Egyptian Medicine Magic Spells as Psychotherapy

They fought disease with lettuce, onions and positive thinking

The people who settled the Nile Valley believed that disease came from evil spirits that entered the body through the mouth, nose or ears and devoured the victim's vital substance.

To combat these spirits, a magician uttered spells over the afflicted person and applied ritual remedies. In the case of burns, he swabbed the wound with the milk of a mother of a baby boy, and appealed to the goddess Isis by repeating words that, according to legend, she had used to rescue her son Horns from being burned: "There is water in my mouth and a Nile between my legs; I come to quench the fire".

From Spells to Diagnoses

As magicians noticed connections between various treatments and the course of certain diseases, they began to compile their observations on papyri. Fragments of these exist today - for example, the Ebers Papyrus, dating from 1550 BC. These papyri - the first systematic classification of medicine - give 'recipes' for the treatment of certain diseases and symptoms. For instance, the Ebers Papyrus lists 21 ways to treat coughs, and it and others deal with at least 15 diseases of the abdomen, 29 of the eyes and 18 of the skin.

The medical profession gradually evolved into three different but interacting branches. First, physicians attempted cures by means of internal and external remedies.

They used a vast number of substances medicinally, ranging from lettuce and onions, to alum, hippopotamus fat and human excreta. Physicians became specialized, each concentrating on one area of the body.

Second were the surgeons (the goddess Sachmet's priests' in the Ebers Papyrus) who primarily treated external wounds and injuries, such as fractures and dislocations.

They never opened the abdomen, but performed operations on the outside of the body, such as circumcision, lancing boils and cutting out cysts, using delicate scalpels, knives, forceps and probes. They also employed red-hot irons to cauterize wounds.

Mind Over Matter

The third branch of Egyptian medicine comprised sorcerers or exorcists, who fought evil with incantations and amulets. Physicians, surgeons and sorcerers alike divided diseases into three categories: "It is an ailment I will treat", implying confidence in a cure; "It is an ailment I will contend with", recognising that a cure would be difficult; and "An untreatable ailment". Diseases in the last two categories, especially the third, were held to benefit most from supernatural intervention. For some diseases the instruction was "Thou shalt not put thy hand to such a thing". In such cases, a soothing remedy and an incantation were prescribed instead of an operation or an active medicament - the remedy so that the patient had at least some treatment, and the incantation to give a little solace. The evidence is that Egyptian doctors (and their sorcerer colleagues) were aware of the power of positive thinking.

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