Health, wellbeing, and personal appearance were prized by the Ancient Egyptians. Healthiness was next to Godliness and the priest/physicians as well as magicians who participated in medical care viewed health and sickness as battle between good and evil.
Of course not all of Egyptian medicine was based on offerings to the gods, the Egyptians were advanced medical practitioners for their time. They were masters of human anatomy and healing mostly due to their expertise in mummification ceremonies and they had a basic knowledge of organ functions within the human body.
A great deal of our knowledge of Ancient Egyptian medicine comes from surviving medical and magical papyri including the Leiden Papyrus, Ebers Papyrus, Kahun Papyrus, and the Demotic Magical Papyrus. These contain recipes and spells for the treatment of a great variety of diseases or symptoms. Ancient Egyptian magician/healer priests would recite incantations while preparing or administering medications. They were familiar with making drugs using plants and herbs. Egyptian medicine, particularly herbal remedies and prescriptions, is believed to have helped form the basis of modern natural medicine.
Herbs played a major part in Egyptian medicine. Plant medicines mentioned in the Ebers Papyrus include cumin, frankincense, fennel, cassia, senna, thyme, henna, juniper, aloe, linseed and castor oil. Many herbs were steeped in wine, which was then drunk as an oral medicine. Egyptians thought garlic and onions aided endurance, and therefore consumed large quantities of them. Raw garlic was given to asthmatics and to those suffering with bronchial-pulmonary complaints. During the building of the Pyramids, the workers were given garlic daily to give them the vitality and strength to carry on and perform well. Cloves of garlic have been found in Egyptian burial sites, including the tomb of Tutankhamen and in the sacred underground temple of the Apis bulls at Saqqara.
Certain drugs were popular as a universal remedy for all disease because they were thought to be made a god, these were the “Godly medicines.” One medicine which was supposed to be especially powerful was said to have been created by the sun god Ra. This magical medicine was composed of honey, wax and a list of 14 herbs and flora mixed together in equal measures. This mixture was placed on the body as an unguent and believed to cure all physical illnesses.
The following are some of the herbs used in Ancient Egyptian prescriptions, some of which are quite effective in modern times (I am not a physician, Ancient Egyptian or otherwise, so please bear in mind this list is for informational purposes!):
Acacia – for internal bleeding, also used to treat skin diseases.
Aloe – for headaches, chest pains, burns, ulcers and for skin disease and allergies.
Basil – for strengthening the heart.
Bay – the smoke from burning bay calms the body and mind.
Camphor – reduce fevers, soothes gums, soothes epilepsy.
Caraway – soothes flatulence, digestive, breath freshener.
Cardamom – used as a spice in foods, helps with digestion.
Cedar – the smoke of burning cedar is said to attract good spirits and eliminate negative energies.
Coriander – considered to have cooling, stimulant, and digestive properties. Both the seeds and the plant were used as a spice in cooking
Cumin – the seeds were considered to be a stimulant and effective against flatulence. Cumin powder mixed with some wheat flour as a binder and a little water was applied to relieve the pain of any aching or arthritic joints.
Dill – soothes flatulence, relieves dyspepsia, laxative and diuretic properties.
Fenugreek – for respiratory disorders, cleanses the stomach, calms the liver, soothes pancreas, reduces swelling.
Frankincense – throat and larynx infections, stops bleeding, helps with asthma.
Garlic – basically a cure all, enhances vitality, aids digestion, shrinks hemorrhoids, rids body of negative energy (spirits).
Garlic was an important healing agent just as it still is to modern Egyptians and to most of the cultures in the Mediterranean area. Fresh cloves are peeled, mashed and macerated in 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. A freshly peeled clove of raw garlic wrapped in muslin or cheesecloth and pinned to the undergarment was hoped to protect against infectious diseases such as colds and influenza.
Honey – a natural antibiotic used to dress wounds and as a base for healing unguents.
Juniper tree – soothes chest pains, respiratory problems, stomach cramps, and is anti-malarial.
Licorice – mild laxative, soothes liver, pancreas and chest and respiratory problems.
Mustard – relieves chest pains.
Myrrh – relieves headaches, soothes gums, toothaches and backaches.
Onion – prevents colds, soothes sciatica, relieves pain and cardiovascular problems.
Mint – aids digestion, stops vomiting, breath freshener.
Sandalwood – aids digestion, stops diarrhea, soothes headaches and gout.
Sesame – soothes asthma.
Thyme – pain reliever.
The patients’ strong beliefs in the divine origins of the cure may have helped with the effectiveness of various treatments. The remedies used by Ancient Egyptian priests/physicians came mostly from nature, medicinal herbs; and along with their reliance on magic, the Ancient Egyptians had knowledge of the human anatomy and the natural world which enabled them to treat and cure many ailments and disorders.
Abou El-Soud, Neveen. (2010). Herbal medicine in ancient Egypt. Journal of Medicinal Plants Research. 4. 82-86.
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