Sunday, 20 September 2015

Why did the ancient Egyptians preserve the heart and yet discard the brain in the mummification of humans?

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body and probably the most remarkable. It allows a person to think, feel and store memories. So why did the ancient Egyptians remove the brain during the mummification process? Did they understand the function of the brain? The purpose of mummification was to preserve the body in its entirety for the afterlife so was the brain simply discarded or do we need more research in this area?

To the ancient Egyptians, the word ib for the heart was a metaphysical entity embodying thought, intelligence, memory and wisdom, as well as bravery, sadness and love. It was ib as a metaphysical entity that was weighed in the judgment scene depicted in the Ani papyrus and elsewhere. But there was a separate word used for the anatomical heart: haty. Preservation of the haty was vital in human embalming but the fate of the brain is still a puzzle. We know it was mainly removed and the process by which this was done. The purpose of mummification was to preserve the body intact for the afterlife, and other internal organs were surgically removed, preserved and put in canopic jars so why was the brain discarded?
I discuss the fate of the brain and heart in the mummification process in an article I wrote for the Ancient Egypt Magazine. I start off with looking at why mummification was important to the ancient Egyptians and why Egyptologists believe preservation of the heart was vital but not the brain. Is this analysis accurate or does recent research shed new evidence?

To read this in full follow the link below.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Childbirth in Ancient Egypt (Part One)

Surgical scene at the Temple of Kom Ombo depicting birthing stools on the left (photo taken by me)

Childbirth was difficult and sometimes dangerous in ancient Egypt. Women delivered their babies kneeling, or sitting on their heels, or on a delivery seat as depicted on wall reliefs in the temple of Kom Ombo. The hieroglyphs 'To give birth' also depict the squatting position and use of birthing stool or bricks.

There is no documentary evidence that women in labour were assisted by the swnw (physicians). The medical papyri do not pay much attention to complications that arise during the time of delivery but the swnw were known to treat gynaecological problems after birth.
The following extract by Hyginus (cited by von Staden in (1989) may relate to the Herophilis who practised in Alexandria in the Ptolemaic period (JF Nunn)

“The ancients had no midwives, and therefore women died {in childbirth}, led on by their sense of shame. For the Athenians had taken heed that no slave or woman should learn the science of medicine. A certain girl, Hagnodice, as a young woman desired to learn the science of medicine. Because of this desire, she cut her hair, put on male clothing and entrusted herself to a certain Herophilus for her training. After learning this science, when she heard a woman was having labour pains, she use to go to her. And when the woman refused to entrust herself {to Hagnodice}, thinking that she was a man, Hagnodice lifted her undergarment and revealed that she was a woman. In this way she used to cure women.”

Cleopatra with her son Cesarean at the Temple of Dendera (photo taken by me)

Ancient Egyptian medicine relied not just on the expertise of the physicians but also involved the work of the magicians and priests. Chanting and magical spells were used in healing and deities were invoked to assist the patients.

Deities That Assisted in Childbirth

God of pregnancy and childbirth; protector of the home and particularly of women and infants. Bes was believed to exert a particular favourable influence in pregnancy and childbirth and therefore was often represented in birth houses attached to temples. He was a bearded dwarf god and quite unusual from all the other Egyptian gods. He was often shown carrying a rattle and with his tongue sticking out. During the birth, Bes would dance and shake his rattle whilst yelling to frighten away demons that would otherwise put a curse on the child. It was believed that after the child was born Bes would stay around to amuse the child and that a baby’s smile was a sign that Bes was there pulling funny faces.

Taweret, the great one, was the goddess with the head of a hippopotamus, the legs and arms of a lion, the tail of a crocodile and human breasts. She had a special role in assisting women in childbirth and was a favourite subject for amulets.

Taweret, the great one (Photo taken by me at the British Museum)

Meskhenet’s symbol of two loops on top of a vertical stroke represented the two horned uterus of the heifer. She was the goddess of childbirth and believed to be the creator of each childs ‘Ka’ which she breathed into them at the moment of birth.

Isis was a very important goddess and known to be the divine mother. As the wife of Osiris and mother of Horus she had a very special status in ancient Egyptian mythology.


Hathor was the goddess of fertility and childbirth. She was one of the most popular deities in ancient Egypt and was invoked to help with problems related to conception, childbirth and women's health.

Images of Hathor on blocks in the Temple of Montu at Tod (Photo taken by me)

Image of Hathor on a block in the Temple of Mut, Luxor (Photo taken by me)

Hathor on a block on the Temple of Mut, Luxor (photo taken by me)

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Karnak Temple of Khonsu

Khonsu was a lunar deity who was believed to have the ability to drive out evil spirits. He later becomes associated with childbirth prior to becoming the better known god of the Theban triad consisting of Amun, Mut and himself. As a lunar deity, one of his symbols was the Cynocephalus baboon, considered a lunar creature by the ancient Egyptians, though he does not nearly so frequently appear in this form as does the god Thoth.
Despite being known as a healing deity, paradoxically in the early Pyramid Texts, he appears in the "Cannibal Hymn” as a bloodthirsty deity who assists the deceased king in catching and slaying those gods that the king "feeds upon" in order to absorb their strength. He is referred to as "Khonsu who slew the lords, who strangles them for the King, and extracts for him what is in their bodies". He is only mentioned once in the Pyramid Texts but in Spell 258 of the Coffin Texts he is referred to as "Khonsu who lives on hearts" and in Spell 310 as he is who is capable of sending out "the rage which burns hearts".

Me at the Temple of Khonsu
As a lunar deity, one of his symbols was the Cynocephalus baboon (shown in photo), considered a lunar creature by the ancient Egyptians.

Temple of Khonsu
(Photo taken by me)

Although in Thebes, Khonsu was primarily known as a lunar god, his mythology was not limited to that role. He had several different aspects such as "Khonsu pa-khered, or Khonsu the Child; Khonsu pa-ir-sekher, or Khonsu the provider and Khonsu heseb-ahau, or Khonsu, decider of the life span" which was one of the most important Theban manifestations of the god.
The Bentresh stela in the Louvre Museum demonstrates Khonsu’s healing role in Egyptian medicine. The stela was produced in Thebes in the 4th century BC by priests, though it claims to record a pronouncement of Ramesses II some 800 years earlier. The inscriptions tell the story of Rameses ll loaning a statue of Khonsu pa-ir-sekher to the king of Bakhtan to aid in the healing of Princess Bentresh who is possessed by a hostile spirit making her unwell. To the amazement of the Bakhtan court, Khonsu cures Bentresh and the hostile spirit acknowledges his supremacy.

In later periods, Khonsu's role as a god of healing was widespread and popular amongst the common people who sometimes took his name as part of their own. This popularity was aided by the fact that he was believed to have personally healed one of Egypt's kings during the Greek Period. This king was Ptolemy IV, who called himself "beloved of Khonsu who protects the king and drives away evil spirits. 

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Migraine in ancient Egypt

Ebers 250
'Another (remedy) for suffering (meret) in half the head (ges-tep). The skull of a cat-fish (nar) fried in oil. Anoint the head there with.'
Migraines are caused by excessive vasodilation of blood vessels in the meningeal membranes which surround the brain. It occurs normally on one side only and the headache often very painful is therefore confined to one side.
Ebers : Take a strip of linen and write the names of the gods on it to cure you.
Then get a clay crocodile and put some grain in his mouth.
Take the linen and bind the crocodile to your head.
There is a link between Greek and Egyptian medicine in the Hippocratic corpus where the word hemicrania is used. 

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Medicinal Uses of Celery in Ancient Egypt

Celery was well known to the ancient Egyptians who used to gather the wild celery growing in marshy regions for food. Historically the seeds of the celery have been used as a diuretic, antispasmodic medication and as a herbal aphrodisiac.

Celery was known as 'matet' in ancient Egypt and was used extensively in Egyptian medicine. One of its uses was as a drug to aid the contraction of the uterus after giving birth. Ebers 823 recommends celery ground in cow’s milk. It was probably used for urinary problems too and possibly for rheumatism.

Clinical studies have been carried out on the chemistry of celery seeds, and the essential oil in particular. There is some evidence to suggest that celery does have a bactericidal and antispasmodic effect and the ability to act as a mild sedative.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Surgical Procedures in Ancient Egypt

Picture taken by me of the disputed surgical relief at the temple of Kom Ombo

Evidence suggests that the swnw (doctors) only carried out minor surgical procedures. The disputed surgical instrument relief on the wall of Kom Ombo displays several objects which can be interpreted as knife blades, spatulas, small bags for drugs etc. This relief is from the Greek/Roman period.
One surgical procedure that was routinely carried out in ancient Egypt was circumcision. It was a ritual performed by the priests on groups of adolescent men and not infants. The world’s oldest portrayal of circumcision was carved on the wall of the Dynasty VI tomb of Ankhmahor, Vizier to King Teti.
The Edwin Smith Papyrus is the earliest document of major medical significance and contains the first evidence of surgical procedures and scientific reasoning. The cases are described by the anatomical site of the injury, working down from the top of the skull to the facial and temporal regions, the neck, collar bones, upper arms, chest and ribs, shoulders, and then to the upper spinal column. The papyrus describes 27 cases of head trauma. Of these 4 are deep scalp wounds whereby the skull is exposed and 11 are skull fractures. Great detail is given of the symptoms and signs of head injury.
The treatment suggested in the Edwin Smith Papyrus ranges from letting nature take its course, to cauterisation applied with a fire-drill to a suppurating or large tumour of the breast;  splints made of wood and linen rolls to immobilize fractured limbs; manipulative reductions of fractures and dislocations and the use of medicine.
The swnw knew that the complete elimination of pus from wounds was an essential precondition to their successful closing and healing. Fresh meat was also applied to wounds to promote blood clotting.
Although the Edwin Smith papyrus shows a logical format to the management of trauma, other papyri give scant evidence of surgery outside the field of trauma.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Medicinal Uses of the Castor Bean Plant (Ricinus Communis)

The ‘Castor Bean Plant’ had medicinal uses in ancient Egypt despite the fact that raw castor beans are very toxic. Castor beans have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs dating back to 4000 B.C. This is what the compiler of the Ebers Papyrus wrote about the castor bean:
'To know what is made of the ricinus plant according to that which was found in old writings as something useful to men: if its roots are crushed Inwater and applied to a head which is ill then he will get well immediately Like one who is not ill.'

Ancient Egyptians also used the Castor Bean to cure stomach ailments by chewing it with beer. Its oil was used to help women who were losing their hair. I remember my grandmother applying castor oil to my hair as a child to thicken it. I didn’t realise that the properties of castor oil were known thousands of years ago. The ancients also used the oil to help people with diseases of the skin.
The leaf of the plant was used as a bandage to hold in place a vegetable paste used for burns. The fruits of the plant along with other herbs were burnt as fumigation to expel a disease caused by demons. Some of the uses of the plant continued during the Coptic period.
Was the use of the ‘Castor Bean Plant’ effective? Recent studies on lab rats have shown that an alcoholic extract of the leaf protected their liver from damage caused by certain poisons. Methanolic extracts of the leaves of Ricinus communis were used in antimicrobial testing against eight pathogenic bacteria in rats and showed antimicrobial properties. The extract was not toxic. The pericarp of castor bean showed central nervous system effects in mice at low doses. At high doses mice quickly died. A water extract of the root bark showed analgesic activity in rats. Antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties were found in ethanolic extracmt of Ricinus communis root bark.