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  • Writer's pictureD. P. Lyle

Criminal Mischief: Episode #56: Ancient Egyptian Medicine



Criminal Mischief: Episode #56: Ancient Egyptian Medicine



SHOW NOTES:



Q and A: What Medical Treatments for Pain and Injury Were Available in Ancient Egypt?


Q: What were the most common medicinal herbs available in Egypt around 80 A.D. I am particularly interested in wound healing/protection and pain relief medications, preferably topically applied and acceptable to both humans and animals.


A: As with other ancient civilizations, Egyptian medicine was a combination of spiritual beliefs, social conventions, and empiric observations (learning via trial and error). They also inherited a strong belief in astrology from the Babylonians. Also, as with others, the Egyptians possessed a certain materia medica, literally the materials of medicine.


These included various potions, oils, salves, and ointments usually derived from plant and animal products. They were often applied and/or taken with great ceremony, which was designed to appease an angry god or attract one with healing powers. Imhotep was the Egyptian god of health and healing and most incantations were addressed to him. He was actually a mortal who served as vizer under King Zoser, who reigned during the Third Dynasty around 2980 BC. Imhotep was a gifted healer and was later deified as the god of medicine.

What we know of Egyptian medical treatment predominantly comes from several papyri that were discovered centuries later. These tend to be named for the person who discovered them. The most important are the Kahun Papyrus (c. 1850 BC), the Edwin Smith Papyrus (c. 1600 BC), the Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BC), and the London Papyrus (c. 1350 BC). Several sections of these documents deal with various medical and surgical issues. For example, the Ebers Papyrus lists 700 to 800 medical formulas.

Myrrh, frankincense, and manna were thought to help heal wounds and other illnesses. Antimony, copper, and other metals were mixed with herbs and believed to aid wound healing when used as a cleaning astringent. Often animal organs such as pig brain and ox spleen were mixed with animal fat and honey and taken orally or smeared over wounds. Sometimes tortoise shells and even crushed lapis lazuli were added. Purgatives came from plant extracts made from senna, colocynth, and castor oil. Garlic, onion, tamarisk, honey, opium, cannabis, hellebore, and even animal excrement (crocodile dung held special power) were mixed and applied as ointments and poultices, or compacted into pills and swallowed, or mixed with liquids for gargling, or given as suppositories, or heated and used as fumigants.

Humans and animals received similar treatments.


This question appeared in MWA’s The Third Degree October 2022



What other substances did the Ancient Egyptians use:

Aloe Vera: They called it the “plant of immortality” and used it in embalming and for wounds.


Black Pepper: Used in embalming. Also mixed with various oils and applied to wounds and to arthritic joints.


Cannabis: Used to treat pain, including that from arthritis and gout. It was also felt to help with cataracts. Ingestion after it was added to foods or steeped into a tea was most common, but it was also added to a liquid to make an ointment for topical application.


Garlic: Believed to help the unsettled stomach and to make the heart stronger as well as increase strength and endurance.


Honey: Applied to wounds to prevent infections and help healing.


Peppermint: To settle the stomach, treat a cough, and help heal wounds and bruises. Usually brewed as a tea or the extract was directly applied to wounds.


Sage: Helped improve fertility and, when applied directly, could stop bleeding.


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