Ancient Egyptian Medicine: Study & Practice

In Europe, in the 19th century CE, an interesting device began appearing in graveyards and cemeteries: the mortsafe. This was an iron cage erected over a grave to keep the body of the deceased safe from 'resurrectionists' - better known as body-snatchers. These men would dig up freshly interred corpses and deliver them, for cash, to doctors wishing to study anatomy. Dissection of a human being was illegal at the time, and until the Anatomy Act of 1832 CE, the only corpses a doctor could work with were those who had been executed for capital crimes.

These did not provide physicians with the number of corpses, nor the assortment of causes of death, they required to better understand anatomy, physiology, and pathology. Doctors recognized that the best way to treat a patient was to understand how the organs of the body worked together and what could affect them, but they were denied access. These physicians paid the resurrectionists large sums of money over the years for dead bodies and would most likely have been surprised or even amused to learn that, in ancient Egypt, the practice of dissection was routine but that no one in the medical field of the time thought to take advantage of it.

The ancient Egyptian embalmers did not discuss their work with the doctors of the time, and the doctors never seem to have given a thought to inquire of the embalmers. Physicians in Egypt healed their patients through spells, practical medical techniques, incantations, and the use of herbs and other naturally occurring substances. Their understanding of anatomy and physiology was weak because although Imhotep (c. 2667-2600 BCE) had argued that disease could be naturally occurring in his treatises, the prevailing understanding was that it was due to supernatural elements. A study of internal medicine, therefore, would have been considered a waste of time because sickness came to a person from external sources.

The Nature of Disease

Until the 19th century CE, the world had no understanding of germ theory. The work of Louis Pasteur, later confirmed by British surgeon Joseph Lister, proved that illness is caused by bacteria and steps can be taken to minimize one's risks. The ancient Egyptians, like every other civilization, had no such understanding. Disease was thought to be caused by the will of the gods (to punish sin or teach one a lesson), through the agency of an evil spirit or spirits, or brought on by the presence of a ghost.

Disease was thought to be caused by the will of the gods (to punish sin or teach one a lesson), through the agency of evil spirits, or brought on by the presence of a ghost.

Even in cases where a diagnosis suggested some definite physical cause for a problem, such as liver disease for example, this was still thought to have a supernatural origin. Egyptian medical texts recognize liver disease but not the function of the liver. In this same way, doctors understood the function of the uterus but not how it worked nor even its connection to the rest of a woman's body; they believed it was an organ with access to every other part of the body. The heart was considered the seat of intellect, emotion, and personality while the brain was believed to be useless, even though there are documented cases of brain surgery. It was understood that the heart was a pump and that veins and arteries moved blood through the body, and heart disease was diagnosed and treated by measures recognizable today (such as changing one's diet), but the root cause of the disease was still thought to come from supernatural agencies.

Love History?

Sign up for our free weekly email newsletter!

Famous Doctors

Even so, ancient Egyptian doctors were highly respected and for good reason: their procedures seem to have been largely effective. The Hittites are known to have called upon Egypt to supply them with physicians as did the Assyrians and Persians. The Greeks had enormous admiration for Egyptian medical practices, even though they did not take the magical aspects of treatment very seriously. The Roman physician Galen (126 - c. 216 CE) studied in Egypt at Alexandria, and before him, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine (c. 460-370 BCE), made the same claims regarding disease that Imhotep had 2,000 years earlier.

Men and women could be doctors and a number are mentioned by name. Some of these are:

Merit-Ptah (c. 2700 BCE), the royal court's chief physician and the first woman known by name in medicine and science.

Imhotep (c. 2667-2600 BCE), the architect for king Djoser who also wrote medical treatises and was later deified as a god of medicine and healing.

Hesyre (also known as Hesy-Ra, c. 2600 BCE), Chief of Dentists and Physician to the King; the first dentist in the world known by name.

Pesehet (c. 2500 BCE), Lady Overseer of Female Physicians and possibly a teacher at a medical school in Sais founded c. 3000 BCE.

Qar (c. 2350 BCE), Royal Physician under the reign of king Unas of the 6th Dynasty, buried with his bronze surgical instruments which are thought to be the oldest in the world.

Mereruka (c. 2345 BCE), Vizier under King Teti of the 6th Dynasty whose tomb at Saqqara is inscribed with more titles than any other in the vicinity. He was the overseer of the king's physicians.

Ir-en-akhty (First Intermediate Period of Egypt, 2181-2040), whose wide range of specialties makes him unique in Egyptian medical history. Most doctors specialized in a single area while Ir-en-akhty held many titles.

Other doctors are named from the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE) down through the Ptolemaic Period (323-30 BCE) including the physician Cleopatra (not the famous queen) who wrote medical texts which are mentioned by later writers and were studied by Galen.

Magic & Medicine

All these doctors practiced a combination of what one today would consider practical medicine and magic. Since disease came from supernatural sources, it was reasonable to conclude that supernatural treatment was the best recourse. In the present day, one may look back on these beliefs and practices with skepticism, but they were regarded as quite effective and entirely practical in their day.

Scholars and physicians in modern times are unable to substantiate just how effective they were because they are unable to positively identify the elements, diseases, and procedures mentioned in many of the texts. Some Egyptian words do not correspond to any known plant or object used in treatment or any known disease. Although the ancient Egyptian doctors did not have a full understanding of the functions of internal organs, they somehow managed to treat their patients well enough that their prescriptions and practices were copied and applied for millennia. The Greeks, especially, found Egyptian medical practices admirable. Plato mentions Egyptian doctors in his Dialogues and even swears by them as one would a god. The Greeks, in fact, served as the conduit through which Egyptian medical practices would reach a wider audience. Egyptologist Margaret Bunson explains:

The Greeks honored many of the early Egyptian priest-physicians, especially Imhotep, whom they equated with their god Asclepius. When they recorded the Egyptian medical customs and procedures, however, they included the magic and incantations used by the priests which made medicine appear trivial or a superstitious aspect of Egyptian life. Magical spells were indeed a part of Egyptian medicine...nevertheless, scholars have long recognized that the Egyptians carefully observed various ailments, injuries, and physical deformities, and offered many prescriptions for their relief. (158)

The god Heka presided over both medicine and magic and his staff of two entwined serpents would become the caduceus of Asclepius of the Greeks and, today, the symbol of the medical profession. Sekhmet, Serket (also Selket), Nefertum, Bes, Tawawret, and Sobek were all associated with health and healing in one aspect or another but so were powerful goddesses like Isis and Hathor and even those with darker personalities, usually feared, like Set or the demon-god Pazuzu. Any of these deities could be called upon by a medical practitioner to drive away evil demons, placate angry ghosts, rescind their choice to send the disease, or generate healing energies.


The treatments prescribed usually combined some practical application of medicine with a spell to make it more effective. For example, a roasted mouse ground into a container of milk was considered a cure for whooping cough, but a ground mouse in milk taken after reciting a spell would work better. Mothers would bind their children's left hand with a sanctified cloth and hang images and amulets of the god Bes in the room for protection, but they also would recite the Magical Lullaby which drove off evil spirits.

At the same time, there are a number of prescriptions which make no mention of magical spells. In the Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BCE) a prescription for contraception reads: "grind together finely a measure of acacia dates with some honey. Moisten seed-wool with the mixture and insert into the vagina" (Lewis, 112). The Edwin Smith Papyrus (c. 1600 BCE) focuses on surgical treatment of injuries and, in fact, is the oldest known surgical treatise in the world. Although there are eight magical spells written on the back of the papyrus, these are thought by most scholars to be later additions since papyri were frequently used more than once by different authors.

The Edwin Smith Papyrus is the best known for practical procedures addressing injuries, but there are others which offer the same kind of advice for disease or skin conditions. Some of these were obviously ineffective - such as treating eye ailments with bat's blood - but others seem to have worked. Invasive surgery was never widely practiced simply because the Egyptian surgeons would not have considered this effective. Egyptologist Helen Strudwick explains:

Because of the limited knowledge of anatomy, surgery did not go beyond an elementary level and no internal surgery was undertaken. Most of the medical instruments found in tombs or depicted on temple reliefs were used to treat injuries or fractures which were possibly the result of accidents incurred by workers on the pharaohs' monumental building sites. Other implements were used for gynaecological problems and in childbirth, both of which were treated extensively in the medical papyri. (454)

The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus (c. 1800 BCE) is the oldest document of its kind dealing with women's health. Although spells are mentioned, many prescriptions have to do with administering drugs or mixtures without supernatural assistance, as in the following:

Examination of a woman bed-bound, not stretching when she shakes it,
You should say of it 'it is clenches of the womb'.
You should treat it by having her drink 2 hin of beverage and have her spew it up at once. (Column II, 5-7)

This particular passage illustrates the problem in translating ancient Egyptian medical texts since it is unclear what "not stretching when she shakes it" or "clenches of the womb" mean precisely, nor is it known what the beverage was. This is often the case with prescriptions where a certain herb or natural element or mixture is written as though it is common knowledge needing no further explanation. Beer and honey (sometimes wine) were the most common drinks prescribed to be taken with medicine. Sometimes the mix is carefully described down to the dose, but other times, it seems it was assumed the doctor would know what to do without being told.


As noted, the physicians of ancient Egypt were considered the best of their time and frequently consulted and cited by doctors of other nations. The medical school at Alexandria was legendary, and the great doctors of later generations owed their success to what they learned there. In the present day, it may seem quaint or even silly for people to believe that a magical incantation recited over a cup of beer could cure anything at all, but this practice seems to have worked well for the Egyptians.

It is entirely possible, as a number of scholars have suggested, that the success of the Egyptian doctor epitomizes the placebo effect: people believed their prescriptions would work, and so they did. Since the gods were so prevalent an aspect of Egyptian life, their presence in curing or preventing disease was no great leap of faith. The gods of the Egyptians did not live in the far-off heavens - although they certainly occupied that space as well - but on the earth, in the river, in the trees, down the road, in the temple in the city's center, at the horizon, noon, sunset, through life and on into death. When one considers the close relationship the ancient Egyptians had with their gods it is hardly surprising to find supernatural elements in their most common medical practices.

A history of aspirin

One of the first drugs to come into common usage, aspirin is still one of the most researched drugs in the world, with an estimated 700 to 1,000 clinical trials conducted each year.

c3000 &ndash 1500 BC: Willow is used as a medicine by ancient civilisations like the Sumerians and Egyptians. The Ebers papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text, refers to willow as an anti-inflammatory or pain reliever for non-specific aches and pains.

c400 BC: In Greece, Hippocrates administers willow leaf tea, which contains the natural compound from which aspirin is derived, to women to ease the pain of childbirth.

1763: The Royal Society publishes a report detailing five years of experiments on the use of dried, powdered willow bark in curing fevers, submitted by Edward Stone, a vicar in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire.

1828: Joseph Buchner, professor of pharmacy at Munich University, Germany, succeeds in extracting the active ingredient from willow, producing bitter tasting yellow crystals that he names salicin.

Salicin is also found in the meadowsweet flower by Swiss pharmacist Johann Pagenstecher and later by German researcher Karl Jacob Löwig.

1853: French chemist Charles Frédéric Gerhardt determines the chemical structure of salicyclic acid and chemically synthesises acetylsalicylic acid.

1876: The first rigorous clinical trial of salicin finds that it induces remission of fever and joint inflammation in patients with rheumatism (Lancet 18761:383).

1897: While working for pharmaceutical company Bayer, German chemist Felix Hoffmann, possibly under the direction of colleague Arthur Eichengrün, finds that adding an acetyl group to salicylic acid reduces its irritant properties and Bayer patents the process.

1899: Acetylsalicyclic acid is named Aspirin by Bayer. The letter &lsquoA&rsquo stands for acetyl, &ldquospir&rdquo is derived from the plant known as Spiraea ulmaria (meadowsweet), which yields salicin, and &ldquoin&rdquo was a common suffix used for drugs at the time of the first stable synthesis of acetylsalicylic acid.

1950: Aspirin enters the Guinness World Records for being the most frequently sold painkiller.

1971: John Vane, professor of pharmacology at the University of London, publishes research describing aspirin&rsquos mechanism of action (dose-dependent inhibition of prostaglandin synthesis) (Nature New Biology 1971231:232). He later wins a Nobel prize (1982) for this work, along with Bengt Samuelsson and Sune Bergström.

1974: Data from the first randomised controlled trial of aspirin in the secondary prevention of death from heart attack show a reduction in total mortality of 12% at 6 months and 25% at 12 months but the results are statistically inconclusive (BMJ 19741:436).

1991 and 1993: Results from the CPS (cancer prevention study)-II, a large US prospective cohort study, confirm the cancer benefits of aspirin seen in smaller observational studies (NEJM 1991325:1593 and Cancer Research 199353:1322).

1997: Results from the CAST (Chinese acute stroke trial) study of early aspirin use in 20,000 patients with acute ischaemic stroke show that aspirin started early in hospital produces a small but definite net benefit (Lancet 1997 349:1641).

1998: Results from the HOT (hypertension optimal treatment) trial show that aspirin significantly reduces major cardiovascular events in hypertensive patients, with the greatest benefit seen in preventing heart attacks. The incidence of non-fatal major bleeds was twice as common (Lancet 19983511755).

2005: Results from WHS (women&rsquos health study), a large, primary-prevention trial among women, suggest that aspirin lowers the risk of stroke without affecting the risk of heart attack or death from cardiovascular causes (NEJM 2005352:1293). The WHS was conducted by investigators from Harvard Medical School.

2009: A meta-analysis by the ATT (antithrombotic trialists) collaboration suggests that aspirin has substantial overall benefit in secondary prevention but in primary prevention, aspirin is of uncertain net value as the reduction in occlusive events needs to be weighed against any increase in major bleeds (Lancet 2009373:1849).

2011: A meta-analysis of eight clinical trials finds that, after five years of follow-up, trial participants who took aspirin daily for a mean of four years have a 44% reduced risk of dying from cancer compared with participants who took a placebo (Lancet 2011377:31).

2013: Follow-up results of the WHS confirm that long-term use of alternate day low-dose aspirin results in a 42% reduction in colorectal cancer incidence, with benefits starting to appear after 10 years. The results also show increased risk of gastrointestinal bleeding and peptic ulcers (Annals of Internal Medicine 2013159:77).

2014: A meta-analysis suggests that long-term prophylactic use of aspirin has a favourable benefit&ndashharm profile and leads to a dramatic reduction in the incidence of bowel, stomach and oesophageal cancer (Annals of Oncology, online 5 August 2014).

2015: Results expected from the ARRIVE (aspirin to reduce risk of initial vascular events) study.

2018: Results expected from the ASPREE (aspirin in reducing events in the elderly) study to determine whether the potential benefits of low-dose aspirin outweigh the risks in healthy people older than 70 years of age.

Bibliographical recommendations

Before, or while, looking at specific source material of the area in which you are interested, you should also take a look at ancient Egyptian history, culture, and language.

  • Shaw, Ian (ed.): Oxford history of ancient Egypt, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000 (Asian and Middle Eastern Studies 105.56)
  • Collier, Mark and Bill Manley: How to read Egyptian hieroglyphs: a step-by-step guide to teach yourself, London: British Museum Press 1998 (UL: North Wing, Floor 5: 813:4.c.95.37)
  • Wilson, P. Hieroglyphs: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003

For articles on various topics of Egyptian culture and introductory bibliographies, see:

  • Donald B. Redford (ed.): The Oxford encyclopedia of ancient Egypt, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001 (UL: Reading Room: R510.28)

Online resources

A warning

The internet has proven to be an easy way for Egyptomaniacs to distribute their opinions and the results of their 'study' of ancient Egyptian culture (often insisting that some well-known Egyptologists are in error). I recommend sticking to those web pages that are endorsed by an institution of higher education some examples are listed below.

Gebelein Man

Well-preserved mummies reveal a great deal about the beliefs, tradition, structure of a particular civilization and the culture of treating its dead. The famous mummy that was found at the site of Gebelein near Thebes in Egypt, was nicknamed as “Ginger” for his red hair. This mummy was officially called the Gebelein Man for where he was found.

Ancient mummies like the Gebelien Man can tell us a great deal about the Predynastic culture. It can also shed light on causes of death, various diseases that may have afflicted the ancient Egyptians. A recent study suggested that the Gebelein Man was most likely murdered. This was evident in the CAT Scan at Cromwell Hospital in London that the ribs, shoulder bone of the Gebelien man were damaged and there was a mark on the flesh of his back indicating that he was stabbed from behind with a copper blade. Thus, well-preserved mummies and untouched burials help us to know about the ancient traditions, culture practiced thousands of years ago.

Aromatherapy Articles

Prehistoric Era: Aromatherapy shares a common early history with herbal medicine, of which it is a part. This is a history that extends thousands of years into the prehistoric past and chronicles the ancient relationship between human beings and plants. Archeological evidence from the Shanidar cave burials in Iraq has been interpreted as indicating that Neanderthal people in the area were burying their dead with flowers more than 50,000 years ago. This inference was made from the presence of flower pollen from several species, including yarrow, which was found with the skeletal remains, concentrated around the head. The amount of pollen found for some of the species suggested strongly that whole flowers had been placed in the burial but there has been lively debate in the field of archeology concerning whether or not the pollen might have been carried into the burial by rodents so this oldest evidence for the ritual use of plants remains speculative.

The archeological evidence for prehistoric ritual and medicinal use of plants by humans is fragmentary, especially prior to the Neolithic era (roughly 9000 to 3000 BCE). Most of the plants with the longest documented history of use are psychoactive in nature. In Texas and northeastern Mexico, for example, archeologists have documented a history of psychoactive plant use that extends back to 10,500 years ago. Psychoactive plants have a long history of use in the form of smoke for ritual and medicinal purposes and in this we find the earliest precursor of aromatherapy. In traditional cultures, plant smoke is still widely used in cleansing rituals and is believed to carry messages to the spirit world this is why Native Americans burn sweet grass and sage, Hindus burn sandalwood, and native South Americans burn palo santo wood. The same belief underlies the burning of frankincense in Catholic churches which has continued into modern times.

Ancient Historic Era: The oldest written records that document the medicinal use of plants come from the ancient Sumerians who lived in Mesopotamia from 5500 BC.

They kept extensive written records on clay tablets that record the plants they used, what they used them for and their methods of preparation and the dosages. Aromatic medicine was highly regarded and pots have been found at Sumerian sites which are believed to have been used for primitive extraction of essential oils. In this method, clay pots were filled with plant material which was then covered in water an absorbent material, probably wool, was stuffed into the opening and the pot was then heated. As the heated water turned into steam and rose towards the opening of the jar the essential oils were trapped in the wool, which could then be wrung out to produce a mixture of water and essential oil that would have been similar to today's hydrosols. This product would most likely have contained at least a little lanolin from the wool as well.

Later the Babylonians, who lived in the same general area from about 3000 or 2000 to 600 BC, also left records detailing the use of fragrant plants and other medicinal herbs, including psychoactive plants such as datura, cannabis (controversial), claviceps, mandrake and poppy.

The Babylonians were followed in the Fertile Crescent by the Assyrians (628 to 626 BC) who preserved many of the old tablets from the Babylonians and also left their own accounts. What we know from this amazing collection is that disease at this time was largely considered to be the work of evil spirits or demons and the most common and respected way of driving out these demons was fumigation - smoking with fragrant herbs.

All essential oil producing plants can be placed on hot coals to produce fragrant smoke and some of the plants that they used this way, in addition to the hallucinogens and narcotics just mentioned, were calendula, chamomile, fennel, henbane, myrrh, saffron and turmeric.

There was a huge trade in aromatic plants in the ancient world, most often in the form of oils, gums and resins. The Babylonians imported frankincense from Africa and burned about 57,000 pounds of it a year. The Assyrians burned about 120,000 pounds of it a year in their annual feast of Baal.

The Egyptians were the ancient people who are probably most famous for their use of fragrant plants and I have seen reports that they utilized the same method of extracting essential oils that was employed by the Sumerians. They made extensive use of resins, dried plants, and infused oils and pomades. Among the fragrant plants used by the Egyptians for embalming, for religious rituals, and for healing were cedar, myrrh, and frankincense. In the 17th century, ancient Egyptian mummies were sometimes sold and actually distilled to be used as medicines themselves because even after thousands of years they were still impregnated with the residue of these aromatics.

The earliest historical accounts of the Egyptian use of aromatics date to about 4500 BCE - about 1000 years later than the Sumerians. However, the most famous historical document describing the use of aromatic medicine by the Egyptians is the Ebers Papyrus found near Thebes in 1872. The Ebers Papyrus was written during the reign of Khufu, around 2800 BCE, and describes the use of over 850 botanical remedies including myrrh, frankincense, myrtle, galbanum and many other aromatic herbs.

The use of aromatic plants has also been important in the ayurvedic tradition of India and a portion of the Rig Veda written around 4500 BC records the use of aromatic herbs.

Much later the Greeks and Romans made extensive use of aromatic plants, burning them as fumigants and using the infused oils both as perfumes and as medicines. As the Roman army moved over Europe and England, their uses of aromatic plants spread with them.

The Development of Distillation: It is the development of true distillation techniques that marks the historical roots of Aromatherapy, per se, and begins to set it apart from the rest of herbal medicine. The history of the development of distillation is unclear and often controversial, however. I have relied on Ernest Guenther' seminal six volume set, The Essential Oils (originally published in 1948), for much of what is reported here about the history of distillation but some authors report different information on this topic. The best advice that I can give my students is to keep an open mind and simply be aware that things are not always cut and dried.

The discovery of the modern technique of steam distillation is usually credited to the Persian physician Aviecenna who lived between 980 and 1036 CE and succeeded in distilling rose essential oil. This must be suspect however as there is evidence suggesting that distillation techniques were being employed much earlier than Avicenna's time. For example, the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived between 484 and 425 BCE, mentions oil of turpentine and gives partial information about its production.

A point that has often been overlooked by authors recounting the history of aromatherapy is that until the Middle Ages, distillation was carried out primarily for obtaining flower waters and the essential oils were not separated out as a specific product. In fact, as Guenther points out, when the process resulted in a precipitation of essential oils, as when rose oil crystallizes on the surface of rose water, the essential oil was likely regarded as an undesirable by-product.

It is unclear who developed the modern process of distilling essential oils. However, Arnald de Villanova, a physician who lived in Catalonia (Spain) between about 1235 and 1311 is said by Guenther to have made such praise of the remedial qualities of distilled waters that the process of distillation became a specialty of medieval and post-medieval European pharmacies. By the 13th century, essential oils were widely used in Europe by those who could afford them. They were used as fragrances by the nobility and it was a popular custom of the time to impregnate fine gloves with essential oils. Physicians of the era believed that being surrounded by pleasant odors would give protection against many diseases, especially the plague, as it was noted that many people who worked with essential oils, such as perfumery workers and glove makers, did not succumb to the illness.

A hundred years later the European alchemists of the 15th century, including Paracelsus, continued to perfect the process of distillation and added many new essential oils, which began to be more widely used as perfumes. By the 16th century, the perfume industry was one of the most important industries in Europe.

By the 16th Century, production of essential oils was widespread and many manor houses in England and Europe had still rooms devoted to the production of flower waters and essential oils for both household and medicinal uses.

From the 16th to the early 19th centuries herbal medicine in general, and aromatic medicine specifically, continued to expand and, of course herbal medicines, including essential oils, were the only medicines we had until the 19th century. As synthetic drugs became the gold standard for western medicine's treatment of illness and the pharmaceutical industry became the powerful force that it is today, herbal medicines of all types fell by the wayside in most developed countries (China is a notable exception). However, according to the World Health Organization, the majority of the world's population still largely depends on traditional medicines based on medicinal and aromatic plants and for many people in developing countries herbal medicines are still the only medicines that are available. In many cases, herbs are used today in the same ways that they were hundreds and even thousands of years ago and in some instances these ancient medicines have applications in the treatment of a diverse range of illnesses such as cancer, infections, kidney stones and many others that are unmatched by pharmaceutical drugs.

Dr. Power is a retired board certified neuropsychologist and former Assistant Professor of Surgery/Neurosurgery at the Medical College of Georgia, where she performed intra-operative cortical mapping with renowned neurosurgeon Herman Flanigan, M.D. She has over 20 years of clinical experience in both in-patient and out-patient settings and during her years of practice has also been both a practitioner and student of alternative healing methods, including herbal medicine, aromatherapy, Reiki, Chinese Medicine, and other energetic healing systems. Her extensive formal training and experience in the olfactory and limbic systems of the brain give her a unique qualification for understanding the actions of essential oils in the body. Dr. Power, founder of one of the earliest essential oil companies in the U.S. to specialize in therapeutic quality essential oils, is now a clinical consultant for Artisan Aromatics as well as an internationally known writer and teacher in the fields of aromatherapy and alternative medicine. Her approach to aromatherapy weaves together her solid scientific training and strong clinical skills with a holistic philosophy that honors body, mind and spirit. Dr. Joie Power is also the author of The Quick Study Guide to Aromatherapy and numerous published articles on aromatherapy and related topics.

Keep up with what's going on at The Aromatherapy School and receive interesting articles on Aromatherapy and Essential Oils.
Sign up for The Aromatherapy School Newsletter: Subscribe

Doctors and other healers

The ancient Egyptian word for doctor is "swnw". There is a long history of swnw in ancient Egypt. The earliest recorded physician in the world is also credited to ancient Egypt: Hesyre, “Chief of Dentists and Physicians” for King Djoser in the 27th century BC.[5] The lady Peseshet (2400 BC) may be the first recorded female doctor: she was possibly the mother of Akhethotep, and on a stela dedicated to her in his tomb she is referred to as imy-r swnwt, which has been translated as “Lady Overseer of the Lady Physicians” (swnwt is the feminine of swnw).

There were many ranks and specializations in medicine. Royalty had their own swnw, even their own specialists. There were inspectors of doctors, overseers and chief doctors. Known ancient Egyptian specialists are ophthalmologist, gastroenterologist, proctologist, dentist, "doctor who supervises butchers" and an unspecified "inspector of liquids". The ancient Egyptian term for proctologist, neru phuyt, literally translates as "shepherd of the anus".

Medical institutions, so called Houses of Life, are known to have been established in ancient Egypt since as early as the 1st Dynasty. By the time of the 19th Dynasty their employees enjoyed such benefits as medical insurance, pensions and sick leave [6].

General Overviews

The heightened interest in ancient medicine during the 20th century, especially in England, has resulted in a number of new introductory works. The classic account of Edelstein 1967 is still valuable, despite its date. Van der Eijk 2011 is a very accessible and brief summary of the most recent research. King 2001 has composed a broad and short overview that is easily accessible for students. Bynum 2008 offers instructive survey of the entire history of medicine. Its account of humoralism is nuanced and clear. Boudon-Millot, et al. 2007, a collection of essays dedicated to Jacques Jouanna, supplies ready access to French scholarship in the second half of the 20th century. Nutton 2013 is the single most authoritative account on ancient medicine and serves as a constant reference point for primary and secondary literature. Michaelides 2014 is a far-ranging volume of diverse essays, ideal for more advanced research. Ferngren 2014 brings together a wealth of evidence in a volume focused on the interplay between medicine and religion in Antiquity.

Boudon-Millot, Véronique, Alessia Guardasole, and Caroline Magdelaine, eds. La science médicale antique: Nouveaux regards études réunies en l’honneur de Jacques Jouanna. Paris: Beauchesne, 2007.

An important collection of essays dedicated to the preeminent French-speaking authority on ancient medicine, Jacques Jouanna. The volume begins with a complete list, eighteen pages in length, of Jouanna’s contributions to the study of ancient medicine, an invaluable resource.

Bynum, William. The History of Medicine: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Broad introduction to medicine that stretches from Antiquity to the present. This short and accessible work is ideal for one new to the study of the history of medicine. Each chapter is thematically arranged: bedside, library, hospital, community, laboratory, and modern world. The first chapter contains a helpful introduction to Hippocratic humoralism and Galenic physiology. Succinct bibliography of essential literature.

Edelstein, Ludwig. Ancient Medicine: Selected Papers of Ludwig Edelstein. Edited by Owsei Temkin and C. Lilian Temkin. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967.

A classic study that brings together the most salient of Edelstein’s essays. Although much of his work is now outdated, Edelstein greatly advanced the study of ancient medicine in the 20th century. His papers continue to serve as a foundation for new study.

Ferngren, Gary B. Medicine and Religion: A Historical Introduction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014.

A detailed account of the ancient role of religion in therapy. Ferngren draws upon a broad geographical area to illuminate the diverse ways in which religious traditions conceptualized and treated the ailing body. The concluding endnotes with bibliography are quite helpful.

King, Helen. Greek and Roman Medicine. London: Bristol Classical, 2001.

A brief introductory textbook. King offers a succinct description of medical theory and practice in the classical world for the non-specialist. She also supplies helpful suggestions for further reading and study.

Michaelides, Demetrios, ed. Medicine and Healing in the Ancient Mediterranean World. Oxford: Oxbow, 2014.

New and essential resource that includes forty-two essays that cover almost every aspect of ancient medicine in the Mediterranean world. Topics include surgery, pharmaceuticals, skeletal remains, the cult of Asclepius and incubation, medicine and archaeology, and individual authors and schools of medical thought. A concluding section takes up the reception of medical theory and practice in later Byzantine, Arab, and Latin sources.

Nutton, Vivian. Ancient Medicine. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2013.

The definitive introduction to ancient medicine from the definitive authority. If one could only own a single volume on ancient medicine, this would be the choice. Nutton’s command of the field and presentation of the material make this work indispensable.

Van der Eijk, Philip. “Medicine and Health in the Graeco-Roman World.” In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Medicine. Edited by Mark Jackson, 21–39. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Brief introduction to Greco-Roman medicine from one of the leading scholars in the field. Van der Eijk surveys recent significant developments and offers numerous bibliographic references.

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

Magical Hymns from Roman Egypt A Study of Greek and Egyptian Traditions of Divinity

This interdisciplinary study investigates the divine personas in the so-called magical hymns of the Greek magical papyri which, in a corpus usually seen as a significant expression of religious syncretism with strong Egyptian influence, were long considered to be the 'most authentically Greek' contribution. Fifteen hymns receive a line-by-line commentary focusing on religious concepts, ritual practice, language and style. The overarching aim is to categorise the nature of divinity according to its Greek or Egyptian elements, examining earlier Greek and Egyptian sources and religious-magical traditions in order to find textual or conceptual parallels. Are the gods of the magical hymns Greek or Egyptian in nature? Did the magical hymns originate in a Greek or Egyptian cultural background? The book tries to answer these questions and to shed light on the religious plurality and/or fusion of the two cultures in the treatment of divinity in the Greek magical papyri.

  • The first interdisciplinary study of the magical hymns of Graeco-Roman Egypt
  • Provides detailed commentaries on fifteen of the most important hymns
  • Provides an important reassessment of the cultural and religious background of the magical hymns

Blog Post 3 – Evolution of Ancient Egyptian Medicine

The most prolifically discussed sources for evidence of medical practices come in textual forms. Those of particular importance being the Kahun Gynecological Papyrus, the Edwin Smith Papyrus, and Ebers Papyrus. In all of these papyri, some better preserved and complete than others, one can find the accounts of medical practitioners as they discuss the methods for diagnosis and treatment of various illnesses and injuries. However, often neglected by the more historically based approaches of Egyptology, there is also abundant bioarchaeological and related archaeobotanical evidence for a multitude of medical interventions and prolonged care for the disabled. This research paper will aim to discuss and analyze this archaeobotanical and bioarchaeological evidence, with the historical support of the textual evidence mentioned previously, to gain a better understanding of how medical practices in ancient Egypt evolved over time, spanning from the Old Kingdom into the Late Period.

Medical treatments in ancient Egypt are multifaceted and diverse, covering everything from more external and holistic medical practices to much more invasive surgeries. Of note in the bioarchaeological record, the presence of dental caries and abrasion, often due to small amounts of sand that was not fully removed from the food through processing, became much more abundant beginning in the Old Kingdom regardless of social status. Like many of the treatments for a multitude of ailments, it is believed that most early dental treatments were based on ritualistic or herbal medicine in the Old Kingdom, which does not leave much of a presence bioarchaeologically. However, there is possible evidence for more invasive dental work such as forced dental extraction and possible fake tooth implementation in the more recent bioarchaeological record (Nunn). As exemplified by dental medicine, it is possible to see a movement towards and a rise in the amount of invasive medicinal interventions with the progression of time in the ancient Egyptian archaeological record.

Strong ideological influence over all domains of life throughout ancient Egyptian history is well-established, and this influence certainly holds in the realm of medicine as well. Through textual evidence in both papyri, hieroglyphs, and other visual representations it is known that many medical treatments were accompanied by some form of belief-influenced ritual, as briefly mentioned earlier. (Coppens 128) However, a focus on the simply ritualistic aspects of these practices ignores that the Egyptians seemed to have a keen understanding that injury and illness were also due to physical influences and contamination. Nonetheless, an understanding of them is important since much of the archaeobotanical evidence found is directly linked to these medicinal rituals. There is also evidence for some forms of herb-based pharmacology as methods of treatment.

Although some Egyptologists, archaeologists, and other researches of ancient Egypt believe that the study of medical evolution would be a fruitless effort due to the ideological conservatism of ancient Egyptians, there is much textual evidence to show that this conservatism did not prevent these medical practitioners from adopting and creating new techniques and course of treatment (Ritner 107-110). It is now crucial that this textual evidence be corroborated with the available archaeological evidence and the archaeological evidence be allowed to inform further discussions on Egyptian medicine. With this being the case, this paper will seek to aid the bridging of the gap between the oft discussed historical and textual evidence with the archaeological record.


Griffith, R. Drew. “Honeymoon Salad: Cambyses’ Uxoricide According to the Egyptians (Hdt. 3.32.3-4).” Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte, vol. 58, no. 2, 2009, pp. 131–140. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Nunn, J F. Ancient Egyptian Medicine. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996. Print.


Sorry but an old mummy has little value, tissue-wise: and tissue IS necessary if you are going to try one of these new-fangled tests. You cannot go on height, or we would all be related.

Besides “Remember her who guarded her chastity-We gave her , and her son as a sign for all peoples”, and that’s from the Koran.

It of course refers to the Virgin Mary-given to us by God, and to her son “Jesus Christ” (Issa) BOTH of whom it is clearly stated and held in Catholic belief, were divine creations “Immaculate Conceptions”.

“Through Jesus Christ Our Lord AMEN”. It’s like nobody ever listened to the prayers they say by the billion every day, is it not?

These Pharoahs MAY have been incestuous, but you will need accurate very accurate DNA testing of tissue to prove it-proper tests, and even if these future new tests show consanguinity at a damning level, should they also have been direct divine descents (avatars are not ganmer IDs!!)

then quite obviously their genetics will be as identical as would be Our Lady and Jesus’.

AMEN. Who is Amen?? Wake up there people, do you REALLY seriously imagine that ordinary humans would have been deified and venerated and protected as was Sai Baba until his death in India a few years ago, had they been ordinary people??

New study presents evidence? This has been known for years as fact. I even watched a documentary on the Pharaos and their practices of marrying their own family members a couple of years ago.

Anyone interested in this subject should read Immanuel Velikovsky’s fascinating book, Oedipus and Akhnaton.

This book does not track the other Velikovsky books such as Worlds in Collision or Ages in Chaos, but stands alone as a detective story trying to find the origin of the Oedipus myth.

And I think he nails it perfectly, as do a lot of other scholars. The Greeks got much of their knowledge from the Egyptians, and Velikovsky shows how this story fits perfectly with Akhnaton.

Oedipuas means swollen leg, which if you look at the reconstructed picture of Tutankhamun, fits perfectly.