The significance of believing in healing : On the therapeutic value of spoken words in ancient Egyptian medical papyri

University essay from Uppsala universitet/Institutionen för arkeologi och antik historia

Author: Tuva Johansson; [2019]

Keywords: magic; medicine; healing; papyri;

Abstract: Medicine and healing, constantly changing through time, have always been important aspects of life. The desire to avoid the inevitable state of death has driven mankind in all corners of the world to develop certain ways of prolonging life from a very early time. While it is recognized in the modern day that disease and infection are caused by microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria and parasites, the ancient Egyptians believed that gods, demons, and spirits played the main roles in causing such troubles. Therefore, it does not seem strange that, besides being devoted to the use of various natural drugs and materials in healing treatments, the ancient Egyptians also incorporated religion and magic into their treatment methods. Magic, religion, and medicine enjoyed an equal symbiosis all throughout the Pharaonic times, and one cannot easily separate one from the other. The purpose of this study is to investigate whether there is any kind of systematics in the way magic was used in ancient Egyptian healing treatments, specifically in the treatments involving incantations and spells. The comparison of the relevant treatments in relation to each other will be conducted both within and in between the individual papyri. The surviving ancient medical papyri are a handful of texts ranging approximately from 1800 BC to 300 AD and give us a precious idea of what the arts of medicine and healing could have looked like in the ancient Egyptian world. A chosen number of the ancient papyri, dated to the 18th dynasty, will be studied in order to better understand the concept of healing and, more significantly, the importance of the power in words. The main sources used are the ancient material of the medical papyri themselves, complemented by a knowledgebase built on the plentiful previous research on the subject available. Numerous studies on the subject of both medicine and magic in ancient Egypt, as well as on the surviving medical papyri have been conducted since the end of the 19th century. The collection of ‘Grundriss der medizin der alten Ägypter’, consisting of nine volumes, was published between the years of 1954 to 1973 and still stands as the most extensive study on the combined ancient Egyptian medical papyri. Several works on the different individual papyri, mainly the Edwin Smith papyrus and the Ebers papyrus, have also been published throughout the years. While there does not appear to have been any intentional systematics in the way the ancient Egyptians conducted their treatment methods containing incantations, there are similarities to be observed. It seems clear that rational medicine and magical incantations and rites, together with the fundamental element of religion, was the ideal combination in the treatment of any condition or complaint.

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