Sunday, May 4, 2014

5000 B.C.-1700 A.D.: Natural remedies for asthma in Mesoamerica

If you had asthma or asthma-like symptoms and lived in America around 5000 B.C., chances are you'd pray to the various spirits for health and healing just as your ancestors did in Asia.  Although, as time passed, there were a variety of other options that were available for you to try, including an inhaler of sorts.

According to Plinio Prioreschi, in his 1991 book "A History of Medicine," most of what is known about pre-Columbian medicine in America comes from Spanish writers.  The reason for this is many older texts are either too primitive and too vague to provide such knowledge, or they have simply disappeared. Or, they were destroyed. (1, page 548)

It's a sad truth in world history that often when a new culture takes over many structures and the documents they contain are destroyed.  Prioreschi says that most pre-Columbian medical documents were destroyed by the Spanish because they contained religious components.  Since part of the Spanish mission was to spread Christianity, anything resembling other religious beliefs had to be destroyed.  So it's unfortunate that in the path of this destruction, not even medical knowledge was spared.  

Prioreschi says the following of pre-Columbian American medicine:  
"Medical paradigms of the various pre-Hispanic populations of Mesoamerica and Peru are similar: there is a mixture of supernaturalistic and naturalistic medicine common in ancient and primitive cultures, and a knowledge of anatomy limited to experience acquired in the kitchen, in war, and at the sacrificial altar; the knowledge of physiology is practically nonexistent. In ancient Mexico the main organ of the body was believed to be the heart, which was also considered to be the source of feeling and thought.  The importance of the heart in other cultures of pre-Hispanic America is underlined by the widespread practice of human sacrifice performed by ripping the heart from the chest of the victim." (1, page 548)
So there were basically two forms of medicine: (1, page 548)
  1. Supernaturalistic: Health and healing involved incantations, prayers and exorcisms
  2. Naturalistic:  Health and healing involved the use of preparations of the various plants, of which there were over 1500 used for medical purposes (compared to 200 in Europe and 350 in China)
Based on present knowledge, it appears, that unlike other cultures, the Americans made a clear distinction between naturalistic and supernaturalistic medicine.

While they were both options, as is true in most primitive and ancient worlds, the Americans tended to keep them as separate entities.  As noted by Prioreschi, the Inca healers may have been the first to create a separation between Naturalistic and Supernaturalistic medicine: 
"At one time, the medical properties of such drugs were probably attributed to the power of the gods (in other words they were effective because the gods had endowed them with magical properties) but subsequently the divine origins of those properties were forgotten.  The drugs, therefore, became effective because of their inherent capacities, according to a naturalistic paradigm, which also considered diseases as due to natural causes."
So there was obvious trickery used by the American Medicine Man.  He would approach the sick with a series of drums and rattling charms, and he'd dance and chant incantations.  Then he'd take his mouth and place it over the mouth of the patient, and he'd pretend to suck the disease out of the body
"...They were extracting blood, worms, or small stones and would show these things to teh patient saying that the disease was now cured.  In reality they had brought those things themselves and had put them in their own mouths just before sucking." (2)
If you were having trouble breathing, the medicine man may also offer you a naturalistic remedy.  One Spanish chronicler described one Mayan remedy that would be fitting for our history:
Difficulty in breathing -- take one co-ac, a piece of husk or outside, and two clothes-moths adn a little of the ak-max (monkey-vine).  Mash them all and give it to drink to stop it." (3)
If your short of breath was due to heart or kidney failure, there was a specific remedy for this.  Now, these Americans would have no idea about heart or kidney failure, but they surely could see the signs that water was building up under the skin of the ankles.  For this, the following Mayan remedy would suffice:
Retention of urine -- The remedy is the Bursera graveolens, Tri & Planch., and the tuber of the chinchan-cal-pakam (small-neck-tuna), and the tuberous root of the Bixa orellana, L. (Achiote), the Capsicum annuum, L.  After these are poulticed on the man's rectum, let it be warmed with a hot stone where the remedy is placed." (4)
 There was an Aztec inhaler that may have also been used, although it really wasn't an inhaler but a "tobacco tube" or a crude pipe:
Itzietl.  It is somewhat tall, slender, straight.  And its leaves are like picietl, green hairy, wide.  It grows in Xochimilco.  It is pounded with a stone, placed inside a tobacco tube, mixed with pine resin. It is smoked.  (5)
Now, whether this was used for asthma-like symptoms is your guess as good as mine, although it was definitely a pseudo-inhaler.

Another remedy that might benefit a person with difficulty breathing was the sweat house.  Mayans would place a patient in"a small room with a fire chamber wehre the patient, as the name implies, would sweat profusely.  The sweat-house was used in the treatment of a number of ailments by other Mesoamerican cultures as well." (1, page 560)

Mark Jackson, in his article, "'Divine Stramonium': The Rise and Fall of Smoking for Asthma, explains that ancient South American civilizations recommended "inhaling smoke from burning certain plants for both recreational and therapeutic reasons."  He writes:
"The smoke generated from narcotic agents, such as opium, henbane, and thorn-apple, was inhaled for its hallucinogenic properties, and tobacco smoke was regularly employed as a diagnostic and therapeutic agent in shamanistic healing rituals. (6, pag 173-174)
 Any of these remedies might have benefited an asthmatic.  The "mind numbing" qualities of opium, henbane, and thorn-apple* would have helped take the edge off of the feeling of air hunger, and these medicines are also now considered to be mild bronchodilators, so they might even have opened the lungs up to make breathing easier.

Even tobacco was used as a remedy for asthma by some asthma experts in the 19th century. There's no evidence the Zopatec smoked tobacco for asthma, although Joseph C. Winter, in his book "Tobacco use by native North Americans, explains that "tobacco leaf was mixed with lime and chewed all day to fortify the body and maintain strength, to combat colds and cure asthma, and to treat earaches, headaches, and hay fever... the Yucatec Maya assign world directional colors, with red, white and black tobacco used to treat asthma." (7, page 54)

Dr. Henry Hyde Salter recommended for kids to smoke tobacco until they puked, because he believed this opened up the air passages.  Lacking a true asthma remedy, such remedies, once introduced to the modern world in the 19th century, were not so primitive at all.

*Thorn-apple is another name for stramonium.  It is a herb that was inhaled by some primitive and ancient people for its noted hallucinogenic effect, and it's ability to make breathing easier.  In the 19th century atropine was found to be the active ingredient.  Modern medicines such as Atrovent, Combivent, and Spiriva contain this active ingredient, or a synthetic (made in factory) of it.

  1. Prioreschi, Plinio, A History of Medicine: Primitive and Ancient Medicine," Volume I, 1991, UK, The Edwin Mellen Press
  2. Prioreschi, ibid, page 549, referenced from: Bernabe Cobo, Historia del Nuevo Mundo, Seville, Sociedad des Bibliofilos Analuces, 1890-1895, IV, pp. 139-140. Translated by P. Prioreschi
  3. Prioreschi, ibid, page 558, referenced from:  Ralph L. Roys, The Ethno-botony of the Maya, New Orleans, The Tulane Univeristy of Luisiana, 1931, p. 9.
  4. Prioreschi, ibid, page 559, referenced from:  Ralph L. Roys, The Ethno-Botany of teh Maya, New Orleans, The Tulane University of Luisiana, 1931, p.195
  5. Prioreschi, Plinio, ibid, page 570, referenced from Florentine Codex, translated by Charles E. Diffle adn Arthur J.O. Anderson, The University of Utah, Book 11, 1961, p. 147
  6. Jackson, Mark, "'Divine Stramonium': The Rise and Fall of Smoking for Asthma," Medical History, 2010, 54: 171-194
  7. Winter, Joseph C, "Tobacco use by native North Americans: sacred smoke and silent killer," Joseph C. Winter, editor, 2000, University of Oklahoma Press

5000 B.C.: Knowledge comes to the Americas

Today we think of Americans as the innovators of the modern world.  The people who wrote the documents to protect the natural rights of mankind from government invasion were Americans.  The people who discovered electricity and learned how to put it to good use were Americans.  In the ancient world, however, it wasn't this way: America lagged behind.

Perhaps this was because it took longer for knowledge to make it to that part of the populated world. Or, as noted by William Brandon in his book "The Rise and Fall of North American Indians, "perhaps it was because Americans were content to live amid nature, and had no need nor desire to modernize the way they lived. Perhaps they simply lived in peace with their spirits and gods, and had no need to create great civilizations and empires.  He wrote:  (1, page 14-15)
There have even been hints that these people of the Archaic waited so long for new ideas (such as pottery and agriculture) and the resultant elaboration of their basic culture simply because they were content in their timeless nirvana and not at all eager to change.  Heretical reflections threaten to follow, that change -- we call progress -- might not always be a result of "forward" social movement but possibly of something going wrong in the social animal. (1, page 21)
As noted earlier in our history, environmental changes may have occurred that forced people to migrate to the lands around the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile rivers. When these rivers flooded, the land would be fertilized, and this would provide food for both animals and people.  By being forced to such a small area, the people started working together to better manage the land, and this resulted in the first agricultural revolution, and ultimately the first civilizations.  Such environmental changes may not have occurred in America, thus Native Americans had no incentive to band together until much later.

The specialists believe that there may have been land bridges connecting the Old World with the New World, with the main one being a land bring between North America and Asia, what is now Alaska in the United States and Siberia in Russia.  This land bridge is often referred to as Beringia.  They believe that between 35,000 and 10,000 (some speculate as far back as 50,000) years ago most of the water was frozen, and this made it so there was a land bridge between Alaska and Siberia, said Brandon.  (1, pages 14-15)

According to, Beringia was a stretch of land that was about 55 miles between Siberia and Alaska.  It is now mostly covered by the Chukchi and Bering Seas, although there were times that the ocean levels were so low that plants, animals and people were allowed to cross.  Even if the land wasn't exposed, the water was at times low enough to allow people to cross via boat along the coastlines.  Along with people, animals, and even plants, would have been able to cross the land bridge. (2)

Joy Hakim, in her series, "A History of US," says that prior to the end of the ice age about 10,000 B.C. the stretch of land between Alaska and Siberia would have been about 1000 miles wide, and may even have been covered with grasslands, forests, and even lakes.  (3, page 14-15)

Also of interest is that "similarities between peoples of coastal Siberia and coastal Alaska show that the Bering Strait did not prevent contact between their cultures. Similar languages, shared spiritual practices, hunting tool and traditional dwelling similarities, distinctive fish cleaning methods, and meat preservation by fermentation are but a few examples ethnologist cite." (2)  

Although at some point these migrations stopped, perhaps due to natural events that cause people to change their way of living, thus causing people to forget.  As a result, the people of the New World were completely isolated from the Old world for thousands of years before the Spanish Conquistadors discovered the New World for the Old World. (You can see a neat time-lapse map of Beringia at

The people were hunters and gatherers, and they migrated to where the food was, wrote Hakim.  In Beringia there would have been "lots to eat.  For every day dining, the hunters and the fisherfolk lived on small game and small fish  but they had the skills to kill mammoths and whales, and when they could, the did. The mammoths and giant sloths and camels were plant eaters, adn only moderately dangerous.  It was the meat-eating animals -- saber-toothed cats, the maned lions, and the huge bears -- who must have licked their lips after munching on humans.  That was the way of the hunting world.".  (3, page 15)

She continued:
 "Journeying by sea may have been safer than by land.  And these people were very good sailors.  In boats covered with animal skins, they could explore and settle the coastline.  Gradually, we think, the land rovers and the seagoers took a big step -- onto the new continent... Alaska, where the hunters went, seemed like a fine place.  There were seals, bison with big curved horns, birds called ptarmigans, and other good things to hunt and eat.  Glaciers covered large parts of North America, but much of Alaska and Siberia was free of ice... More hunters came with their families.  at first there was plenty of food, but after a few years (maybe a few thousand years) the land seemed crowded.  There was no longer enough game for everyone to hunt." (3, page 15)
So they were forced, by nature, to travel further south.  Perhaps, as Hakim notes, they watched as the birds and other animals traveled south.  "They watched the animals and found there were ways around and through the thick glaciers.  They made there way to where Canada now lies, and the United States.  Notes Hakim:
"It was worth the trip.  They found grasses adn nuts and berries to eat.  They found a hunter's wonderland: there were antelope, musk, ox, bighorn sheep, lions, deer, moose, fox, otter, beaver, sabertoothed tigers, and bison.  Some of the animals had come from Asia too, by walking over the earth bridge, or by swimming in the sea... In America, animals had grown big -- bigger than any animals you have ever seen.  Some beavers were as large as bears; and birds -- great vulture-like teratorns -- had wings that reached 15 feet from tip to tip.  Lions were huge; moose antlers measured eight feet across... they also kill and eat birds, fish, foxes, and turtles." (3, page 16-17)
Some of these natives, perhaps traveling in tribes or families of 20 or 25 people, would have settled where they found food and comfort, while others continued to follow the animals south, making their way all the way to South America where there was warmer weather and deserts and even rain forests (where lots of herbal remedies lie).

Some specialists believe it was the tribes that settled in South America who were the first to discover the ability to plant seeds and grow crops, such as maize, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, lima beans and squash. Perhaps this might have first taken place around what is now Peru, where the first American civilization (the Oltec) formed.  (1, page 20, 24) Perhaps it was this that caused people from various tribes to work together to form the various cultures and civilizations that ultimately developed America.

Brandon explains that "they practiced a form of agriculture known to primitive peoples all over the world since agriculture began, hacking down and burning trees and brush, planting a cornfield in the rough clearing, and slashing out a new such clearing a few seasons later. (Anthropologists call such a cornfield a milpa, a name taken from Nahualt, the language of the Aztec.)  In all the days of their greatness this technology was never improved.  There is some indication ehre and there of more intensive gardening on mounds or raised beds (chinampas), but the milpa remained the standard." (1, page 32-33)

Brandon further explains that:
Slash and burn farming, by its nature, operates against the growth of cities -- the clearings are scattered, in contrast to the closely populated communities fostered by such group undertakings as irrigation.
He uses the Maya as an example, as even while they created a South American civilization that lasted for several thousand years, "Very few of the Maya ceremonial centers appear to have been truly urban.  House mounds studied by archeologists are typically dispersed, with no clear pattern of urban density; thus the Maya, in teh days of their greatness, rarely built real cities, at least not in our sense of the word." (1, page 33)

Various authors, including Brandon, noted that the specialists believe that the American agricultural revolution  started in South America, possibly in Peru, and spread to North America, around 5,000 B.C.  As explained by Brandon, some of these experts believe this may be why so few civilizations in America developed, and those that did were relatively small, and why empires never developed.  Similarly, this may explain why so many people continued to live as tribes until they were forced by modern forces to change their ways.

"The greatest difference in New World and Old World agriculture," notes Brandon, "and a difference entailing enormous consequences, was pastoralism (a branch of agriculture that involves cultivating and raising livestock, and herding them to where the food and water was), fundamental to the Old World way of life, entirely absent in the New World except for some herding of llamas and related small camelids in the high Andes."

A second theory why change was slow to occur in the Americas was due to the lack of pastoralism, a branch of agriculture that involves cultivating and raising livestock, and herding them to where the food and water was.  Brandon explains:
The greatest difference in New World and Old World agriculture, and a difference entailing enormous consequences, was pastoralism, fundamental to the Old World way of life, entirely absent in the New World except for some herding of llamas and related small camelids in the high Andes... This -- pastoralism -- may have been a major factor, maybe the major factor, in the establishment of private property at the mudsill underpinning of Old World social structure, already basic law in 1800 B.C. when its legal specifics were carved on the stone tablet bearing the Code of Hammurabi.  It does seem reasonable that private property may have come into being with the keping of flocks, as the profit and loss problems between Jacom and Laban in Genesis 30:30-43 as to just who were to own which of the straked and unstraked cattle might seme to bear witness." (1, page 24)
A third theory, as noted above, was that Native Americans were simply content with their way of life, and were never forced by nature to change.  Isolated from the Old World, they had no reason to change -- until Columbus discovered America in 1492, and the Spanish Invasion of the 17th century, and later yet, the quest by North Americans for new lands to develop.

While the agricultural revolution was occurring in the New World around 5,000 B.C., the poeple of Mesopotamia and Egypt were learning how to work together to fend off the forces of nature.  By this meshing of the minds, there was a revolution of discoveries and inventions (such as the potters wheel, materials for building, and equipment for planting crops) to make life easier.  This never happened in the Americas: Americans never invented the wheel, and never had a bronze age, nor an iron age.
In essence, the prototypical stone age ended in Europe and Mosopotamia around 3,600 B.C. although it would be until 1600 B.C. that it ended in China.  In America, the stone age would not end until the Spanish invasion of about 1700 A.D.  In other words, the Americans were able to form a society basically with primitive tools and equipment.

As noted by Sheri Bell-Rehwoldt in her 2006 book, "Amazing Maya Inventions:"
This doesn't mean they (early Americans) existed when there were cavemen during the Paleolithic period; it means they did not have metal tools to help them with their daily tasks.  Their tools were made of wood, stone, and bone.  So, instead of iron-tipped arrows, chisels, knives, axes, and hammers, their wooden tools had blades made of obsidian and flint." (1, page 8)
They were not introduced to the iron age until the Spanish Conquistador stormed through Mesoamerica with their horses and iron weapons.  Noting that civilization spawned at different times in different parts of the world, and regardless of whether they were in the stone age or not, this brings up an interesting question:  why does the development of civilization happen?

1.  Spontaneous Civilization:  One of the original ideas was that civilization is a result of the blending of the human mind; that once the various human tribes and families of an area come together, it's only a matter of time until they learn that together they can tame nature.  Subsequent meshing of the minds will result in a series of inventions that makes life better for everyone.  Civilization spontaneously spawned in Mesopotamia, then Egypt, India, China, and later in America, and this occurred completely independent and regardless of any other civilization or previous knowledge.

2.  Shared Civilization:  Elliot Smith, professor of anatomy at the University of London in the early 20th century, postulated that knowledge spreads around the world at its own pace; that as mankind migrates, so too does knowledge.

Harold Maxwell and Sydney Selwyn explain this in their 1947 book "A history of medicine:"
According to Elliot Smith's view of the migrations of primitive civilizations, culture with distinct characteristics migrated into the Mediterranean basin between the third and the first millennium B.C. Then it pushed on toward India, about the 10th century B.C., by the Phoenician navigators, whence it extended to Malaysia and Polynesia.  It eventually reached the shores of America, taking on various modifications from the countries through which it passed. (2, page 80)
I don't doubt that civilization could spawn on its own, although I have a tendency to support Smith's theory, mainly due to a cruise I went on with my wife in 2002 to Mexico.  Our ship stopped at Cozumel, and from there my wife and I went on a side excursion to see the ancient Mayan ruins. Our guide pointed to an engraving of a cross above one of the structures.  Was it a mere coincidence the ancient Mayans would have a cross over a doorway?   Or is this evidence Elliot Smith was right, and Christians migrated all the way to America with the good news, and probably long before Christopher Columbus discovered the land for the old world.

I believe that either in a quest to find food, or in a quest to find people to trade with, some individuals migrated to America and shared their knowledge with Native Americans.  It is perhaps by this means that knowledge and civilization made its way to America. As I look at a picture of a Spanish Conquistador and a Mayan warrior in battle, I can't help but see similarities: both with shield in one hand, weapon in the other arched and ready to pounce.

There are other similarities to support this theory, and I could go on ad infinitum. One example is the snake or serpent that appears as the universal symbol of medicine, and the fact that many of the myths, legends, and gods were shared from one society to another, such as the god Hermes in Greece is generally thought to be the same god as Thoth in Egypt. (see post: "5000 B.C.476 A.D.: The universal symbol of medicine" to be published 12/18/14)

Ironic or not, there were even myths describing how some deity created the world, how a great flood (a deluge) destroyed all of mankind, and of a virgin birth.  As noted by Plinio Prioreschi in his 1989 history of medicine:
According to the Mayas, the Earth was the back of a great reptile floating in a pond, and the world was ruled by several gods.  The most important was Itamnd (the Maya Jupiter) who was the god of fire  He was the son of Hunab, the creator of the world, and was often represented in serpent form.  Another ophidian deity was Kukulcan, the Feathered Serpent, recognizable in classical Mayan reliefs.  Another god, who often held a kind of scepter, is known only as God K, a deity with a strange branching nose who may have represented some deified king.  Among the animals, the serpent occupied an important symbolic place.  In the Popol Vuh, there is the story of a virgin conceiving through sppernatural intervention, a legend that, as we have seen, existed also in Chinese tradition.  The Mayas believed that there had been several worlds before the present one and that each one had been destroyed by a deluge. They believed that history was cyclical, and that, in fact, the universe itself was governed by great recurrent ages within which smaller cycles took place.
Is it mere coincidence that these stories, however altered to meet the requirements of local tribes, evolved amid the various societies of the globe, or is it simply a coincidental occurrence?

Although, I suppose it is possible that human beings are the same wherever they are put on this planet, and given the opportunity, they would create similar weapons, tools, arts, etc. They would at some point learn to farm, and this would result in more time.  More time would mean people had time to specialize, and some would tend to the land, some build houses and monuments, some create pottery, some become artists, some study the stars, some become priests and physicians.

Plus, at some point, in order for all the above to work, there would become necessary for a language to develop, and some sort of system for writing.  Of course then there would exist a need for something to write on.  Then a system of astrology, astronomy, science and math would develop.  These are the basic components of any civilization, whether it grows from the ash heap of earth, or is the result of migrating wisdom.

  1. Brandon, William, "The Rise and Fall of North Amerian Indians from Prehistory through Geronimo," 2003, Lanham, New York, Toronto, Oxford, Taylor Trade Publishing
  2. "Bering Land Bridge National Preserve,",, accessed 5/20/14
  3. Hakim, Joy, "A History of US: Book One: The First Americans," 2005, New York, Oxford University Press
  4. Bell-Rehwoldt, Sheri, "Amazing Maya Inventions," 2006, Chicago, Nomad Press

Saturday, May 3, 2014

5000 B.C.: Gods were the first physicians

It was because of this strong belief in the gods that dissecting the human body was not even thought of by most people.  To cut open a relative or friend to learn about why he died, or how the organs were laid out and how they functioned, was unheard of.  To even think of such a thing was morbid and sacrosanct: it simply was not done.  And for this reason most knowledge of anatomy came from three basic observations:
  1. Wounds obtained in battle
  2. Animals cut up for food
  3. Inspection of sacrificial animals
There was actually a fourth method that could be added to this list: embalming or mummification.  This was a method of preserving the human body mainly so that the person could utilize it in the after life.  The society most famous for doing this were the Egyptians, although they were not the only ones, and may not have been the first.  Yet to cut open the human body and inspect it more so than was necessary to get the job done was  not just sacrosanct and unheard of, it was strictly prohibited.  If you did so you would be severely punished, and you would always be caught because the gods, after all, were omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent.  

Although, there obviously were people who surreptitiously inspected the human body, and these few individuals are responsible for advancing physiology (yet they were also responsible for the wrath of the gods).  Since they would have had no knowledge about these internal workings, they created theories of how they worked.  These theories would generally be associated with what they learned and observed about life.  So, as life was associated with hot and cold, moisture and dryness, so to would the internal workings of the body.

And so theories evolved. And somewhere along the way one person would gain enough power, and he would be given credit for this accumulated wisdom. He would be given credit whether or not he had anything to do with it.  He may have been a famous speaker, a famous medicine man, a famous priest, a famous physician, or a famous ruler.  Or, better yet, he may have been all of the above.

And, as time went by, this knowledge migrated around the world with the traders, or with people looking to find better places of food.  So the myths and legends inculcated in their minds wended their way around the world, and so perhaps it is for this reason that the gods were the physicians for nearly every tribe, and every society, that existed in the primitive and ancient worlds.  

Through it all, these gods were responsible for all knowledge.  These gods were responsible for life and death. These gods were responsible for health and healing.  If you were sick with dyspnea for example, you did not wonder what was wrong inside your body to cause these symptoms: it was simply understood that these symptoms were the result of the desire of a god.  If you wanted any chance at healing, you were at the whims of this god.  In this way, the gods were the first physicians. This was true in nearly every ancient civilization regardless of where that civilization was.  It was true in Mesopotamia, it was true in Egypt, it was true in Greece, it was true in Rome, it was true in Mesoamerica, it was true in North America.  

Now surely the medicine man was the first human physician, yet as far as the first societies were concerned, people had no knowledge of the medicine man.  They also had no knowledge of the origins of the legends, and therefore the gods became the first physicians.  When the first civilizations came to be, and when the first written languages were invented, these legends were written down as known at that time.  The scribes, priests, physicians, princesses, princes, queens and kings had access to these writings, and they made sure the people were told these stories in order to keep them in line with the desires of the ruling classes.

The temples, shrines, and even churches were places of healing, places where the gods made their appearances and shared their wisdom for health and healing.  In ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome temples were places of healing, where the sick slept at night, and visions appeared to them that were interpreted by the priests, who were the mediators between the sick and the gods (the physicians). Yet while the gods were viewed as the physicians, the real physicians were the priests. They were the ones who learned at the schools at the temples, and who learned of the knowledge of medicine.

Yet the populace did not know this, as they were kept ignorant.  To them, these priest were merely mediators who so happened to interpret omens of the gods. These ancient priests had the ability to read messages sent from the gods by the placement of the planets and stars in the sky, and hence this is why astrology was a specialization in most ancient civilizations, from Mesopotamia to Mesoamerica.

Through this and other practices of divination (hepatoscopy being another), the priests were able to read the thoughts of the gods, and they were able to use these omens to provide hope to both the healthy and the sick.  Or, if the wishes of the gods were inauspicious, then perhaps gloom in the form of plagues would spread through a family or perhaps through the entire civilization.

If you had asthma, if you suffered from shortness of breath, no matter where you lived in the world, the best way to prevent future attacks, and the best road to healing, was to pay special attention to the legends, and to worship the gods as instructed.  If you were sick it was your fault, and if you became healthy it was your doing, because whether your guardian god was happy or sad was your doing.

Although, the happiness of the god was also an accumulative effort of the entire society, and so the job of keeping the gods happy on behalf of the society became the job of the priests.

Print Friendly and PDF

5000-50 B.C.: Hebrew health and healing

Each Hebrew village had a physician who specialized in medicine and a surgeon. Some specialized in internal medicine, some external medicine, and others both. (3, page 28-29) Permission to practice medicine had to be obtained by the magistrates where the physician wished to settle. If you were sick (perhaps with asthma) you had the option of seeking out this physician to heal you.

This physician, however, also must obtain permission from the Beth-din, which was the council of the town.  Did the doctor have to pass a test? Was he interviewed? What questions were asked? Did he otherwise have to prove his competency? The answers to these questions remain a mystery, explains Robley Dunglison in his 1872 history of medicine. (4, page 31-32)

Jewish physicians were knowledgeable of the basics of anatomy, although their knowledge was quite primitive, as it was for most ancient societies.  They did not understand the concept of internal diseases, and the link between anatomy and disease.  However, as noted by Garrison, they did have a basic understanding of the most common diseases that left visible signs, such as leprosy, syphilis, phthisis, scabies, anthrax, epilepsy, and the various plagues (such as the plague of Ball Peor (numbers 25: 9) in which 24,000 perished. (7, page 59)

The best remedy was the one preached by Moses: good hygiene.  This included bathing, hand washing, sexual restraint, etc. Although, if someone did get sick, the remedies were simple.  For instance, the remedy for leprosy washing in the Jordan, or "dipping seven times in the Jordan. (2 Kings 5: 14)" (7, page 59-60)

These physicians were educated in "sanitary administration and jurisprudence," says Puschmann.  Along with good hygiene, they were also required to do other things to prevent disease, which included circumcision.  (3, page 28-29)  While modern experts think they have disproved this theory, ancient people believed uncircumcised penises were more likely to become infected.  This was how circumcision made its way into the Bible.

Physicians were also, as noted by Garrison, required to isolate people with infectious disease such as leprosy, syphilis, gonorrhea and leukorrhea, as noted in Leviticus 12-15. (7, page 60)  This was another significant measure of preventing healthy people from getting these diseases.  It must also have been observed that many diseases were spread through sexual contact, and so sexual abstinence prior to marriage was encouraged, and loyalty to one man or one woman was also encouraged.

Puschmann notes that when a person was sick he called upon his physician, who paid the sick a visit. Then the physician was paid by the sick or his family, and not by a collective tax. (3, page 28-29) Although, "Jewish medicine was almost exclusively a medicine of the state, not a private profession," writes Thomas Bradford in his 1898 book "Quiz questions on the history of medicine." (9, page 9)(5, page 31)

The neat thing about ancient people such as Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews, is you didn't have to be a physicians to be an expert in medicine, says Puschman. He explains this was because medicine was included in the list of knowledge  taught at schools.  It would be like going to college today for Journalism, and having to take classes in math, English and Business.  So many of the people mentioned in the Bible, particularly prophets such as Solomon, Elijah, Elisha and Ahijah, had medical wisdom, and this wisdom allowed them to "become famous for their successful cures."  (3, page 29)

Baas says King Solomon (who reigned 1020-980 B.C.) was a prophet who had the ability to cure, (2, page 32) and Bradford said of Solomon that "tradition attributes to him a medical work which taught how to cure diseases by natural means. Arabian authorities assert that he left a history of plants and animals, and a number of other works." (9, page 8)

There are various, and random, references to the healing powers of the prophets in the Bible.  Elisha, who lived in the 9th century B.C., healed the water that causes miscarriages:
Some men from Jericho went to Elisha and  said, "As you know, sir, this is a fine city, but the water is bad and causes miscarriages." Elisha said, "Put some salt in a bowl and bring it to me." They brought it to him, and he went to the spring, threw in the salt in the water, and said, "This is what the Lord says: 'I make this water pure, and it will not cause any more  deaths or miscarriages.'" And that water has been pure ever since, just as Elisha said it would be. (Kings 2: 19-22)
Elisha also resurrected a Shunammite's son:
When Elisha arrived, he went alone into the room and saw the boy lying dead on the bed.  He closed the door and prayed to the Lord.  Then he lay down on the boy, placing his mouth, eyes, and hands on the boy's mouth, eyes, and hands.  As he lay stretched out over the boy, the boy's body started to get warm.  Elisha got up, walked around the room, and then went back and again stretched himself over the boy.  the boy sneezed seven times and then opened his eyes.  Elisha calledGehazi and told him to call the boy's mother.  When she came in, he said to her, "Here's your son." She fell at Elisha's feet, with her face touching the ground; then she took her son and left." (Kings 4: 32-37) 
He also healed Naaman:
"Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram.  He was a great man in sight of his master and highly regarded.  because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy. Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.  She said to her mistress, 'If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.'” (2Kings 5:1-2)
Naaman's master allowed him to see the king of Aram, who allowed Naaman to see the king of Israel for permission, although the king of Israel " tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”

The next passages says that:
When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophetSo Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house.Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, washy ourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”   
But Naaman went away angry and said,
“I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!”So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. (2Kings 5:9-15)
To finish this neat story, Naaman offered payment, or at least to be a servant to the prophet, but Elisha would not take payment, saying, "go in peace."  Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, was upset that Elisha didn't take payment, and so he did so himself.  Elisha punished Gehazi:
But Elisha said to him, “Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the timeto take money or to accept clothes—or olive groves and vineyards, or flocks and herds, or male and female slaves? Naaman’s leprosywill cling to you and to your descendants forever.” Then Gehazi went from Elisha’s presence and his skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow.(2Kings 5: 27-28)
In another Biblical story, King Asa (10th century B.C.) was king of Judah, and he was among the first kings to be faithful to the worship of God.  In fact, even his name, Asa, means physician.  He opposed idolatry and all immoral behavior.  Yet despite his faithfulness, when he was struck with disease at the end of his life, he consulted physicians instead of the Lord (2Chronicles 16: 12-14
"In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe; yet even in his disease he did not seek The Lord, but sought help from physicians. And Asa slept with his fathers, dying in the forty-first year of his reign. They buried him in the tomb which he had hewn out for himself in the city of David. They laid him on a bier which had been filled with various kinds of spices prepared by the perfumer's art; and they made a very great fire in his honor." (2Chronicles 16: 12-14
King Jeroboam, who died in 910 B.C., prayed to an old prophet for healing:
The prophet prayed to the Lord, and the king's arm was healed. (Kings I 13: 7) 
The prophet Elijah, who lived around 869-850 B.C., healed a widow's son:
"Give the boy to me," Elijah said.  He took the boy from her arms, carried him upstairs to the room where he was staying, and laid him on the bed.  Then he prayed aloud, "O Lord my god, why have you done such a terrible thing to this widow?  She has been kind enough to take care of me, and now you kill her son!" Then Elijah stretched himself out on the boy three times and prayed, "O Lord my god, restore this child's life!" The Lord answered Elijah's prayer; the child started breathing again and revived. (Kings I 17: 19-22)
Isaiah cured king Heekiah's illness:
Isaiah left the king, but before he had passed through the central courtyard of the palace the Lord told him to go back to Hezekiah, ruler of the Lord's people, and say to him, "I, the Lord, the god of your ancestor David, have heard your prayer and seen your tears.  I will heal you, and in three days you will go to the temple.  I will let you live fifteen years longer.  I will rescue you and this city Jerusalem from the emperor of Assyria.  I will defend this city, for the sake of my own honor and because of the promise I made to my servant David." (Kings II 20: 4-6)
There are many more references to health and healing in the Bible, from Adam all the way to Jesus.  Consider the following:Saying, “If you will diligently listen to the voice of the your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am thehealer.” (Peter 2:24)
  • Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:14-16
  • And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction. (Matthew 10:1)
  • And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. (Matthew 4:23)
  • Another famous Biblical quote about healing is this, as quoted from Isaiah 53:5, and 1Peter 2:24: 
  • “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed."
The passage is not necessarily about medical healing, it's more spiritual healing.  Basically, by learning from the sins of others, we can be healed.  By not doing the evil things other people have done, the things that make you spiritually or physically sick, you will stay healthy, or be healed.

So the Bible, while not a medical texts, provides us with some vague information of medical wisdom from around 1500 to 1700 years before the birth of Christ. Most diseases at this time were best left to nature (4, page 30), as the remedies provided (bleeding, purging, emetics) often made the patient feel worse, and sometimes caused death.  The Bible offered a hope and a prayer, perhaps the best remedy of all.

Reference:  See "1700 B.C.: Hebrew Bible influences medicine"
Print Friendly and PDF

Friday, May 2, 2014

5000-50 B.C.: Egyptian gods of healing

If you were sick with asthma-like symptoms, or any other ailment for that matter, in ancient Egypt you would worship one of the gods of health and healing.  You would probably continue to worship one or more of these gods in health in the hopes that you and your family would stay healthy.  

If you traveled to one of the temples or shrines  for health and healing, a revelation would come to you in your sleep, and be interpreted by one of the priests.  If you were too suck to travel to a temple, a physician who specializes in your ailment would be summoned to your home.  In either case, the priest/physician used knowledge, recipes and incantations provided by the gods to heal you.

Yet the physicians were not alone in keeping the gods happy.  This task was also laid upon every citizen of Egypt, and for this reason there were temples and shrines all over the nation.  Henry Sigerist, in his 1951 book, "A History of Medicine: Primitive and Archaic Medicine," said:
The gods and the dead were considered ever present, influencing man's destinies at every moment, with needs that the living had to satisfy. They needed homes, temples, and tombs, and they got the best homes of the country.  They needed food, and received it in the form of sacrifices.  They required constant attention and it was given to them by means of preayers and manifold rites.  The house had a shrine in front of which a lamp was kept burning.  Shrines could be found on the wayside and along the river.  and the traveler stopped for a moment, offering a prayer and a few flowers.  Days of public worship, with processions, dances, and general rejoicing, marked the eternal rhythm of nature, celebrating the fertility of the soil or the completion of the harvest, or commemorating events in the life of the gods. (Sigerist, page 268)
Egyptian Mythology centered in Heliopolis, according to It was based on the Ennead of Heliopolis (near Memphis, in the Nile Delta of lower Egypt), which was "the group of gods who created the world." The creation of the world goes something like this, according to
"In the theology of the Ennead (or ogdoad group) of Heliopolis, there is recognition of a time before there was anything. It was thought there was a creative potential in the primeval water, which was personified as the self-generated Nun. From the waters emerged Atum, the source of all creation, often depicted as the sun god Re-Atum who produced Shu and Tefnut when he masturbated or spat... Ennead means a group of 9, but often the list is larger, including wives, offspring, and a splitting up of Atum-Re into two separate deities. Here are the basic 9": (21)
  • Atum (Atum-Re): The spirit that lived inside Nun (see below)
  • Shu: Male created by Atum-Re. He represents air or emptiness
  • Tefnut: Sister of Shu. She was goddess of moisture. 
  • Geb: Earth god - Shu and Tefnut's male offspring
  • Nut: Sky goddess - Shu and Tefnut's female offspring
  • Osiris: God of the dead - son of Geb and Nut
  • Seth: Evil brother of Osiris - son of Geb and Nut
  • Isis: Wife/sister of Osiris and mother of Horus
  • Nephthys: Goddess of the dead - wife/sister of Seth
These gods were the Ennead, and were essentially the ruling class of the world. There were also four creator gods who created mankind and everything that went with it. These gods were as follows: 
  1. Atum: Caused the division of the sexes; as Ra-Atum, he represented the evening sun." (22)
  2. Khnemu: Water god and creator of mankind on her potter's wheel (22)
  3. Re (Ra, Ammon Re, Amon Re): Creator of the gods
  4. Ptah (Pteh, Peteh, Pitah): He created things just by thinking of them and speaking their names with his tongue. (23) He was never created, he just exist, he just "is." He is god of craftsmen and architects. He is husband of Sekhmet and the father of Nefertum and Imhotep (see below).
Listed below are some of the most revered gods among the ancient Egyptian. These are the gods you'd pray to for health and healing, for both the individual and for the nation in general*:

1.  Ra:  According to he was the sun god. He was also creator of the gods, himself and eight others. He traveled to the underworld every night and, in order to be born again for a new day, had to "vanish the evil serpent Apopis He is often referred to as Re or Pra. by the Fourt

2.  Osiris: He was the god of the underworld and the afterlife. (1) According to he was one of the most important gods. He was the "god of fertility and the embodiment of the dead and resurrected king." He was also responsible for sprouting vegetation and the annual flood (the inundation) of the Nile. He was mainly responsible, however, for "renewal of life in the next world." According to legend, "Osiris was slain or drowned by Seth, who tore the corpse into 14 pieces and flung them over Egypt. Eventually, Isis and her sister Nephthys found and buried all the pieces, except the phallus, thereby giving new life to Osiris, who thenceforth remained in the underworld as ruler and judge. His son Horus successfully fought against Seth, avenging Osiris and becoming the new king of Egypt. " He was also called Usir.

3.  Isis: She was the wife and sister of Osiris, as in those days it was acceptable for mortals and the deity to marry siblings. She was god of the afterlife or the underworld, and the mother of Horus, and also the mother of the Pharaoh. She earned respect for her medical wisdom when she brought her son Horus back to life. She proved her power when she healed her son, Horus, restoring him to life. She was therefore believed to have medical power, and was worshiped as a god of medicine. It was her wrath that was believed to be the cause of many diseases.(2)(3) (9, page 23) She also had many medical remedies named after her, mainly because she was seen as the inventor of many of these remedies. According to Johann Bass, in his 1889 history of medicine, "Ibis was popularly supposed to have been the hallowed inventor of one of the most useful medical operations -- the use of clysters -- for it was believed that when constipated she administered herself with the aid of her long bill." (2, page 16)

4.  Horus: He is sometimes likened to the Greek god Aesculpius, as many temples of him were built where the sick slept during the night in hopes the god would appear during the night and offer a remedy. He is also referred to as Oris. The trio of Isis, Osiris, and Horus are often referred to as the holy trinity or a holy family. He communicated with the Pharaohs so that the various kings and queens were the keepers of all the knowledge of the gods on behalf of the Egyptian people. He is often referred to as the Apollo of the Greeks. (2,3)

5.  Thoth: He was the best friend of Osirus, and writer, clerk or secretary to the gods, and is thought to be the creator of the arts and sciences, particularly the art of medicine. As secretary he was the inventor of writing, and the author of all the wisdom of the gods. He is believed to have shared his knowledge with a priest, who wrote down this knowledge for all physicians to have access to. These writings are referred to as the Hermetic books, as this god was referred to as Hermes in ancient Greece. Some suspect the priest he communicated with was Imhotep, which is how Imhotep gained much of his wisdom. He often appears as having the head of an ibis. The ibis was thought to be skilled in the art of healing, as it used its bill to provide clysters to itself. It was therefore believed to be the inventor of medical operations. Other names for Thoth are Thout, Thuti, Theath, Thouth, Thot and Taaut. The Greeks called him Hermes Trismegistus, and the Romans called him Mercury. (2)(3)(9, page 24)(10, page 4 and 5) Bambilla, a surgeon of Vienna around the year 1783, traced the history of medicine back to Tubal Cain, who was the "grandson of Cain, and the great grandson of Adam, who lived about 3875 years before the birth of our Savior." He believed Tubal Cain and Thoth were one and the same. He believes this link is "ingenious and plausible... as the 22nd verse of the 4th chapter of Genesis explicitly informs us, 'an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron.'" (10, page 4) As you will see, many of the gods of the ancient world were probably once real people whose legend made them a god.

6.  Imhotep: We know now that he was an actual person who lived sometime around 1600 B.C. Some historians thought he actually communicated with the god Thoth. As time went by after his death, he was so revered that his legacy turned him into a god of health and healing. Many temples were built to him where people traveled to for a revelation of healing during the night while they slept. He is also sometimes referred to as being similar to the Greek god Aesculpius.
7.  Pacht: He often appears as having a head of a cat, and this, perhaps, is why the Egyptians revered the cat as a symbol of health and healing. They believed to abuse a cat was to cause ill health. He was the god responsible for health and healing of pregnant women and children.

8. Sekhmet: The god of healing. According to, "a goddess of war and the destroyer of the enemies of the sun god Re. Sekhmet was associated both with disease and with healing and medicine. Like other fierce goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon, she was called the 'Eye of Re.' She was usually depicted as a lioness or as a woman with the head of a lioness, on which was placed the solar disk and the uraeus serpent." (?) He also may have been the Egyptian patron goddess of surgeons, and she watched over physicians as they performed surgery, which usually didn't involve anything more than resetting broken bones or cauterizing wounds or sores with a flaming hot tool heated by fire. (Sigerist, page 326)

9.  Hathor: Goddess of fertility and childbirth, who was later adapted as Aphrodite by the Greeks. According to she was the goddess of the sky, women, fertility and love. She was usually represented in the form of a cow, and was associated with motherhood.
10.  Bes: Diety of childbirth. According to she was a minor god "represented as a dwarf with large head, goggle eyes, protruding tongue, bowlegs, bushy tail, and usually a crown of feathers...The god’s figure was that of a grotesque mountebank and was intended to inspire joy or drive away pain and sorrow, his hideousness being perhaps supposed to scare away evil spirits.He was portrayed on mirrors, ointment vases, and other personal articles. He was associated with music and with childbirth and was represented in the “birth houses” devoted to the cult of the child god." (6) She was also god of marriage, music, happiness and protection

11.  Apis: He was the sacred bull deity who was skilled in art of healing who originated in the First Dynasty of Egypt around 2800-3100. He was the fertility god concerned with multiplication of grains and herbs. He later became associated with Osirus, god of the underworld, and (5) He may have been a real person, as Greek mythology states he was king of the Argives, and he resigned in order to "travel to Egypt for the express purpose of reclaiming the inhabitants from barbarity, and instructing them in the art of civilized life." He became the Egyptian king, and they "worshipped him after his death, under the similitude of an ox." (10, page 11)

12.  Serapis: Skilled in art of healing, he's considered by some as the inventor of medicine. Also called Sarapis. He was Egyptian god of the sun. He was the god of the underworld until Ptolomy I Soter updated his image for the Greeks during the days of Alexandria (around 300 B.). He was then revered as the sun god and a god of healing and fertility. He was later worshiped by the Romans as well. (4)
13.  Paean: He is physician to the gods, and is mentioned in the epic poem by Homer (800 B.C.), the Odyssey: "... there the earth, the giver of grain, bears greatest store of drugs, many that are healing when mixed, and many that are baneful; there every man is a physician, wise above human kind; for they are of the race of Paeon." In Homer's Illiad Paeon can be seen giving medicine to the god of war Ares, who is wounded in battle by the mortal Diomedes. (11) According to, Paean became associated with the Greek god Apollo and Apollo's son Asclepius, who were both associated with health and healing. (12) Another spelling is Paeon, or Paeeon.

14.  Seth (Set, Setesh, Sutekh, Suty): According to he was the principle god of Upper Egypt. He is believed to be of mythical origin mainly because he hi represented by various forms, although the canine is the most frequent form. He was "Originally Seth was a sky god, lord of the desert, master of storms, disorder, and warfare—in general, a trickster. Seth embodied the necessary and creative element of violence and disorder within the ordered world."  Pharoahs as early as the 2nd Dynasty (2775-2650 B.C) recognized themselves as either Seth, Horus, or both. When the Hyksos ruled Egypt they worshiped Seth alongside their own god Baal. (13) His first wife was Nephtys, and later on his wife was sister of Nephtys, Isis. He killed and mutilated his brother Osiris before his wife of Osiris gathered the pieces, reassembled, him, embalmed him, and brought him back to life as a god. This mythology symbolizes the belief of the Egyptians in the afterlife and the importance of mummification.

Baal: This was a god of the Hyksos, and since they used their chariots and stellar weapons to defeat the Egyptians and rule the land for a while, we must consider their gods as well. Baal ruled Egypt with the Egyptian God Seth during the First Intermediate Period. It's also interesting to note that Baal is referenced to often in the Bible as one of the gods Moses and the Hebrew God had to compete with. (14, page 231) According to, Baal was worshiped by many Mediterranean societies, especially those originating in Canaan, or by the Canaanites. He was among the most important of all the gods, which makes sense considering his influence over the Hebrews. Baal designated the universal god of fertility, and in that capacity his title was Prince, Lord of the Earth. He was also called the Lord of Rain and Dew, the two forms of moisture that were indispensable for fertile soil in Canaan. In Ugaritic and Old Testament Hebrew, Baal’s epithet as the storm god was He Who Rides on the Clouds. In Phoenician he was called Baal Shamen, Lord of the Heavens." (15)

16. Theoris: She gave birth to the world, and was the protector of pregnant women. According to Sigerist, "she appears with the features of a pregnant hippopotamus standing on her hind legs. Sometimes she holds the hieroglyph that means 'protection' in one paw and the sign of life in the other. Her statues are usually small, having been used as amulets, but there are also larger ones." (14, page 242)

17.  Nephtys (Nebthet): She was the sister of Isis, and, like Isis,had the ability to heal. notes she and her sister watched over funerary rites because they were both protectors of the mummy. She is the wife of Seth. While her sister represented the life or re-birth experience, she represented the death experience. Some myths have her as the mother of funerary deity Anubis. (17)

18. Anubis: He is the jackal headed god of mummification and afterlife. He is the son of Nephtys and Seth, according to Wikepedia. (18)She was goddess of fertility and childbirth. She was also the goddess of benevolence, joy, and jokes. She was also goddess of healing and health. She was also goddess of generosity and marriage.

19. Nut: According to she is the mother goddess and goddess of the sky. "She is often shown as an arch over the earth and as a protector and nourisher of the dead. (She) is the sun, Re's mother, whom she produces daily and swallows nightly. She is also mother of the stars which are shown inside her. She is part of the Ennead. In the theology of Heliopolis, Nut is a daughter of Shu and Tefnut, granddaughter of Atum, and mother of Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. Another version has Nut the mother of the "epagomenal" (19) Henry Sigerist said that "a charm to ease childbirth was spoken over the two bricks on which the woman in labor knelt and it was said furthermore than a sacrifice should be brought to the goddess Nut, by placing mean, geese, and frankincense on a fire." (20, page 281)

20.   Heket: She was yet another goddess of fertility. (20, page 288)

21.  Khnuma (khnemu): she was Heket's sister, who "on the potter's wheel molded the child and his ethereal double, his Ka. (20, page 288) She molded mankind using the potter's wheel, and through her water she "breathed life" into men and women. (22) It must be understood here that water was understood as the chief source of life, and physicians were masters of this water, and were able to use it through their "water" potions to heal the sick and wounded. So worshiping gods of the water, such as Khnuma, was very important.

22.  Nun (Nu): He is the water. Before creation mankind and all it needed to survive arose out of the water (Nu), and at the end of the world it will return to the water. According to his name means "primeval waters." He is the father of Re. He created eight members of the ogdoad group of gods of Hermopolis, all except for Atum who just is (see above). The world was created out of the mud from the waters of Nun. The creation myth was recreated every day as the sun arose out of the waters of chaos,of Nun. He was also the source of the annual flooding of the Nile. (24)

23.  Other: Aker was god of earth, fields and poisons, anecdotes and weaving. Ami ruled over fire. Amu was god of dawn. Anquet was goddess of water, the source of life. Apep was god of darkness, night, storm, and death. Apit is goddess of nursing. Ashkit was goddess of wind. Ashu was another water god. Auf was god of peace, rest and courage. Auit was goddess of nurses and children. Bait was goddess of the soul. Buto offered protection from evil. Heh was god of longevity, happiness and eternity. Heqet was goddess of fertility, childbirth and creation. She also offered protection, which is a form of prophylaxis. Khepera was god of healing and exorcism. He was god of miracles and compassion. Nefertem (Nefertum, Nefertemu) was a god associated with Atum was a flower that grew from the waters after the world was created. By his tears he created mankind. He grew into "the water lily of the sun," and was often referred to as "he who is beautiful."

We also have to include here the rest of the ennead and creator gods: Atum, Shu, Tefnut, and Geb. Plus there are vver 5,000 other gods were worshiped, and many of these had healing powers. Also, any one of them had powers to cause disease if you earned their wrath. (1)

So you can see that there was a fine line in the ancient world between mythology and the priesthood and medical practice, all being influenced by mythology; all being influenced by the gods. "As diseases were considered to be the effects of the anger of the gods," says Robley Dunglison in his 1872 history of medicine, "they could not be cured until the wrath of these estimated powerful beings was appeased. The awe, however, with which the dieties were regarded, and the weaknesses of the diseased, required the aid of mediators who might improve pardon for them. In the hands of the priests, consequently, the healing art was nothing more than an absurd worship paid to the different divinities of the country..." (9, page 27)

While physicians had access to natural medicines, these medicine were believed to have worked by magical means, and and these remedies were essentially gifts from one or another of the gods. Temples were build to worship most of these gods, with some of the more famous in Memphis, Thebes and Heliopolis. Priests were educated at these temples regarding the wisdom of the gods, and the sick would sleep in them in the hopes the god would appear and offer a remedy while they slept The process of priestly preparations --perhaps consisting of burning insence, making animal sacrifices and incantations -- and of the godly appearance revelation of a remedy was called an inundation.

The most commonly sought out temples for healing were probably those of Thoth and later Imhotep, who are most likened to the Greek god Aesculpius, who also has a significant impact on our medical history.

As you might imagine, these Egyptian inundations had a significant impact on Greek medicine, with the most common temples visited by the Greeks being held at Heliopolis.

*Most of these gods have more than one name, depending on who was referring to them.  To the best of my ability I will list as many of these names as I can.  The power and influence of these gods varied, with some gods gaining more influence and others less over time.  For the sake of simplicity I'm just listing the basic components of these gods. 

  1. Carruthers, Martyn, "Ancient Egyptian Healing:,,, acce, accessed 3/21/13
  2. Baas, Johann Herman, author, Henry Ebenezer Sanderson, translator, "Outlines of the history of medicine and the medical profession," 1889, New York, pages 14-17
  3. Bradford, Thomas Lindsley, "Quiz questions on the history of medicine: form the lectures of Thomas Lindsley Bradford, M.D," 1898, Philadelphia, pages 3-4
  4. "Serapis,",, accessed 3/21/13
  5. "Apis,",, accessed 3/21/13
  6. "Bes",, accessed 3/21/13
  7. "Hathor,",, accessed 3/21/13
  8. "Re,",, accessed 3/21/13
  9. Dunglison, Robley, author, Richard James Dunglison, editor,  "History of Medicine from the earliest ages to the commencement of the nineteenth century," 1872, Philadelphia, Lindsay and Blakiston
  10. Hamilton, William, "The history of medicine, surgery, and anatomy, from the creation of the world to the commencement of the nineteenth century," 1831, volume I, London, Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley
  11. "Paean (god),",, accessed 3/29/113; references referred to (1) : Homer, "Odyssey," Book 4, line 219, ,accessed 3/29/13; and (2)  Homer, "Iliad," Book 5, line 899,, accessed 3/29/13
  12. "Paean,",, accessed 3/29/13
  13. "Seth,",, accessed 4/18/13
  14. Sigerist, Henry E,' "A History of Medicine: Primitive and Archaic Medicine," volume I, 1951, New York, Oxford University Press
  15. "Baal(ancient Deity)", ",, accessed 4/18/13
  16. "Amon (Egyptian god),",, accessed 4/18/13
  17. "Nehthys,",, accessed 4/18/13
  18. "Anubis,",, accessed 4/18/13
  19. "Nut- Egyptian Goddess,",, accessed 4/20/13
  20. Sigerist, Henry E, "A History of Medicine: Archaic and Primitive Medicine," volume I, 1951, New York, Oxford University Press
  21. "Ennead of Heliopolis,",, accessed 4/20/13. The Ennead was defined in a variety of places, although I find this one to be the simplest to understand, at least for our purposes. 
  22. "Egypt-Gods,",, accessed 4/20/13
  23. "Ancient Egypt: the Mythology,",, accessed 4/20/13
  24. "Nun,",, accessed 4/20/13
Print Friendly and PDF