Egyptian medicine was the result of experimentation, observation, and physical remedies which were supplemented by magical ones:
Magic is effective together with medicine. Medicine is effective together with magic.
From the Ebers Papyrus
Incantations, prayers to the gods, and above all to Sekhmet, the goddess of healing, were often accompanied by herbal and other medicines to heal the sick and wounded. Preventive measures included prayers, various kinds of heku (magic), and above all the wearing of amulets.
The Egyptian priest-physician-magician had a number of important functions. First, to discover the nature of the particular entity possessing the person and then attack, drive it out, or otherwise destroy it. This was done by some powerful magic for which rituals, spells, incantations, talismans and amulets were used. The priests/priestesses of Sekhmet were also involved in the prevention of plagues, inspection of sacrificial animals and even veterinary medicine.
Physical medicines such as herbs were mostly expected to help with pain, while magic would be needed for the cure. A section in the Papyrus Ebers is about charms and invocations used to encourage healing. One spell, recited before taking an herbal remedy, reads as follows: “Come Remedy! Come thou who expellest (evil) things in this my stomach and in these my limbs!” After the wording of these spells, a recommendation may follow, such as: “Truly excellent. Millions of times.”
Nothing certain is known about the way physicians acquired their medical knowledge, but is has been suggested that the Per-Ankh, Houses of Life, associated with Sekhmet, were teaching centers for physicians.
During the Old Kingdom, women in ancient Egypt regularly became physicians and midwives and medical schools, for women only, existed. Merit-Ptah (Beloved of the god Ptah) was the chief physician of the Pharaoh’s court during the Second Dynasty. She is referred to as “Chief Physician” in an inscription left on her grave at Saqqara which implies that she held a position in which she taught and supervised physicians, and that she was the physician to the Pharaoh. This was around 2700 BCE, before the building of Khufu’s Great Pyramid.
Another Old Kingdom female physician named Peseshet left a stone stela which recorded her positions of Overseer of Funerary Priestesses and of Overseer of Female Physicians. This was around 2500 BCE. Merit-Ptah and Peseshet are regarded as the earliest recorded women physicians.
Herbs played a major part in Egyptian medicine. The plant medicines mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus include opium, cannabis, myrrh, frankincense, fennel, cassia, senna, thyme, henna, juniper, aloe, linseed and castor oil. Cloves of garlic have been found in Egyptian burial sites, including the tomb of Tutankhamen and in the sacred underground temple of the bulls at Saqqara. Many herbs were steeped in wine, which was then drunk as an oral medicine.
Here are some heku remedies of the Ancient Egyptian written in the Ebers Papyrus and the Hearst Medical Papyrus:
Garlic and onions were thought to aid endurance, and consumed large quantities of them. Raw garlic was routinely given to those suffering with bronchial-pulmonary complaints. Onions helped against problems of the digestive system. Garlic was an important healing agent then just as it still is to the modern Egyptian and to most of the peoples in the Mediterranean area. Fresh cloves were peeled and mashed into a mixture of vinegar and water. This can be used to gargle and rinse the mouth, or taken internally to treat sore throats and toothache. Another way to take garlic both for prevention as well as treatment is to chew several cloves of mashed garlic in olive oil. Applied as an external liniment or taken internally it was thought beneficial for bronchial and lung complaints including colds. A freshly peeled clove of raw garlic wrapped in cloth and pinned to the undergarment was hoped to protect against infectious diseases.
Coriander was considered to have cooling, stimulant, carminative and digestive properties. Both the seeds and the plant were used as a spice in cooking to prevent and eliminate flatulence, they were also taken as a tea for stomach and all kinds of urinary complaints including cystitis. Coriander leaves were commonly added fresh to spicy foods to moderate their irritating effects. It was one of the herbs offered to the gods by the Pharoah, and seeds were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen and in other ancient burial sites.
Cumin is an herb indigenous to Egypt. The seeds were considered to be a stimulant and effective against flatulence. Cumin powder mixed with some flour as a binder and a little water was applied to relieve the pain of any aching or arthritic joints.
Leaves from many plants, such as willow, sycamore, and acacia were used in poultices. Tannic Acid derived from acacia seeds was used to heal burns.
Perhaps next time you feel under the weather, consider one of these remedies (some of which sound familiar in modern times), grab your favorite amulet, and say a prayer to the Goddess Sekhmet.