The Ebers Papyrus: Medico-Magical Beliefs and Treatments Revealed in Ancient Egyptian Medical Text
The Ebers Papyrus is an ancient medical document that contains over 842 remedies for illnesses and injuries. It specifically focused on the heart, the respiratory system, and diabetes.
The Papyrus measures over 68 ft. (21 meters) long and 12 inches (30 cm) wide. It is sectioned into 22 lines. It derived its name from famed Egyptologist Georg Ebers and is estimated to have been created between 1550-1536 BC during the reign of Amenopis I. It now resides in the University Library of Leipzig Germany.
The Ebers Papyrus is considered one of the oldest and most extensive records of Egyptian medical history . It presents a vivid window into the Ancient Egyptian world of medicine and reflects a blending of both the scientific (known as the rational method) and the magico-religious (known as the irrational method). It has been extensively studied and re-translated almost five times and has been credited for giving much insight to the cultural world of the 14-16th centuries BC of Ancient Egypt.
Though the Ebers Papyrus covers a lot of medical insight , there is only a handful of documentation to the nature of how it was discovered. Before it was purchased by Georg Ebers, it was previously known as the Assasif Medical Papyrus of Thebes. Understanding the story of how it came into the possession of Geog Ebers is just as marvelous as the medical and spiritual procedures it mentions.
The Ebers Papyrus: The Myth. The History.
As the legend goes, in 1872, Georg Ebers and his wealthy benefactor Herr Gunther stepped into a rare collections shop in Luxor (Thebes) owned by a collector named Edwin Smith. The rumor that had circulated in the Egyptology community was that he mysteriously acquired the Assasif Medical Papyrus.
When Ebers and Gunther arrived, they asked Smith if it was true. Smith presented them with a medical papyrus wrapped in mummy cloth . He mentioned that it was found between the legs of a mummy in the El-Assasif District of the Theban necropolis. Without further ado, Ebers and Gunther purchased the medical papyrus and first published it under the name of the Facsimile in 1875.
Though it has been debated whether the Ebers medical papyrus was genuine or an elaborate fake, the fact remains that somehow Georg Ebers had bought the Assasif papyrus and proceeded to translate one of the greatest medical documents of recorded history.
The Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BC) from ancient Egypt. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
Ebers published the medical papyrus in a two-volume color photo reproduction, including a hieroglyphic English to Latin translation. Shortly after its publication, a German translation appeared by Joachim in 1890, and then a translation of the hieratic into hieroglyphics was done by H. Wreszinski in 1917.
The Ebers Papyrus would see four more English translations completed; the first by Carl Von Klein in 1905, the second English translation by Cyril P. Byron in 1930, the third English translation by Bendiz Ebbel in 1937, and finally, the fourth translation by the physician and scholar Paul Ghalioungui.
Ghalioungui’s copy remains the most thorough modern translation of the papyrus. It is also considered one of the rarest books about the Ebers Papyrus.
With many attempts to translate the Ebers Papyrus correctly, the papyrus continues to evade the best of Egyptologists to all its mysteries. From what has been translated in the last 200 years, a good quantity of remedies have been discovered, which gives insight to the ancient Egyptian world.
What has been Learned from the Ebers Papyrus?
As mentioned before, the Egyptian medical world was divided into two categories: the “Rational methods” which were treatments that would be parallel to the scientific principles of today, and the “Irrational methods” which involved magico-religious beliefs using amulets, incantations, and written spells calling to the Egyptian gods of old. After all, during this time there was a strong association with magic, religion, and medical health being one holistic experience. There was no concept of bacterial or viral infection, only the spite of the gods.
Although the Ebers Papyrus is dated to 16th century BC (1550-1536 BC), it contains grammatical evidence that the text was copied from older sources dating to the 12th Dynasty of Egypt. (1995-1775 BC). The Ebers Papyrus was written in a cursive short form of hieroglyphics known as hieratic. It contains 877 rubrics (section headings) inked in red followed by text in black.
The Ebers Papyrus contains 108 columns numbered 1-110. Each column contains from 20 to 22 lines of text. The manuscript ends with a calendar indicating that it was written in the ninth year of Amenophis I, meaning that it might have been produced in 1536 BC.
It carries a great deal of information about anatomy and physiology, toxicology, spells, and how to deal with diabetes. Among other remedies in the text, it mentions how to treat animal-borne diseases, plant irritation, and mineral toxins.
Most of the papyrus focuses on the treatment by use of poultices, creams, and other medicinal cures . In its 842 pages drug remedies and prescriptions are written, which can be mixed into 328 concoctions for different ailments. However, there is little to no evidence whether these concoctions were tested before the prescription. There are speculations that concoctions may have been driven by certain ingredients association with the gods.
Archaeological, historical, and medical evidence has revealed that ancient Egyptian doctors had the knowledge and skills to treat their patients in the rational methods, however, the need to incorporate magico-religious practices may have been a cultural necessity. If the practical applications failed, the medical doctors of old could always rely on the spiritual to explain why a remedy might not be working. One example can be seen in a translation of a healing spell for the common cold:
“Flow out, fetid nose, flow out, son of fetid nose! Flow out, you who break bones, destroy the skull and make ill the seven holes of the head!” (Ebers Papyrus, line 763)
The ancient Egyptians placed a significant focus on the heart and cardiovascular system. They believed that the heart was responsible for the regulation and passage of bodily fluids such as blood, tears, urine, and semen. The Ebers Papyrus contains an entire section called “the book of hearts” which covers the blood supply and vessels attached to every part of the human body. It also lists mental disorders such as depression and dementia being key by-products of keeping a bad heart.
The papyrus also contains various chapters having to do with issues such as contraception, diagnosis of pregnancy, gynecology, gastritis, parasites, skin problems, eye problems, the surgical treatment of cancerous tumors, and bone setting.
Papyrus depiction of a woman giving birth, helped by other women and the gods. ( African Progressive )
In the papyrus’s description of certain ailments, there is one specific passage which most scholars believe is a clear definition of how to spot diabetes. Scholars such as Bendix Ebbell believed that Rubric 197 of the Ebers Papyrus paralleled the symptoms to diabetes mellitus. His translation of the Ebers text reads:
“If you examine someone sick (in) the center of his being (and) is his body shrunken with disease at its limit; if you examine him not and you do find disease in (his body except for the surface of his ribs of which the members are like a pill you should then recite -a spell- against disease this in your house; you should also then prepare for him ingredients for treating it: bloodstone of Elephantine, ground; red grain; carob; cook in oil and honey; it should be eaten by him over mornings four for the suppression of his thirst and for curing his mortal illness.” (Ebers Papyrus, Rubric No. 197, Column 39, Line 7).
Ancient Egyptian medical & surgical tools replicas - Child museum in Cairo. (Ashashyou/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Though some of the passages from the Ebers Papyrus may at times read as magical poetry, they also show the first attempts of diagnosis resembling that of modern medical texts. The Ebers Papyrus, along with many other papyri, shouldn't be dismissed as theoretical prayers, but instead be seen as practical guides relevant to the culture and time of the ancient Egyptians. These texts were medical treatments for illnesses and injuries during a time when human suffering was thought to be caused by the gods.
The Ebers Papyrus offers great insight into the limited understanding of ancient Egyptian life. Without the Ebers Papyrus and other documents, scientists and historians alike would only have the remains of mummies, art, and tombs. These things may aid in the empirical Facts, but without any written documents to the world of their version of medicine, there would be a lack of reference for the explanation of the ancient Egyptian world. But doubt and skepticism remains around the document.
Given the several attempts in translating the Ebers Papyrus since its discovery, it has been long suspected that most of its writings may have been misinterpreted due to the bias of each translator.
According to Rosalie David, the director of KNH center for biomedical Egyptology at the University of Manchester, the Ebers Papyrus may be irrelevant. In her 2008 article in Lancet, David mentioned that studying Egyptian papyri was a limited and problematic source due to the very small proportion of work that is considered to remain consistent over 3000 years of civilization.
Instructions for a 3,500-year-old pregnancy test. ( Carlsberg Papyrus Collection / University of Copenhagen)
David continues to state that modern translators have encountered problems with the vocabulary in the documents. She also notes that the identification of words and translations found in one text often contradicts the inscriptions and translations in another. In her opinion, the translations should remain speculative and not finally determined.
Due to the difficulties listed by Rosalie David, most researchers have placed more emphasis on examining the mummified skeletal remains of individuals.
However, there have been anatomical and radiological studies done on Egyptian mummies to reveal further evidence that ancient Egyptian medical physicians were very competent. These studies have revealed healed fractures and amputations, confirming that ancient Egyptian surgeons were apt at surgery and amputation. It has also revealed that the ancient Egyptians were sophisticated in making prosthetics such as big toes .
Prosthetic toe made of cartonnage, found on the foot of a mummy from the Third Intermediate period (circa 1070-664 BC). ( CC BY SA 2.5 )
Samples of tissue, bone, hair, and teeth taken from mummies have been examined via histology, immunocytochemistry, enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, and DNA analysis. These tests have helped identify certain diseases which had affected the mummified individuals. What was soon discovered was that certain diseases that were found in the exhumed mummies were treated with pharmaceutical remedies listed in medical papyri, proving that some, if not all the remedies listed in texts such as the Ebers Papyrus might have been effective.
Medical papyri such as the Ebers Papyrus give proof to the origins of Egyptian medico-scientific literature. As Veronica M. Pagan mentions in her article from World Neurosurgery,
"These scrolls were used to pass down knowledge from generation to generation. They were likely kept on hand during a battle and used as a reference in daily life. Even with these remarkable scrolls, it's likely that beyond a certain level, medical knowledge was taught orally from master to student." (Pagan, 2011)
The further study of the Ebers Papyrus, as well as the many others which exist, allows scholars to note the link between the spiritual and scientific in early medical knowledge of the ancient Egyptians. It allows one to comprehend the extensive amount of scientific information which was known in the past and that continued through the generations to come. It would be easy to be dismissive of the past and assume that everything innovative was created in the 21st century, however, that might not be the case.
The Obsequies of an Egyptian Cat, John Reinhard Weguelin, 1886. ( Public Domain )
Still, Rosalie David advocates for further studies and is not yet convinced of the healing powers of the scrolls.
It is easy for people of the modern era to be dismissive of ancient medical remedies . The advancements which have been reached have become so developed that the worst diseases and disorders are on the verge of being eradicated. However, these advancements are only seen as marvelous to people currently living in the 21st century. Imagine if you will, what would someone from the 45th century think of the practices today?
After all, It would be interesting to see in the next 2000 years whether modern medical practices of the western world would be seen as:
“A mixture of cultural and opinionated remedies concocted to treat symptoms which walked a fine balance between their polytheistic gods and the unseen divinity known as ‘science’. If only these people knew that the spleen and appendix were the most important parts of the body, they could have been more than just 21st-century neophytes.”
A sentiment which we in the modern world would find both ignorant and dismissive, but our future progenitors might find historically and archaeologically appropriate. In this sense, perhaps context is needed for the ancient Egyptians. In their world, the ancient gods were real and so were their healing methods.
An ancient Egyptian doctor and patient. ( Crystalinks)
Top Image: A doctor performing eye surgery. The Ebers Papyrus discusses medical techniques and remedies. Source: Articles sur l’Egypte et son historie
By B.B. Wagner
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