Ancient medicine led to breakthroughs that evolved into modern-day medicine.
Due to the discoveries of the past, present medical professionals can heal and treat the sick and wounded to the best of their ability and knowledge.
Unlike today, the gods played a large part in the healing process in ancient times. Offerings, reading spells, and wearing amulets were common healing methods.
With time, medical professions developed and evolved, and, because of science, medical professionals helped where the gods could not.
Ancient Medicine in Mesopotamia
The Goddess Gula was responsible for healing and health. She was the “great physician of the black-headed ones’, the black-headed ones being the Sumerians.
Gula’s son, Ninazu, associated himself with serpents, the underworld, and healing. He wielded a rod that had two intertwined serpents reaching the top. He was ‘Lord Healer’. Like his mother, he was also linked to health and healing (the continuation of life) and death and dying (life that comes after).
Serpents represent regeneration and transformation, hence Ninazu’s association. Together, they helped people pass over to the next life or recover.
The Gods and Ancient Medicine
Mesopotamians believed deities worked through doctors and maintained people’s health.
Suffering an illness or disease essentially meant an individual sinned and, therefore, submitted to proper treatment. The treatments removed the demons sent by the gods as punishment.
Diagnosing an illness always referred to the will and intervention of the gods.
Another cause of illnesses was when the gods wanted to rectify sins and sent ghosts to cause trouble.
There were two primary Mesopotamian doctors: Asu and Asipu.
Asu were medical doctors who practically treated illness or injury. They associated with the temple of Gula and focused on the patient’s accounts of illness.
Asipu were healers who relied on magic. They focused more on the physical examination of the patient. Along with being doctors, they were also exorcists that determined what offenses to the gods or demons brought on the illness or disease.
Another type of healer was a Baru. They were the diviners who practiced hepatoscopy (inspecting an animal’s liver) and made prognoses (predicting the likely or expected course of the disease).
Surgeons or vets could either be Asu or Asipu, but both types practiced dentistry.
It’s unclear if they specialized in childbirth, but there were Sabutu (midwives) who delivered children.
Doctors at Work
Along with treating patients in temples, many doctors performed house calls.
The City of Isin was the center of Gula and, while under speculation, held a training center for physicians. The physicians traveled to temples in various cities when needed. There isn’t any evidence of private practice, but the kings did have their own physicians.
Women could also be doctors.
Before the rise of the Akkadian Empire and its views on the inferiority of women, female doctors played a large role in medicine.
Doctors, both men and women, shaved their heads and wore wigs to be easily identified. This wasn’t an obligation but did leave speculation as to the exact number of female doctors.
With their tools, physicians traveled through cities to help the sick. They understood the link between uncleanliness and sickness, even if it was not completely recognized at the time.
Treatments and Prescriptions
Social status played no part in receiving healthcare, therefore, it was available to everyone.
Fees, however, depended on social status. The payment represented the treatment but was given in different forms.
For example, because the nobility paid more, they paid in gold, while ordinary people paid with a bowl of soup or clay cup.
Doctors disregarded social status and there isn’t evidence that they turned away a patient.
The Asu prepared pharmaceutical prescriptions in their place of business. Combined materials created the treatments, but this depended on religious reasoning and trial and error.
According to translated texts that detail their effectiveness, the treatments were effective.
Regarding wound treatment, there were three steps:
- Washing the wound.
- Applying a plaster.
- Binding the wound.
With medicine, there were prayers to the gods and incantations to ward off demons.
Doctors specialised in many areas to treat their many patients.
Patients often suffered gastrointestinal problems, urinary tract infections, skin problems, heart diseases, and mental illness.
Mesopotamian doctors weren’t liable for their practice because the gods were the direct cause and cure of disease. The only exception was surgery. If doctors failed the surgery, their hands were amputated.
However, little was known about human anatomy and physiology, so surgery was always filled with risks, in addition to religious taboos restricting many procedures.
Ancient Medicine in Ancient Egypt
Egyptian medical observations, policies, and procedures were so advanced that no one civilization surpassed them for centuries.
Ancient Egyptians understood diseases are treatable with pharmaceuticals and the importance of cleanliness when treating a patient. Doctors were male and female and specialized in different areas.
Despite their advancements, just like all ancient civilizations, ancient Egyptian doctors had little understanding of how organs worked. Therefore, according to their beliefs, supernatural forces caused diseases.
Magic was part of their way of life and ingrained in ancient Egyptian culture.
The God of Magic and Medicine, Heka, carried a staff that had two intertwined snakes.
Injury and Disease
Injuries were the easiest to understand and diseases were the hardest. The causes of diseases were less clear and led to problems with diagnoses.
Like with the Sumerians, ancient Egyptian doctors believed the causes of diseases were the result of committing a sin or demonic attacks.
A demonic attack meant an angry ghost plagued the individuals. Another cause of diseases was a specific god’s own way of rectifying a sin. Doctors treated diseases through the recitation of magic spells.
In addition to recitation, doctors used amulets, aroma offerings, tattoos, and statuary (the art of making statues). They drove ghosts away, appeased the gods, and invoked protection from a higher power.
Medical texts were incantations and spells written on papyrus scrolls. They relied on sympathetic magic and practical techniques. The science of medicine became a “necessary art”.
For treatable injuries, doctors intervened immediately.
Curable injuries meant the person didn’t need medical intervention. If they were able to survive the injuries, the doctor would decide whether to intervene.
For untreatable ailments, doctors wouldn’t intervene.
Practical remedies dealt with obvious injuries, except toothaches and gum disease. Doctors believed those were the result of supernatural causes.
Translated to “Home of Life”, Perk-Ankh was a library and school attached to a temple. Doctors were priests of Perk-Ankh.
The concept behind this building included the healing knowledge of individual doctors.
Doctors needed to be of pure spirit and body and literature. Each specialized in their own field and was known as swnu, a general practitioner, or sau, who specialized in magic.
Midwives, masseurs, nurses, attendants, and seers assisted doctors.
Regarding childbirth, midwives and women of the house were responsible for the delivery of the baby. There’s no evidence of medical training to be a midwife since it wasn’t considered a medical profession.
Males and females could be nurses, a highly respected profession that assisted in procedures. There’s no evidence that they received professional attention or attended a nursing school.
Wet nurses were essential. Ancient Egyptian women generally died after childbirth. After this discovery, there was a legal agreement that, should a mother die after childbirth, the family and a wet nurse would raise the child.
Dentistry was never widely developed, but it was a well-known profession. However, with the abundance of medical problems, it’s unclear why there weren’t as many dentists.
Doctors and dentists used herbs and spices for medicinal purposes.
Ancient Egyptian medical professionals recognized the importance of diets and a change in diets. They advised people to shave their bodies to prevent infection and avoid unclean animals and raw fish.
The “Channel Theory” hypothesized that channels in the body were routes for good health. Doctors observed families digging out irrigation channels for their crops and linked it to human health.
For example, blockage meant taking laxatives.
Even with this theory, doctors didn’t understand that the channels had different functions.
Many discovered surgical instruments made in Ancient Egypt are still used together, only modified.
Every doctor knew the basics of surgery. It was a common skill, like knowing how to effectively stitch wounds.
To treat inflammation, bandages were bound with certain plant products.
There were no anesthetics or antiseptics, and it was highly unlikely that doctors performed procedures deeper into the body.
Through mummies, there’s evidence of successful surgeries. Ancient Egyptians survived amputations and brain surgery for ears and wooden prosthetics were even found.
By preserving the deceased mummies, they learned how the body worked.
Ancient Medicine in Ancient Greece
Just like in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, illness was a divine punishment, and being healed was a gift from the gods.
There were two crucial factors that led the ancient Greeks to heal and promote health: the military and sports.
Due to the battles of war, practitioners needed to heal wounds, remove foreign objects from bodies and look after the soldiers’ health.
The Olympic Games originated in ancient Greece and promoted sport. Practitioners raised the need to keep healthy and, combined with sport, promoted fitness and prevented injuries.
Practitioners took an interest in the body. They explored the connection between cause and effect, symptoms and illness, and the success and failure of treatments.
There was a blue between the physical and spiritual worlds of medicine. Patients would call the god Asclepius, the Dispenser of Healing and a highly skilled practical doctor, to his sanctuaries. Through the patient’s dreams, Asclepius gave advice for the doctors.
Ancient Greek medical practitioners discovered important factors that ranged from lifestyle to traumatic events. They discovered:
- Ways to ease or worsen symptoms of an illness.
- Physical structure affects the seriousness or vulnerability of an illness.
- A growing understanding of what could fight the causes of illnesses.
- Greater knowledge of the body through the balance of fluids (humors).
There were four humors that linked to a season, organ, temper, and element:
- Black bile:
- Season: cold.
- Organ: spleen.
- Temper: melancholy.
- Element: dry earth.
- Yello bile:
- Season: cold and wet.
- Organ: lungs.
- Temper: phlegmatic.
- Element: water.
- Season: warm and wet.
- Organ: head.
- Temper: sanguine.
- Element: air.
- Season: warm and dry.
- Organ: gallbladder.
- Temper: choleric.
- Element: fire.
Balanced humors meant perfect health. If the individual had an illness, it was either because of too little or too much of one of the humors.
Doctors and Practitioners
There weren’t professional qualifications to become a medical practitioner in ancient Greece. Anyone could be a doctor and travel to look for patients to practice the technique of medicine.
Magic and incantations were a way to search for the natural causes of an illness. From there, people started looking for natural cures.
Ancient Greek doctors were expert herbalists and prescribers of natural remedies. They preferred nature over superstition because of their belief that nature was a better healer.
If treatments were successful, doctors appealed to the gods.
After treating the patient, the doctor took them to a temple to sleep. The daughters of Asclepius, Hygeia and Panacea, arrived in the patient’s dream with two holy snakes to cure them.
One way doctors learned about their trade was through wounded soldiers. If something went wrong, soldiers were at a lower risk of causing problems.
Doctors dealt with wounds made by swords, javelins, arrows, and sling projectiles. They knew the importance of removing foreign objects, like arrowheads, and cleaning the wound.
They not only treated the wounds but knew the importance of stopping excessive blood loss.
Practitioners avoided surgery because of the risks. They performed minor operations, particularly on wounded soldiers.
Opium was a common anesthetic but was rare to come across. Soldiers were held down by multiple people during their operations.
Post-operation, flax or linen thread closed the wounds. Linen bandages, or leaves, dressed the wounds and were sealed using egg whites or honey.
As for treatments, a proper diet using plants with anti-inflammatory properties was important.
Ancient Greek practitioners discovered the basic knowledge of human anatomy through the observation of wounded soldiers and animal dissection, but there were still certain beliefs and restrictions.
The belief was that the human body changed when in contact with air and light.
Moreover, some protested against the use of animals for such purposes and deemed it cruel.
In Alexandria, Egypt, Greek scholars dissected bodies and studied them. They performed vivisections on criminals, which led to two discoveries:
- The brain controls the movement of limbs, not the heart.
- Blood moves through the veins.
With a lack of practical knowledge, there were fundamental errors in learning about the inner body.
There were attempts to balance the natural temperature of the body. With a cold, practitioners kept the sick warm. They kept sweaty and feverish patients dry and cool. To restore blood pressure, they bled patients. To restore bile balance, patients cleansed their inner bodies.
All in all, ancient Greek practitioners led the medical profession toward modern medicine.
Ancient Medicine in Byzantium
Byzantium (now Istanbul) was in the Eastern Roman Empire.
Just like all ancient eras, they relied on prayer, places of worship, and priests to heal diseases and plagues and perform medical marvels.
Priests maintained hospitals and, to be nearer to God, the hospitals were near churches. So, when medicine failed, patients turned to prayer.
The rulers of Constantinople, the Byzantine capital city, surrounded themselves with the best physicians. Although the Byzantines held physicians in high regard, they questioned their practice regularly.
Certain physicians oversaw all physicians in an area. Each physician was responsible for 300 citizens.
Byzantine hospitals were the first to offer care to the sick.
Since many hospitals were in large cities, they gained support from powerful groups in society. The concept of modern hospitals originated from early Byzantine hospitals.
Anargyroi means “without money.
Healing institutions focused on the practice of practical, supernatural ancient medicine. They charged no fee and opened to all individuals.
To receive treatment, the sick spent a night at a church or shrine. During their sleep, one of two saints, Comas or Damian, would visit them and suggest a particular treatment. The patient would pass it on to the physician. The next day, after treatment, the patient leaves.
Many of the recommendations by the saints were considered off and, at times, sexual. There was no “conventional” medicine.
There wasn’t traditional scientific medicine. It largely came from ancient Greek and Roman medicine.
However, there was tension between church and folk medicine because folk medicine was seen as magical. The combination of herbs and remedies created spells and incantations, but spells were separated from physical remedies.
Often, these spells replaced Christian prayers and devotions.
Just as the previous ancient eras mentioned, the Byzantines believed that God punished people by giving them an illness. Only repentance could lead to a full recovery, which soon became a way of curing illnesses.
The Church didn’t consider medicine a suitable profession for Christians.
The similarities of ancient medicine led to discoveries medical professionals share today.
The work and dedication of the past led to modern medicine and procedures. The doctors and physicians of ancient eras passed down their knowledge for future generations to learn from and improve on.
It’s because of the past that we now have the current medical advancements.
“Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
-Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richards’ Almanac.
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Ancient medicine is the best medicine with no side effects. I love the ancient era.