Ancient Egyptian Texts contain Hangover Cure and Radical Eye Disease Treatments
Radical surgery and medicaments with ingredients now known to be toxic are among eye disease treatments in 1,900-year-old medical papyri of ancient Egypt that have been under translation from Greek for many years. Also in the medical texts is a treatment for headaches from hangovers: String a garland of leaves of the shrub chamaedaphne around the neck. People of that time used the leaves of Alexandrian chamaedaphne for general headache treatments, but whether it worked is open to question.
Ruscus racemosus or poet’s laurel, also called Alexandrian chamaedaphne, was thought to cure headaches in the ancient world. (Photo by Daderot/ Wikimedia Commons )
The 1,900-year-old texts were found along with about 500,000 other texts in the town of Oxyrhynchus around 1915. Researchers Arthur Hunt and Bernard Grenfell came upon the priceless trove.
The medical papyri from the library are now in the hands of the Egypt Exploration Society at Oxford University’s Sackler Library.
“The study and publication of so many papyri is a long and slow task that has been going on for a century,” says Live Science in a recent article about the latest volume published, Volume 80, “containing studies and decipherments of about 30 medical papyri found at Oxyrhynchus, including the papyrus with the hangover treatment. This newly published volume represents ‘the largest single collection of medical papyri to be published,’ wrote Vivian Nutton, a professor at University College London, at the beginning of the volume. The collection includes medical treatises and treatments for a wide variety of ailments, including hemorrhoids, ulcers, tooth problems and even some fragments discussing eye surgery.”
This papyrus in the ancient Greek language contains a treatment for headache from drinking too much. (Egyptian Exploration Society photo)
The ancient authors borrowed from Greek medical knowledge in the Hellenistic town of Oxyrhynchus. Greek culture spread across Egypt and the Middle East following Alexander of Macedons’s conquests.
It is possible the authors of the Egyptian texts were influenced by the ancient Greek physician Discorides, who wrote of chamaedaphne in his medical text The Herbal:
Chamaedaphne sends out single-branched rods a foot long — straight, thin and smooth; the leaves of this are similar to the [other] bay but much smoother, thinner and greener. The fruit is round and red, growing near to the leaves. The leaves of this (pounded into small pieces and smeared on) helps headaches and burning of the stomach. They cease griping, taken as a drink with wine. The juice (given to drink with wine) expels the Menstrual flow and urine, and applied in a pessary it does the same. Some have called this Alexandrina, daphnitis, or hydragogon, the Romans, laureola, some lactago, and the Gauls, ousubim. (A PDF of this book is available here .)
One of the eye treatments in an ancient Egyptian text was a concoction called collyrium, which was meant to cure mucosal discharges from the eye. It had in it copper flakes, white lead, washed lead dross that is produced in smelting, antimony oxide, poppy juice, starch, gum Arabic, the plant Celtic spikenard, dried roses and rainwater.
Toxic as that is, it wouldn’t hurt as much a recommended eye surgery for an everted eyelid. A fragment of that treatment that survives, translated by Marguerite Hirt of Cambridge University, reads in part: "… the eye … I began … by the temple … the other from the temple … to remove with a small round-bladed knife … the edge of the eyelid from outside … from within until I scooped out …"
This papyrus contains the recipe for tooth powder to help heal gum problems. (Egypt Exploration Society photo)
Apparently ancient people had as much trouble with hangovers as moderns. Another story, reported by Ancient Origins in 2014 , was on the 1,000-year-old Kitab al-tabikh ( Book of Cookery ), which contains the hangover cure called Kkishkiyya. Its ingredients were meat, chickpeas and vegetables in a stew with the addition of a special ingredient known as khask, a fermented yogurt, milk, and whey product, which is thought to be the key to alleviating what was known as excess heat in the head and stomach. The book also advises to eat cabbage prior to drinking alcohol, eating snacks between drinks to slow down its effects, and sipping on water the following day before consuming the stew. Today, Kkishkiyya is still cooked in the same way, mostly in northern Iraq and the Levant.
The book was written by Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq and was the most comprehensive work of its kind. It includes more than 600 recipes for culinary and medicinal dishes, including a well-known ancient Middle Eastern hangover cure, ingredients for enhancing sexual performance, and dishes for curing a range of health problems. The ancient text has been translated by Nawal Nasrallah, a former professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Baghdad, into the Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchen , making these fascinating recipes accessible to the English-speaking world for the first time.
Featured image: This papyrus is an example of texts discovered at Oxyrhynchus and features Euclid's Elements of Geometry ( Wikimedia Commons )
By Mark Miller