The Ebers Papyrus of about 1550 BC is among the most important medical papyri of ancient Egypt. It is also commonly called Papyrus Ebers (from its original German name). It is one the two oldest preserved medical documents anywhere, the other main source being the Edwin Smith papyrus (around 1600 BC). Another important medical papyrus is the Brugsch Papyrus (around 1300 BC).
The Ebers Papyrus is written in hieratic Egyptian writing and preserves for us the most voluminous record of ancient Egyptian medicine known. The 110-page scroll contains some 700 magical formulas and remedies. It contains many incantations meant to turn away disease-causing demons and there is also evidence of a long, long tradition of empirical practice and observation.
The papyrus contains a "treatise on the heart". It notes that the heart is the center of the blood supply, with vessels attached for every member of the body. The Egyptians seem to have known little about the kidneys and made the heart the meeting point of a number of vessels which carried all the fluids of the body – blood, tears, urine and sperm.
Mental disorders are detailed in a chapter of the papyrus called the Book of Hearts. Disorders such as depression and dementia are covered. The descriptions of these disorders suggest that Egyptians conceived of mental and physical diseases in much the same way.
The papyrus contains chapters on contraception, diagnosis of pregnancy and other gynaecological matters, intestinal disease and parasites, eye and skin problems, dentistry and the surgical treatment of abscesses and tumors, bone-setting and burns.
Examples of remedies in the Ebers Papyrus include:
- A mixture of herbs heated on a brick so that the sufferer could inhale their fumes.
- "For the evacuation of the belly: Cow's milk 1; grains 1; honey 1; mash, sift, cook; take in four portions."
- "To remedy the bowels: Melilot, 1; dates, 1; cook in oil; anoint sick part."
- Recounting a "tumor against the god Xenus", it recommends "do thou nothing there against".
- Clothing may be protected from mice and rats by applying cat's fat.
- Half an onion and the froth of beer was considered "a delightful remedy against death."
Modern history of the papyrus
Like the Edwin Smith Papyrus, the Ebers Papyrus came into the possession of Edwin Smith in 1862. The source of the papyrus is unknown, but it was said to have been found between the legs of a mummy in the Assassif district of the Theban necropolis.
The papyrus remained in the collection of Edwin Smith until at least 1869 when there appeared, in the catalog of an antiquities dealer, an advertisement for "a large medical papyrus in the possession of Edwin Smith, an American farmer of Luxor." (Breasted 1930)
The Papyrus was purchased in 1872 by the German Egyptologist and novelist Georg Ebers (born in Berlin, 1837), after whom it is named. In 1875, Ebers published a facsimile with an English-Latin vocabulary and introduction, but it was not translated until 1890, by H. Joachim. Ebers retired from his chair of Egyptology at Leipzig on a pension and the papyrus remains in the University of Leipzig library.
- Ancient Egypt
- Hieratic script
- History of medicine
- Medical literature
- Edwin Smith Papyrus
- Georg Ebers
- Sources consulted
- Pommerening, Tanja, "Altägyptische Hohlmasse Metrologisch neu Interpretiert" and relevant phramaceutical and medical knowledge, an abstract, Phillips-Universtat, Marburg, 8-11-2004, taken from "Die Altägyptsche Hohlmasse" in studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur, Beiheft, 10, Hamburg, Buske-Verlag, 2005
- Scholl, Reinhold, Der Papyrus Ebers. Die größte Buchrolle zur Heilkunde Altägyptens (Schriften aus der Universitätsbibliothek 7), Leipzig 2002; ISBN 3-910108-93-8.
- Brief note of Ebers and the papyrus
- Univ. of Leipzig's catalog description (German), photograph
- Indiana University: Medicine in Ancient Egypt