other healing modalities

Sound was used for many purposes in ancient Egypt. Singing bowls were used to heal psychic problems. The vibrations of the bowls were thought to touch their soul and heart and give them peace as well as a way back to their “higher self”.

Early Egyptians appear to have been the first to recognise that stress could contribute to illness. They established sanatoriums where people would undergo dream therapy and treatments with healing waters.

They used essential oils during massage therapy to alleviate pain, stress and poor circulation. The earliest written record of massage therapy was found in the Tomb of Akmanthor, known as “The Tomb of the Physician”, in Saqqara, Egypt, c. 2400 BCE. On the walls of the tomb was a painting depicting two men having their feet and hands kneaded. Egyptians have also been credited with the creation of reflexology, based on that same painting.

The Golden Age of the Pharaohs and their science and art of medicine has long fascinated and intrigued the world. There are modern-day practitioners of Sekhem energy therapy as well as many who espouse the benefits of Egyptian healing rods. Reflexology, herbal medicine, massage and the management of stress with retreats are well known therapeutic modalities in modern society.

Their beliefs about the origins of disease and their cures are reflected today in the increasing belief that mental and emotional afflictions precede and worsen physical illness. Natural health practitioners believe long-term health and healing can only be achieved if the patient is treated holistically and deep-seated mental and emotional issues are addressed while the physical body and its innate healing ability are supported with natural therapies.



 

Valerie Malka

Dr Valerie Malka is a trauma and general surgeon who has worked extensively for patient safety and ethics in healthcare. Valerie has worked with the International Committee of the Red Cross and holds a Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance and a Masters in international public health as well as journalism. She works as a freelance health and wellbeing writer and has a great passion for natural healthcare. She is working on revolutionising the modern medical model by bringing into the hospital system integrative and natural health practices. Valerie is also a huge advocate for animal rights and environmental protection.