Everyday life in ancient Egypt involved beliefs in magic, gods, demons and evil spirits. Good luck or disasters were all caused by angry celestial beings or evil forces. They believed that if illnesses and physical and mental disorders were partly caused by supernatural forces, then magic and religion were required to deal with them and treat people. Anthropologists, archaeologists, and medical historians say there did not appear to be a clear difference between a priest and a doctor in those days. Many healers were priests of the warrior goddess Sekhmet, and used science as well as magic and incantations when treating people.
Image of Sekhmet goddess of war
We know all about Egyptian medical care because we have the ‘medical papyri’, manuscripts dating from about 1820 BC to AD 250 – though some may be copies of still earlier works. These reveal a complex and sophisticated approach to treating the sick, where the ritual practices and spells from 3,500-year-old remedies are combined with a strikingly modern approach towards diagnosis.
While the amount of magic prescribed by each papyrus varies greatly, it is clear that its practitioners viewed the two types of treatment as complementary. ‘Magic is effective together with medicine; medicine is effective together with magic’, one papyrus scribe wrote in 1550 BC.
While the early Egyptian pharmacy used disgusting ingredients such as animal fat and crocodile dung, half of their drug sources are still in use today, with ingredients ranging from opium, henna, garlic, coriander, and juniper.
When magic is prescribed as a treatment, it involved three elements. Spells were recited, after which there was a laying on of hands – either directly on the afflicted person, or on a model representing them if treatment was being performed at a distance – during which the patient was anointed with wine, water, and oil. Amulets, often shaped like parts of the body to help focus the spell, were also used to attract helpful spirits who could assist the cure.
Much of this treatment, particularly for the very sick, would probably have taken place in patients’ homes, but temples also offered medical aid. Several inscriptions refer to a building in religious complexes called the ‘House of Life’, where it is thought that treatment may have been given.
On the terrace at the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari, we can see graffiti left behind by grateful patients, some of whom travelled long distances in search of a cure. One was Andromachus, a Macedonian ‘worker for hire’, who writes that he ‘came to the good god Amenothes; he was sick and the god healed him on that very day.’
Some recommendations made by physicians were good – they advised people to wash and shave their bodies to prevent infections. They told people to eat carefully, and to avoid unclean animals and raw fish. But some of their practices were bizarre and most likely did more harm than good. Several medical prescriptions contained animal dung, which might have useful moulds and fermentation substances, but were also infested with bacteria and must have caused many serious infections.
The Ebers Papyrus, which was purchased at Luxor (Thebes) in 1873 by George Ebers and is kept at the University of Leipzig in Germany, has over 700 remedies and magical formulae, as well as scores of incantations aimed at repelling demons which cause disease. However, it also has evidence of sound scientific procedures. The authors wrote that the centre of the body’s blood supply is the heart, and that every corner of the body is attached to vessels.
Courtesy of the “University of Lepzia”
Examples of the remedies in the Ebers Papyrus include:
For asthma: A mixture of herbs heated on a brick so that the sufferer could inhale their fumes.
For the belly: For the evacuation of the belly: Cow’s milk 1; grains 1; honey 1; mash, sift, cook; take in four portions.
For the bowels: To remedy the bowels: Melilot, 1; dates, 1; cook in oil; anoint sick part.
For cancer: Recounting a “tumor against the god Xenus”, it recommends “do thou nothing there against”.
For clothing: May be protected from mice and rats by applying cat’s fat.
For Death: Half an onion and the froth of beer was considered “a delightful remedy against death.”
For dracunculiasis (Guinea worm): Wrap the emerging end of the worm around a stick and slowly pull it out. (3,500 years later, this remains the standard treatment.
A section of the Ebers Papyrus called the Book of Hearts, describes in great detail the characteristics, causes and treatment for such mental disorders as dementia and depression. It appears they viewed mental diseases as a combination of blocked channels and the influence of evil spirits and angry gods.
Surgeons had an array of instruments, such as pincers, forceps, spoons, saws, containers with burning incense, hooks and knives. Prosthetics did exist, but archaeologists say they were probably not that practical and were used either to make deceased people look more presentable during funerals, or were simply for decorative purposes.
The provision of water so that people can wash themselves, their animals and their homes is a vital part of preventing the spread of disease. Cleanliness was an important part of Egyptian life; however it was promoted for social and religious reasons, and not health ones. Their homes had only rudimentary baths and toilets.
Most people used mosquito nets during the hot months – we don’t know whether this was to protect against malaria and other diseases, or simply because they did not want to be bitten. Priests washed themselves and their clothing and eating utensils regularly. But they did it for religious reasons. Although hygiene practices did help protect their health, this was not their reason. Cleanliness was an appeal to their gods.
This theoretical knowledge was often successfully applied is proven by archaeological finds in the workers’ tombs at Giza for instance. Skeletons with broken arms that had been set, a man who had survived the amputation of a leg by fourteen years and another brain surgery by two years have been found.
The common cold plagued the ancient Egyptians as it still does us today, and their remedy, the milk of a mother who has given birth to a boy, was probably as effective as anything we use now. Moreover they had a tried and true spell to go with it:
‘May you flow out, catarrh, son of catarrh, who breaks the bones, who destroys the skull, who hacks in the marrow, who causes the seven openings in the head to ache’.
Their dissection of bodies during mummification seems not to have added greatly to their knowledge of the inner workings of the human body, possibly because mummifiers and physicians did not move in the same circles, but also because of the way the organs were removed: ripped out through a small incision in the corpse’s flank or, in the case of the brain, scooped out in small portions through a nostril. They had some anatomical knowledge though, had made the connection between pulse and heart, but did not have any understanding of the circulation of the blood.
The ancient Egyptians were at least partially aware of the importance of diet, both in balance and moderation. The main crops for most of ancient Egyptian history were wheat and barley. Consumed in the form of loaves which were produced in a variety of types through baking and fermentation, with yeast greatly enriching the nutritional value of the product, one farmer’s crop could support an estimated twenty adults. Barley was also used in beer.
Vegetables and fruits of many types were widely grown. Oil was produced from the linseed plant and there was a limited selection of spices and herbs. Meat (sheep, goats, pigs, wild game) was regularly available to at least the upper classes and fish were widely consumed, although there is evidence of prohibitions during certain periods against certain types of animal products; Herodotus wrote of the pig as being ‘unclean’. Offerings to King Unas (c. 2494–2345 BC) were recorded as
‘..milk, three kinds of beer, five kinds of wine, ten loaves, four of bread, ten of cakes four meats, different cuts, joints, roast, spleen, limb, breast, quail, goose, pigeon, figs, ten other fruits, three kinds of corn, barley, spelt, five kinds of oil, and fresh plants…’
It is clear that the Egyptian diet was not deficient for the upper classes and that even the lower classes may have had some selection.
Most Egyptians suffered greatly during their usually short life spans. Many Egyptians died from disease, or from an overall weakening of their physical condition by contracting many diseases over the course of their lives. The spreading of disease was facilitated by the constant close contact of people – households were quite crowded with as many as 20 people living in a small house.
The hot climate and the presence of bugs, rats and fleas also helped spread diseases rapidly. All that coupled with the fact that many of the cures were quite dangerous themselves made for a relatively low life expectancy, and a life full of physical pain and weakness.