Sunday, September 17, 2017

Physician Priests of Antiquity


Alice C. Linsley

The earliest medical texts are found among the ancient Nilotes. These include the Ebers Papyrus, the Hearst Medical Papyrus, and the Edwin Smith papyrus, the world's oldest known surgical document (c. 1600 BC). These texts, most of them based on older texts dating possibly from 3000 B.C., are comparatively free of the magician’s approach to treating illness. Priests were the first to practice medicine at "Houses of Life" or temples along the Nile.


Only members of the elite strata of society learned and practiced medicine. One of the earliest known medical practitioners was Eanach (Enoch). He served the Pharaoh as his priest-physician, a wab sxmt (wab sekhmet). Eanach lived around 3000 BC, and is said to have "healed the pharaoh's nostrils." Likely, this means that he performed a healing ritual that involved placing the cross-like Ankh against the Pharaoh's nose and offering prayers for his healing.

The wab sekhmet appears to be a distinct role from the non-priest healer called a wabau. It may be that the wabau was a shaman. The priest and the shaman represent different approaches to healing. The priest is forbidden to consult spirits in a drug-induced state. The shaman believes that disease and illness happens when the spirits have been offended. He or she will enter a trace state to discover the cause of the disease and how the spirits are to be appeased.

It is also possible that the wabau was a priest of lesser rank who served the common people, rather than the nobility. More research is required to gain a better understanding of the different types of healers, but it is known that the physicians specialized in one part of the body: head, stomach, heart,etc.

"The study of medicine with them was divided between specialists; each physician attending to one kind of illness only. Every place possessed several doctors; some for diseases of the eyes, others for the head, or the teeth, or the stomach, or for internal diseases." (Diodorus Siculus, i. 91)

The Mesopotamian physicians learned their skills from the priest caste that moved into the Tigris-Euphrates from ancient Kush (Gen. 10). The Akkadian word for a physician priest is azu. Sargon was born in Azu-pir-Anu, a house of divine healing/temple of Anu, the High God. The physician priest sat beside the sick person. This suggests that the Akkadian word wasabu - sit,  is related to the Egyptian word wabau, a healer-priest. In ancient Egyptian images the harwa, Horite priest, was often shown seated.




Another high ranking wab sekhmet was Imhotep (2600 BC), the High Priest of Heliopolis (biblical On) and royal vizier. He was so famous that after his death he was venerated as a god (deified). His skill as a physician became legendary. The Greeks linked Imhotep to Asklepius around whom a cult of healing grew. The rod of Asklepius is a snake-entwined staff and the symbol of modern medicine. Some consider it to be like the rod Moses held up in the wilderness for the healing of the snake-bitten Israelites. However, the serpent on Moses's rod was a solar image. It had a coiled shape like that on the bishop's crozier below.




Egyptian physician-priests advanced medicine by keeping written records of which treatments worked and which did not. One such record book is the Ebers Papyrus, written about 1500 BC. One of the remedies described in this papyrus is medicinal clay made from red and yellow ochre. The Ebers papyrus has a treatment for asthma. The patient was to sit over a mixture of herbs heated on a brick and inhale the fumes.

Surgical procedures are described in the Edwin Smith papyrus, the world's oldest known surgical document (c. 1600 BC). It is written in the hieratic script and gives detailed descriptions of anatomy, diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of forty-eight types of medical problems. It describes closing wounds with sutures, preventing and curing infection with honey and moldy bread (both known to contain antibiotics), application of raw meat to stop bleeding, and treatment of head and spinal cord injuries.

Ancient Egyptian doctors used copper to sterilize water and wounds around 2,400 BC.They also used herbs and minerals medicinally. They mixed the substances with honey, wine, or beer. Some medicines were worked into dough balls to form pills.They used ointments for wounds, and treated chest complaints by getting the patient to inhale steam infused with essential oils.

Water and oil were two substances commonly used by healers. The idea of sacred pools can be traced to the priest-physicians of the Nile Valley. The sick came to them at the Nile shrines and temples. Water was used to cleanse wounds, ease strained muscles, and for ritual healing of the inner being. Oil was used to prevent infection, treat dry skin, and for anointing the sick with prayers for healing.

The tradition of healing by the priest is an ancient one. It is a holistic approach that seeks the health of body and soul. In the English village the curate was a clergyman who had pastoral responsibility for the welfare of the people in his parish or his cure. The word "curate" is derived from the Latin words curatus and is related to the Latin cura which refers to the clergyman's care for his flock.The Latin verb curare means to take care of, to cure or heal.

The first hospitals in the West were founded when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. In Byzantium, there had been monastic centers for healing. Toward the end of the early Middle Ages, Benedictine monks founded hospitals which served the monks and people living in the area of the monastery. Hospitals also were needed to care for those who were sick and wounded due to the hardships of the crusades. The Hospitaller Knights specialized in this.


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