A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 1, chapter II
Egyptian science
Charms and incantations
Where such conceptions as these pertained, it goes without saying that charms and incantations intended to break the spell of the unlucky omens were equally prevalent. Such incantations consisted usually of the recitation of certain phrases based originally, it would appear, upon incidents in the history of the gods. The words which the god had spoken in connection with some lucky incident would, it was thought, prove effective now in bringing good luck to the human supplicant - that is to say, the magician hoped through repeating the words of the god to exercise the magic power of the god. It was even possible, with the aid of the magical observances, partly to balk fate itself. Thus the person predestined through birth on an unlucky day to die of a serpent bite might postpone the time of this fateful visitation to extreme old age. The like uncertainty attached to those spells which one person was supposed to be able to exercise over another. It was held, for example, that if something belonging to an individual, such as a lock of hair or a paring of the nails, could be secured and incorporated in a waxen figure, this figure would be intimately associated with the personality of that individual. An enemy might thus secure occult power over one; any indignity practised upon the waxen figure would result in like injury to its human prototype. If the figure were bruised or beaten, some accident would overtake its double; if the image were placed over a fire, the human being would fall into a fever, and so on. But, of course, such mysterious evils as these would be met and combated by equally mysterious processes; and so it was that the entire art of medicine was closely linked with magical practices. It was not, indeed, held, according to Maspero, that the magical spells of enemies were the sole sources of human ailments, but one could never be sure to what extent such spells entered into the affliction; and so closely were the human activities associated in the mind of the Egyptian with one form or another of occult influences that purely physical conditions were at a discount. In the later times, at any rate, the physician was usually a priest, and there was a close association between the material and spiritual phases of therapeutics. Erman[4] tells us that the following formula had to be recited at the preparation of all medicaments: "That Isis might make free, make free. That Isis might make Horus free from all evil that his brother Set had done to him when he slew his father, Osiris. O Isis, great enchantress, free me, release me from all evil red things, from the fever of the god, and the fever of the goddess, from death and death from pain, and the pain which comes over me; as thou hast freed, as thou hast released thy son Horus, whilst I enter into the fire and come forth from the water," etc. Again, when the invalid took the medicine, an incantation had to be said which began thus: "Come remedy, come drive it out of my heart, out of these limbs strong in magic power with the remedy." He adds: "There may have been a few rationalists amongst the Egyptian doctors, for the number of magic formulae varies much in the different books. The book that we have specially taken for a foundation for this account of Egyptian medicine - the great papyrus of the eighteenth dynasty edited by Ebers[5] - contains, for instance, far fewer exorcisms than some later writings with similar contents, probably because the doctor who compiled this book of recipes from older sources had very little liking for magic."

It must be understood, however - indeed, what has just been said implies as much - that the physician by no means relied upon incantations alone; on the contrary, he equipped himself with an astonishing variety of medicaments. He had a particular fondness for what the modern physician speaks of as a "shot-gun" prescription - one containing a great variety of ingredients. Not only did herbs of many kinds enter into this, but such substances as lizard's blood, the teeth of swine, putrid meat, the moisture from pigs' ears, boiled horn, and numerous other even more repellent ingredients. Whoever is familiar with the formulae employed by European physicians even so recently as the eighteenth century will note a striking similarity here. Erman points out that the modern Egyptian even of this day holds closely to many of the practices of his remote ancestor. In particular, the efficacy of the beetle as a medicinal agent has stood the test of ages of practice. "Against all kinds of witchcraft," says an ancient formula, "a great scarabaeus beetle; cut off his head and wings, boil him; put him in oil and lay him out; then cook his head and wings, put them in snake fat, boil, and let the patient drink the mixture." The modern Egyptian, says Erman, uses almost precisely the same recipe, except that the snake fat is replaced by modern oil.

In evidence of the importance which was attached to practical medicine in the Egypt of an early day, the names of several physicians have come down to us from an age which has preserved very few names indeed, save those of kings. In reference to this Erman says[6]: "We still know the names of some of the early body physicians of this time; Sechmetna'eonch, 'chief physician of the Pharaoh,' and Nesmenan his chief, the 'superintendent of the physicians of the Pharaoh.' The priests also of the lioness-headed goddess Sechmet seem to have been famed for their medical wisdom, whilst the son of this goddess, the demi-god Imhotep, was in later times considered to be the creator of medical knowledge. These ancient doctors of the New Empire do not seem to have improved upon the older conceptions about the construction of the human body."

As to the actual scientific attainments of the Egyptian physician, it is difficult to speak with precision. Despite the cumbersome formulae and the grotesque incantations, we need not doubt that a certain practical value attended his therapeutics. He practised almost pure empiricism, however, and certainly it must have been almost impossible to determine which ones, if any, of the numerous ingredients of the prescription had real efficacy.

The practical anatomical knowledge of the physician, there is every reason to believe, was extremely limited. At first thought it might seem that the practice of embalming would have led to the custom of dissecting human bodies, and that the Egyptians, as a result of this, would have excelled in the knowledge of anatomy. But the actual results were rather the reverse of this. Embalming the dead, it must be recalled, was a purely religious observance. It took place under the superintendence of the priests, but so great was the reverence for the human body that the priests themselves were not permitted to make the abdominal incision which was a necessary preliminary of the process. This incision, as we are informed by both Herodotus[7] and Diodorus[8], was made by a special officer, whose status, if we may believe the explicit statement of Diodorus, was quite comparable to that of the modern hangman. The paraschistas, as he was called, having performed his necessary but obnoxious function, with the aid of a sharp Ethiopian stone, retired hastily, leaving the remaining processes to the priests. These, however, confined their observations to the abdominal viscera; under no consideration did they make other incisions in the body. It follows, therefore, that their opportunity for anatomical observations was most limited.

Since even the necessary mutilation inflicted on the corpse was regarded with such horror, it follows that anything in the way of dissection for a less sacred purpose was absolutely prohibited. Probably the same prohibition extended to a large number of animals, since most of these were held sacred in one part of Egypt or another. Moreover, there is nothing in what we know of the Egyptian mind to suggest the probability that any Egyptian physician would make extensive anatomical observations for the love of pure knowledge. All Egyptian science is eminently practical. If we think of the Egyptian as mysterious, it is because of the superstitious observances that we everywhere associate with his daily acts; but these, as we have already tried to make clear, were really based on scientific observations of a kind, and the attempt at true inferences from these observations. But whether or not the Egyptian physician desired anatomical knowledge, the results of his inquiries were certainly most meagre. The essentials of his system had to do with a series of vessels, alleged to be twenty-two or twenty-four in number, which penetrated the head and were distributed in pairs to the various members of the body, and which were vaguely thought of as carriers of water, air, excretory fluids, etc. Yet back of this vagueness, as must not be overlooked, there was an all-essential recognition of the heart as the central vascular organ. The heart is called the beginning of all the members. Its vessels, we are told, "lead to all the members; whether the doctor lays his finger on the forehead, on the back of the head, on the hands, on the place of the stomach (?), on the arms, or on the feet, everywhere he meets with the heart, because its vessels lead to all the members."[9] This recognition of the pulse must be credited to the Egyptian physician as a piece of practical knowledge, in some measure off-setting the vagueness of his anatomical theories.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.