Saturday, March 23, 2013

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)
      1. Atum (Atum-Re): the spirit that lived inside Nun (see below)
      2. Shu: male created by Atum-Re.  He represents air or emptiness
      3. Tefnut: sister of Shu.  She was goddess of moisture. 
      4. Geb (Earth god - Shu and Tefnut's male offspring)
      5. Nut (Sky goddess - Shu and Tefnut's female offspring)
      6. Osiris (god of the dead - son of Geb and Nut)
      7. Seth (evil brother of Osiris - son of Geb and Nut)
      8. Isis (wife/sister of Osiris and mother of Horus)
      9. 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 Fourth 

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.

15.  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

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