by Wim van den Dungen

"Torrey (1986) proposed a systems model of treatment after surveying both Western and non-Western healing practices, concluding that both are about equally effective. For him, the nature of effective treatment inevitably contains one or more of four fundamental factors : (a) a shared world view by healer and patient, which makes the diagnosis or naming process possible ; (b) certain personal qualities of the practitioner that appear to facilitate the client's recovery ; (c) positive client expectations that assist progress ; and (d) a sense of mastery that empowers the client." - Cardeña, Lynn & Krippner, 2000, p.381.

According to Clement of Alexandria (second century CE), the fourty-two books of human knowledge of the Egyptians included six of medical content (n° 37 - 42), the so-called "secrets of the physicians". These books discussed the structure of the human body & its diseases, the medical instrumentarium, possible remedies, the eyes & their diseases and the diseases of women (
Nunn, 1996). Some insight into the medical practice of Ancient Egypt may be derived from human remains, from representations of bodies showing disease, from occasional references in non-medical papyri & stelae and, last but not least, from medical papyri. Here, we shall briefly discuss the more magical aspects of their medical discipline.

Although Herodotus wrote the people of Egypt were healthy, the fact is, that as a whole, the opposite was true. Indeed, their mummies and skeletal remains tell a painful story. Many Egyptians suffered from malnutrition, arthritic conditions and bilharzia (a disease contracted by walking barefoot in contaminated water), eye diseases, hardened arteries (through stress), infections, tetanus, diabetes, smallpox, polio, tuberculosis and various plagues. The omnipresent sand caused lung problems and wore down tooth enamel, causing abscesses & poisoning. Infant mortality was very high. Operations were seldom performed, not even tooth extractions (
Luban, 2003, pp. 110 - 111). Although the wealthy probably lived longer than most, the large majority, irrespective of social class, never made it to sixty. 

Although in general, ante-rationality is unable to define sharp divisions in abstract (for all cases), specific, local (contextualized) distinctions are possible and operative. Hence, Ancient Egyptian medicine was able to draw a sharp contrast between trauma (cf. industrial accidents) and internal medical disorders. The causation of the latter was all too obvious and the outcome could be predicted. The same precision and certainty was also realized in monumental architecture and artistic representation. 

But internal medical disorders presented an entirely different picture. Infections, tumours and heart failure had no obvious causes and their outcome was difficult to predict. They had few drugs which could have a decisive influence and their surgical repertoire was limited. In these cases, disorders were attributed to supernatural causes and magic was an important factor in treatment. It was deemed essential that the healing ritual acted against the principle of suffering itself, called "wekhedu" ("wxd"), or "be painful, suffer, endure". As this term is also used with the feminine termination ("wekhedut"), two spirits of suffering are suggested. A person suffering from "wekhedu" is referred to as a "wekhedy". 

These spirits had the capacity to move about (traverse, pull through) the body (cf. the Book of Wanderings of Wekhedu in the medical papyri). To do so, they used the "metu", the plural of "met" ("mt"). Its meaning is unknown, but the "metu" are vessels, including bloods vessels, various ducts, tendons, muscles and nerves. The "metu" transport blood, air, mucus, urine, semen, desease-bearing entities, malign and benign spirits.

"Various elements of rituals and ceremonies, such as drumming, dancing, chanting, expressive arts and practices such as fasting and sensory deprivation, have been associated with reports of healing in various cultural contexts. To the extent that they can be integrated into a belief system (without violating the cultural underpinning of the traditions), these elements may link anomalous healing experiences with clinical and research interventions." - Cardeña, Lynn & Krippner, 2000, p.374.

The therapeutic value of
magic ("heka" - "HkA") can be summarized as :

* response expectancy : the deities were such an accepted part of daily life, that invoking their help would have been the first rather than the last option considered. Because of the rule of the divine king, people expected their gods to be present in their temples. Thoth was of central significance to Egyptian medicine, because of his role as the god of writing, wisdom and balance. Because a person expected to be healed, his or her own immune system was reinforced, which rebalanced the internal disorder. As contemporary studies have shown, this auto-immune reaction can be very powerful ;
* suggestion : the "power of suggestion" is unmistaken, and subliminal influence on the mind has been attested in marketing and publicity. The key to suggestion is a triadic sequence : (a) original intention (conscious), (b) ritual procedures to repress the intention in the unconscious, (c) automatic projection of the intented goals by the unconscious (either as a state of mind, or as an intended effect like instantaneous healing or spontaneous remission) ;
* placebo effect : a placebo is a biomedically inert substance given in such a manner as to produce relief. The resulting patient effect is the placebo effect, a response to the act of being treated. The patient's state of mind is the critical variable here. However, not the patient's faith in the curative powers of the substance is important, but his or her confidence that the healer is convinced of the efficacy of the intervention. This effect is not confined to substances, for the attention of the priest or magician to the curative spells and ritual actions, may also increase the expectation of a cure (hand in hand with the administration of drugs) ;
* hypnosis : the physical effects of hysteria and the subsequent cure by depth-psychological investigations of the psychic trauma through hypnosis (and later free association) was one of the stepping-stones to Freud's system. The effects of hypnosis can be quite spectacular (like walking on burning coal and the like). The long-term effects of implanting suggestions is one of the reasons why public hypnosis shows have been prohibited. Repetitious ritual activity enduces a hypnotic state, allowing for the healing suggestion to penetrate into the unconscious ;
* homeopathic effect : selecting a herbal remedy from a particular plant or mineral because of its resemblance to the organ requiring treatment or to the precise nature of the disease, is the "sympathetic" link needed in the "similia similibus" principle (like is cured by like) ;
* paranormal healing effects : lastly, through action-at-a-distance, i.e. telekinesis, healing power can be transferred from healer to patient. This is the most controversial approach, involving a violation of the known laws of energy conservation and transmission. Although some evidence exists, there is (as yet) no consensus in the scientific community as to the real existence of Psi events.

The neurological consequences of ritual activity has been studied

In Ancient Egyptian medicine, these phenomena (incorporated in general healing spells and incantations) could be coupled with practical treatments, such as bandaging, fumigations, potions, rubs, poultrices, enemas, douches and suppositories. Spells were said over a cake which had to been swallowed or during the drinking of a medicine. All medicine was a kind of "magic" that drove away harmful substances and demons from the body. The fight between Horus and Seth was often invoked in the context of fighting the morbid spirits that had entered the body and the ultimate restoration of the Eye, the return of "wellness", "Wedjat". Thoth presided over all these activities. But even Seth was invoked to counter powerful demons that possessed the body.

In general, healing rituals followed the pattern of magical rituals, which, when approached from an operational angle, pertain to two fundamental processes (defining the two classes of magic : lower and higher magic) :

  1. evocation : the calling forth of a spirit lower than the spiritual level of man ;

  2. invocation : the calling in of a spirit higher than the spiritual level of man.

To understand magic, one has to grasp its hylic pluralistic groundstructure. The material universe has more than one layer of reality. Although these levels interpenetrate, they are strictly separated. Hylic pluralism elements may be found in all major religious systems of the world. On the basis of this pluralistic view on matter, Ancient Egypt (as in Hinduism, Buddhism, qabalah and theosophy) developed a subtle anthropology and psychology.

The first layer, plane or "sheet" (cf. the Sanskrit "kosha") was the "ka" ("kA") or "double", causing the physical body to be vital. Related to breath (cf. "prânâ" and the Greek "pneuma"), the intake of food and sunlight, it regulated health. The Egyptians did not offer to idols, but to the doubles and souls of the deities that dwelled in them (inhabited them). This was pleasurable to the gods, who's spirits looked down from the sky. Pharaoh was the only "god on Earth", i.e. a god who's spirit had not (yet) risen to the sky.

initiated : 2003 - last update : 13 XII 2010

© Wim van den Dungen
Antwerp, 2003 - 2017.