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

08 Aug

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.

Cathy Fishburn

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 for the most part.

1 Comment

Posted by on August 8, 2010 in Medical Issues, Poisons & Drugs, Q&A


One response to “Q&A: What Medical Treatments for Pain and Injury Were Available in Ancient Egypt?

  1. Dr. Lawrence Kindo

    August 10, 2010 at 12:58 am

    Wow! That was a nice article about ancient medicine in Egypt. I absolutely love medical history and this article is a great addition to my collection of medical history trivia.



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