Daily Life – Ancient Egypt II – Medicine

Digshotep, the patriarch of a Late 17th dynasty Middle Kingdom, upper middle class, Egyptian family rests under a palm on his new country estate. His lot in life has improved tremendously since he planted those first ‘new fangled’ grape vines in his back garden. In just a few years he had developed Thebes first small commercial winery.

The royals seem to like the sweet, cloying stuff and are willing to pay a premium for it. Though it will never take the place of good Egyptian beer.

Life seems to be bright, the beer flows, the kids are just finishing their education, and the only personal dark spot is his relationship with his son, Amenhotep, who has now reached the age of 18.

Four years previously, Amenhotep had graduated from scribe training at the Shrine of Thoth, and with honors. He also received his cherished admission to the advanced school in Karnak Temple, where he was still receiving honors.

However, Seqenenra Tao II was now on the throne in Thebes, and there were rumblings of war with the Hyksos in the North.

Just as Digshotep had wanted, Amenhotep was socially networking nicely with the high officials of the court who were also taking classes, as well as some of the younger members of the Royal Family.

One of his closest friends at school, and one who had great influence on him was the Royal Butler, which in the Egyptian court means he was also one of the king’s main advisors. He was a man in his late fifties who believed in returning to school as frequently as he could. He was a priest and architect, a leading academic in anatomy and an expert in math. His hero was the great Imhotep, also a priest, physician, mathematician, and the 4th dynasty architect of the first Egyptian pyramid, the Step Pyramid of Zoser at Saqqara.

This is where the conflict between Amenhotep and Digshotep started to simmer.

Digs had dreams of his son rising high in temple or court, perhaps even both. But thanks to the influence of the Royal Butler, Amenhotep wanted to study anatomy and become a physician.

“Pure quackery,” yelled the old man. “You think mixing up piles of hippopotami dung sweetened with milk and honey actually cures somebody instead of killing them? Do you want old men puking all over you? Do you want widows dragging you in front of the king’s court accusing you of killing their husbands? And your hands will always stink.

“Why can’t you be more like your sister? She has joined a troop of temple dancers. She’s second lead in the Karnak choir. She’s cultivating her friendships with the Royal Princesses and has even been seen hanging on the arm of the king’s younger son, Amose. She’s at least trying to make something respectable of herself and get ahead in the world. And her hands won’t stink like some common cattle barn mucker.”

“Dad, I wash my hands a lot, ok?

“You have been healthy all your life. I think about all you know about modern medicine is old-wives-tales, and the stories your nurse used to tell you in order to scare you into washing behind your ears. You really haven’t had that much exposure to the healing arts.

“There is a lot more to medicine than honey drizzled hippo poop. Though it has its place. And I don’t stick my hands in it. That’s what post-grads are for.

“Up-to-date medicine is a mix of observational science, magic, faith healing, properly used spells and more. We have gone far beyond kissing it to make the hurt go away then spreading on the doo-doo. Though some people still practice that simplicity, and even then a few get the order of the procedure backwards.

“We have totally modernized. We no longer have the archaic separation of physician, priest and magician. It is now all one discipline, and better because of it.

“If you were to cut your foot on a broken pot, I would apply a paste of fruit and honey, then I would put a bandage over it, then I would say the proper incantation, and last I would give you a magical amulet to keep until the cut was healed. See what I mean? We now address medicine on every level, not just the old-fashion cover it up and hope for the best.

“We also encourage people to keep bathing, shaving their head and body hair, and maintaining dietary restrictions against raw fish, any kind of pork, and other animals that are unclean to eat. Temple and palace precincts are forbidden to the uncircumcised, those who eat unclean foods and those with any body hair. That’s why even foreign embassys are greeted in the palace courtyard and never permitted inside till they have met with our cleanliness standards.

“Remember the young prince from Babylon who came to study at Karnak Temple? As high ranking as he was, he was not permitted in the classroom till he shaved his elaborate beard and hair, threw away his abominable woolen clothing, and was circumcised to acknowledge the covenant between Egypt and its gods.

“We are the cleanest and healthiest nation in the world. You and mom are now both over sixty years old. That’s more than 30 years beyond the average lifespan in some other countries and many of our people reach that mark and more. In fact, our normal lifespan, including the lowest classes and slaves is well over forty years.

“Our modern medicine makes the difference.

“Besides, if the king has his way, we will soon be marching north to meet the Hyksos threat. The army will need all the trained physicians it can get. He is already calling on the military recruiters to drag in all the able-bodied men they can round up. One way or the other, I will be going. Being a trained scribe and academic will not keep me out of the infantry. The only way I can avoid that would be to enlist voluntarily and use my education to give me ‘officer’ status. At least I would be able to sleep in a tent, instead of on the ground with only the stars as a shelter.”

Digs merely grunted. Why go on? He knew he had already lost this argument. All he could do would be wish for the best and hope the gods would see fit to end the coming war early. Whatever Amun wants, Amun gets.

He turned slowly and gave his son a serious look. “We are going back to the townhouse in Thebes in a few days. On your way back to Karnak, would you stop by Iggys and let him know the air conditioner is on the fritz again? The pads are drying out too fast and it’s not cooling the air.”

physician Physician – painting by HM Herget – National Geographic October 1941

Till next time


2 Responses to “Daily Life – Ancient Egypt II – Medicine”

  1. pafalafaga says:

    Digs. I wish you’d stop posting these Egypt stories. They’re much more entertaining than my posts.

    By the way…when’s the next one?

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