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Manuscripts for good health 2000-1000 BC

(Reading a passage from an Ancient Egyptian healing manuscript)

Modern commentators tend to apply the words 'medicine' and 'magic' to Ancient Egyptian healing practice and manuscripts. In general, this builds on an explicit or implicit series of opposites along the lines scientific vs religious. However, it is difficult to find evidence for any such pairs of opposites in the manuscripts themselves. Moreover, most 'magical' writing involves specifically the problems of health: in contrast to other societies, there are few ancient Egyptian examples of love potions or black magic, for example.

Evidently the ancient Egyptian categories of health and healing involve different principles, for which medicine and magic may both be misleading words. The titles used in the manuscripts for individual passages may help to identify the Egyptian categories. There are three words often used to introduce an entry in a manuscript: SsAw, pXrt, r. In general, each manuscript tends to group entries with the same introductory word together; for example, one manuscript may be full of SsAw, while another is full of pXrt.

In their contents, therefore, these papyri for good health identify three aspects or strategies for securing or restoring good health:

  1. prognosis and diagnosis (corresponding to the Egyptian word SsAw)
  2. prescription (the Egyptian word pXrt)
  3. incantation, the words spoken to resocialise the individual (Egyptian rw)

There are combinations across the three categories: a prescription may be cited in a prognosis, for example. Nevertheless, by and large the manuscripts keep the three types of content separate.

On the number of sources, note the following observations:

  1. Few manuscripts in the first category survive, perhaps partly because this activity could be most easily entrusted to memory, and would form the practical aspect of apprenticeship.
  2. Collections of prescriptions are far more numerous, perhaps partly because precision was crucial to success, in applying the correct ingredients and quantities.
  3. Collections of the words to be spoken constitute the largest proportion of surviving manuscripts, perhaps because again the precise formulae to be pronounced would be less confidently entrusted to memory. Perhaps too the manuscripts were necessary not only to be stored for reference, but also to be read aloud as part of the ritual of healing.


Manuscripts for good health by category

This table illustrates the tendency to separate the three types of content, in compiling or copying manuscripts.

There are no Old Kingdom manuscripts; in the list below, italics are used for papyri of the Middle Kingdom (about 2025-1700 BC) (2000-1650 BC), and all other manuscripts are New Kingdom (1550-1070 BC). Manuscripts vary in length from many metres in exceptional cases, to single sheets of papyrus used as charms.

Each line in the table presents a single manuscript, each column the content type. As a general ordering principle for the table, papyri with treatment or prognosis are listed first, then prescription papyri, then those with incantations.

Prognosis/Treatment Prescription Incantation
Edwin Smith (surgical) Edwin Smith (5 passages) Edwin Smith (8 passages)
Berlin 3038, back (birth) Berlin 3038 (most of the 204 passages)  
Carlsberg 8, back (birth) Carlsberg 8, front (eyes)  
UC 32057 (birth)    

UC 32036 (veterinary)

(small 141kb - large - 1118kb)

Ebers (47 passages) Ebers (most of the 877 passages)  
  Ramesseum III Ramesseum III
  Ramesseum IV Ramesseum IV
  Ramesseum V  
    Ramesseum VII to XVII and residue
  British Museum EA 10059 (mainly incantations) British Museum EA 10059
  Louvre 4864 back (front has literary composition)  
  Hearst (most of the 260+ passages) Hearst (9 of 260+ passages)
  Berlin 10456  
  Chester Beatty V back (mainly literary papyrus) Chester Beatty V back (mainly literary papyrus)
  Chester Beatty VI front Chester Beatty VI back
  Chester Beatty VII back (2 items) Chester Beatty VII front, back
    Chester Beatty VIII
  Chester Beatty X part Chester Beatty X part
    Chester Beatty XI with Tale of Isis and Ra
    Chester Beatty XII to XIV?
  Chester Beatty XV part Chester Beatty XV part
    Chester Beatty XVI front
    Berlin 3027 (birth)
    Berlin 3128 (not checked)
    Bibliotheque Nationale 237.2.6
    British Museum EA 10042
    British Museum EA 9997+10309
    British Museum EA 10085+10105
    British Museum EA 10731
    British Museum EA 10902
    Cairo CG 52000
    Cairo CG 58039
    Deir el-Medina 1
    Deir el-Medina 36
    Deir el-Medina 40
    Geneva MAH 15274
    Leiden I 343+345
    Leiden I 346
    Leiden I 347
    Leiden I 348
    Leiden I 349 back
    Louvre 3237+3239 snakes
    Turin 1982
    Turin 1993 with Tale of Isis and Ra
    Turin 1994
    Turin 1995
    Turin 1996
    Turin 54003
    Turin 54016 back calendar
    Turin 2106+2107+Budapest 51.1961
    Turin 54052-8
    Turin 54060-2
    Vatican 19a
    Vienna 3925 (not checked)
    Heqanakht pl.19 (fragment from the Horhotep group)


Fewer manuscripts of the Late Period (700-332 BC) have been published to date: one example is Papyrus Cologne 3547, with incantations, and there are several other hieratic papyri among a group acquired in the late nineteenth century by the American traveller Charles Wilbour, and now preserved in the Brooklyn Museum. In the Late Period, incantations are found inscribed on 'healing statues' and 'healing stelae'; the statues are rare, and there is one earlier, New Kingdom (about 1550-1069 BC), example, showing king Ramesses III, found east of Iunu (Heliopolis). The stelae bear a depiction of the god of order Horus in the form of a naked child holding potentially hostile creatures; they are therefore often called 'Horus stelae', and examples are known from the late Twenty-second Dynasty to the Ptolemaic Period.

Notes on some of the principal manuscripts

1. Prognosis and diagnosis

Papyrus Edwin Smith, or the 'Surgical Papyrus': a series of diagnoses for externally inflicted damage to the body, beginning from the head. The manuscript was copied about 1550 BC, and is written in the Middle Egyptian form of the Egyptian language, suggesting a date of composition in the Twelfth or Thirteenth Dynasty (about 1975-1650 BC). The self-conscious archaisms in some passages led earlier Egyptological commentators to date the composition much earlier, to the Pyramid Age, around 2500 BC. This is the most extensive manuscript with treatments, and seems to have been found with Papyrus Ebers, the most extensive prescription book.

There are seventeen columns containing 48 cases of injuries:

After a blank space there are five more columns, with 8 incantations against plaque, and 5 prescriptions:

A typical treatment case presents the title (starting SsAw), examination, diagnosis, treatment, and includes interpretations for obscure words used.

An example is no.28, in column 9, line 18 to column 10, line 3:

(Title:) Instruction concerning a wound in his throat

(Examination:) If you examine a man with a gaping wound in his throat, that pierces through to this gullet, so that if he drinks water he chokes and it comes out of the mouth of his wound, and it is greatly inflamed, so that he develops fever from it,

(Emergency treatment:) then you should bind that wound with bandaging

(Diagnosis:) You should then say of him 'suffering a wound in his throat piercing through to his gullet - an illness which I can treat'

(Treatment:) Then you should pad it with fresh meat the first day, and treat it afterwards with oil, honey, and lint every day until he recovers.

(Second examination:) If you find him still feverish from that wound,

(Second treatment:) then you should apply for him dry lint in the mouth of his wound, and have him rest lying down until he recovers

UC 32036: the only surviving Veterinary Papyrus in Ancient Egyptian, written in cursive hieroglyphs, a script generally reserved for the most sacred scripts. Like UC 32057, this document is from the late Middle Kingdom (1850-1700 BC) town near modern Lahun

UC 32057: the so-called 'Gynaecological Papyrus' (also known as 'Kahun Medical Papyrus'). This is one of the largest manuscripts from the late Middle Kingdom (1850-1700 BC) town near modern Lahun: 'Kahun' is the name Petrie gave to the town site. It had been so heavily used that its ancient owner had to repair it, with a patch bearing an administrative fragment visible at one point on the back.

2. Prescription

Papyrus Ebers: one of the most perfectly preserved papyrus rolls from Ancient Egypt, with the highly unusual feature of 'page number' at the top of each column of writing. This manuscript was copied around 1550 BC, and seems to have been found with Papyrus Edwin Smith, the 'Surgical Papyrus'. It contains the largest number of prescriptions in any one manuscript. It is now preserved in the University Library, Leipzig.

The 110 columns contain 877 passages, mainly prescriptions though including 47 diagnoses

Papyrus Hearst: a substantial manuscript of Dynasty 18, given to the American archaeologist George Reisner at Deir el-Ballas, south of Dendera, by a local farmer grateful for permission to use soil from excavations as fertiliser. The 16 complete columns and fragmentary portions preserve 260 prescriptions, with one diagnosis.

3. Incantations

Papyrus Turin 54003: the earliest surviving papyrus with writings for good health, copied in the early Middle Kingdom, around 2025-1850 BC. In lines 1-18 it presents four incantations against serpents; these are followed by a ritual of the eye (lines 19-19 and verso, lines 1-11) and a kind of summary of the incantations and the ritual together (verso, lines 11-14), before two more incantations (? or one?) starting with the heading 'formula for extracting a fish bone' (verso, lines 15-26).

Main information source: Lexikon der Agyptologie, volume IV, Wiesbaden 1982, columns 672-747.


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