"My head! My head!" Cephalalgia in magical and medical texts of Pharaonic Egypt

Axel KARENBERG1 and Christian LEITZ2
1Institute for the History of Medicine and Medical Ethics, University of Cologne, Germany; and 2Department of Egyptology, University of Cologne, Germany


Interdisciplinary studies on the history of headache in ancient civilizations are scarcely extant. Following a brief introduction to basic historiographical issues and available sources, the main objective of this paper will be to provide a comprehensive and detailed outline of the subject.

Few references to various forms of headache can be extracted from the so-called magical papyri and from medical texts of the New Kingdom. Although little is known about the quality of headache and about accompanying symptoms (such as nausea and vomiting), the texts do specify four predominant localizations: the head or skull in general, half (i.e. one side) of the head, the temple, and the nape. The lack of precise descriptions make it definitely impossible to establish the retrospective diagnosis of migraine.

Attempts to interpret the phenomenon of headache, and corresponding therapeutic measures (magical, pharmacological, or surgical) range from supernatural to natural, and from magical to empirical. The dominant explanation - at least in the texts that have survived - is a magical one. This reminds us that most patients throughout the centuries, regardless of the contemporary mainstream medical opinion, relied on healers with an intimate connection to supernatural forces. To be successful, the ancient Egyptian headache therapist had to combine a threefold qualification: that of a priest on excellent terms with the divine sphere, that of a physician of long experience, and that of a magician undertaking the impossible. Perhaps present-day neurologists may feel that the expectations they are subject to are not dissimilar.


Session II -- Poster Session
Sunday, 2 June 2002, 10:00 - 11:00 am

Seventh Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN)

Los Angeles, California, USA