Perhaps one of the best-known aspects of the Egyptian mummification process is that the brain was removed from the body and discarded. The brain’s function and importance were not understood. Instead, the heart was not only recognised as a beating organ that pumped blood, for the ancient Egyptian it was also the source of intelligence, emotions, and memory. After death, amulets were placed on the mummy to protect the heart and ensure that the deceased retained its intellectual functions in the afterlife.
This dual function means that words for heart (mostly ib, also HAti) don’t always refer simply to the organ, they can also refer to the mind. When texts talk about problems affecting the heart, it is not simply a case that physiological conditions are meant, psychological factors may need to be considered as well.
Dating to the early 18thDynasty (late 16th– early 15thcentury), a medical scroll records a large number of illnesses and injuries and their remedies. Papyrus Ebers – named after Georg Ebers who acquired the papyrus in 1872/3 – is the largest and only complete surviving medical scroll from ancient Egypt. At over 18.5 m in length, the scroll bears 110 columns of hieratic writing that contain 879 individual entries. A range of symptoms are recorded, dealing with both internal and external illnesses: the respiratory system, stomach and intestinal pain, eye illnesses, skin illnesses, gynaecological illnesses, and issues affecting the heart. And it is this last category that we need to examine for evidence for psychological illnesses.
Some entries are certainly about the physical heart: “As to: His heart is weak(?). A vessel called ‘the receiver’ is the one that causes it. It is this vessel that gives water to the heart” (entry 855c). Egyptian knowledge of the inner workings of the human body was limited: physicians rarely practiced internal surgery, and by the time bodies got to the embalmers for mummification, the organs were no longer functioning. However, from passages such as this one, it is clear that Egyptians did understand how the heart worked in many respects.
In addition to these entries, others seem to mean the mind rather than the heart – the same Egyptian word is used, but a great difference is created if we translate ib in these cases as ‘mind’. In these passages, we see mood change, depression, forgetfulness. However, as these entries are not dealing with individual or specific cases, it is difficult to tell if we are seeing mental health issues or issues connected with aging or degenerative conditions.
“As to: Vanishing of the mind (and) forgetfulness of the mind. The breath of the (harmful) doing of the Cherheb-priest is the thing that does it. It penetrates into the lung as a case of sickness and it happens that the mind is confused as a result.” (855u)
“As to: His mind is overflooded. This means that his mind is forgetful like one who thinks of something else.” (855z)
It is difficult to map modern diagnoses onto ancient symptoms, but these entries don’t simply refer to everyday forgetfulness, rather more serious periods of memory loss and confusion. Another entry mentions the mind being shrouded in darkness, resulting in feelings of powerlessness. It doesn’t seem like too far a stretch to recognise here depression and its debilitating effects.
“As to: His mind (ib) is shrouded in darkness, he (the man) tastes his heart (HAti). This means that his heart (ib) is narrowed and dark in his belly as a result of dmud; it causes fits of powerlessness.” (855w)
One more entry, 855k, talks about the ‘kneeling of the heart’ and the heart being tied up. Is this heart pain, or is it a breakdown of the mind, of mood swings and emotional and mental constriction rather than physical?
The above entries mention symptoms and identify possible causes. An earlier entry in the papyrus seems to deal with various conditions of the mind, including forgetfulness, concentration problems, and other injuries, for which it provides a remedy.
“Another, to eliminate the aAa-poison-matter on the heart, to eliminate forgetfulness of the mind, flight of the mind, stitches of the mind: ins.t-plant 1/8; figs 1/8; celery 1/16; ochre 1/32; valerian(?) 1/8; honey 1/32; water 10 ro; likewise.” (227)
The meanings of many words that occur in medical texts (both concerning symptoms and ingredients in remedies) are unknown, and we simply transcribe rather than translate these terms. But what is clear is that the ancient Egyptians recognised that emotional and mental health – even if they would not have recognised that modern term – needed to be taken care of and treated, exactly in the same way as physical health.
Provenance: Egypt, perhaps Thebes (purchased on the antiquities market, 1872/3)
Date: 1514–1494 BCE (reign of Amenhotep I: year 9 of his reign is mentioned on the back fo the papyrus)
Language: Late Egyptian (hieratic script)
Collection: Leipzig University
Bibliography: Thierry Bardinet (1995), Les papyrus médicaux de l’Égypte pharaonique: traduction intégrale et commentaire(Paris); Georg Ebers (1875), Papyros Ebers. Das hermetische Buch über die Arzneimittel der alten Ägypter in hieratischer Schrift(Leipzig); Paul Ghalioungui (1987), The Ebers Papyrus. A New English Translation, Commentaries, and Glossaries (Cairo); Bernard Lalanne & Gérard Métra (2017),Le texte medical du Papyrus Ebers. Transcription hiéroglyphique, transliteration, traduction, glossaire et index(Brussels); Reinhold Scholl (2002), Der Papyrus Ebers. Die größte Buchroole zur Heilkunde Altägyptens (Leipzig); Wolfhart Westerndorf (1999), Handbuch der altägyptischen Medizin (Cologne)