Reading a passage from an Ancient Egyptian healing manuscript
The potential and problems in reading ancient Egyptian manuscripts may be seen
from the second passage of UC 32057, the so-called gynaecological papyrus (also
known as the Kahun Medical Papyrus).
Examination of a woman who is ill from her womb wandering
You should say of it 'what do you smell'
If she tells you 'I smell roasting'
You should say of it 'it is wrappings (?) of the womb'
You should treat it by fumigating her with whatever she smells as roast'
Some questions to ask:
What is the manuscript for?
- where was it found? - ancient town near modern Lahun, waste-paper among
accounts and letters, probably in a large elite house
- how was it used? - very worn, so had been heavily read and used, but not
known if in teaching, as reference, during treatment
What is the status of the individuals present implicitly or explicitly in this
- Who is the compiler ('author')? not recorded, could in theory be man or
woman (or divine)
- Who is the copyist? not recorded on this manuscript
- Who is the reader? generic 'man' - masculine singular pronoun (Egyptian
'.k') in the forms 'You should say/treat' and 'If she tells you' - however,
this might be a broader generic use of the masculine singular pronoun to denote
any healer, man or woman - for such 'common gender', Egyptian might have used
the masculine singular pronoun, so the reader might be either generic 'man',
or generic 'person' (it is not, though, generic 'woman')
- Who is the patient? in this passage and throughout this manuscript it is
generic 'woman', addressed in the question 'what do you (feminine singular
What is the context of this passage within the manuscript?
- Formal framing by use of red for first words
What kind of language is being used?
- syntax: the form 'you should say, you should treat' are typical of directions
for assessment and treatment - they dominate the manuscript, and give it the
tone of an authoritative treatise
- structure: the sequence examination-statement-treatment is regular throughout
the manuscript and imposes a structure or order, itself a healing strategy
- involvement of patient: the patient is asked a question - is the question
something that she would have expected? (this has an effect on the nature
of a response and the potential for using it in the subsequent treatment)
- vocabulary: the words (fumigate, roast, womb, smell) are found in settings
outside healing, and so seem not to constitute a technical vocabulary
What is the illness to be treated?
- wandering of the womb - this is a verbalised expression for a problem, to
be assessed within the Egyptian concepts of anatomy but also within the Egyptian
deployment of language (what is the precise meaning of this 'wandering'?)
What is the diagnosis?
- wrappings (?) of the womb - the word nmsw is problematic, as it is only
qualified 'of the womb' in this one instance; it is just a guess here that
it may be realted to the word nms 'headcloth, cloth wrapping'
What is the treatment?
- question 'what do you smell?' followed by fumigation with the material smelled
by the woman
What are the materials used?
- 'whatever she smells as roast' - the materials here are left entirely open,
though they can be presumed to be within the (largely unknown) world of regular
cooking (in the elite home or in poorer homes?)
What would the effect of that treatment have been?
- not recorded, and uncertain from uncertainty of identification of illness
- from the viewpoint of the culturally external reader, the effect of the
treatment seems to lie in the engagement of the patient in question-answer
and the psychological effect of an external treatment - however, there may
be more physical aspects not identifiable in the treatment as recorded - comparative
ethnographic study (including examples from the society of the reader, Western
or other) may reveal the range of possible interpretations, though it cannot
in itself establish identity of a particular experience with the experience
that may lie behind this manuscript.
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