Towards a modern understanding of medicine in ancient civilizations: new magical texts on general seizures in Pharaonic Egypt

Axel KARENBERG1, Christian LEITZ2, and Hans-Werner FISCHER-ELFERT3
1Institute for the History of Medicine and Medical Ethics, University of Cologne, Germany; 2Department of Egyptology, University of Cologne, Germany; and 3Institute and Museum of Egyptology, University of Leipzig, Germany

For almost a century, our perception of medicine in pharaonic Egypt has largely been shaped by medical texts, particularly by the Edwin Smith and Ebers papyri. In recent years, however, scholars have focused more intensively on so-called magical texts, thus putting the healing arts into a broad cultural context. Recently printed critical translations and the publishing of "new" texts enable us to revise a multitude of former results and convictions including various aspects of "neurological" signs and symptoms in ancient Egypt. Basic aspects of this modern approach will be outlined in the first part of this paper.

Using the case study method, this new approach will be exemplified in the second part with the presentation and analysis of texts on general seizures. Until the late 1980s, the modern nosological category "epilepsy" was regarded as a disease well-known in Ancient Egypt and described in the Ebers papyrus (EBBELL 1927, SCHNEBLE 1986). Meanwhile it is quite clear that the nsyt-disease mentioned in papyrus Ebers is not a form of epilepsy, but a skin condition (BARDINET 1988, LEITZ 2001). The discussion gained new momentum when two hitherto unnoticed texts on the "falling sickness" from the 13th/12th century BC were taken into account (FISCHER-ELFERT 2000).

Following the examination of these sources, the audience will be faced with a choice of at least two different interpretative approaches. The first is that of retrospective diagnosis, i.e. mainly the question of whether or not these texts are describing a grand mal . The second possibility is to explore in depth the cultural background of the magical treatment recommended in the textual documents. Advantages and shortcomings of both procedures will be discussed, thus adding a new variation to the perennial question: how should a historian of disease deal with descriptions from former civilizations?

BARDINET, Thierry (1988): Remarques sur les maladies de la peau, la lèpre, et le châtiment divin. Revue d'Égyptologie 39:3-36.
EBBELL, Bendix (1927): Die ägyptischen Krankheitsnamen. IX. nsyt = Epilepsie. Zeitschrift für ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 62:13-16.
FISCHER-ELFERT, Heinz-Werner (2000): Fallsucht im Alten Ägypten. Ätiologie, Diagnose und ihre magiko-medizinische Behandlung. Würzburger medizinhistorische Mitteilungen 19:117-127.
LEITZ, Christian (2001): Epilepsie im Alten Ägypten? Schriftenreihe der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Geschichte der Nervenheilkunde 7:149-155.
SCHNEBLE, Hansjörg (1986): Nomen est omen - Krankheitsnamen und Krankheitsverständnis am Beispiel der Epilepsie. Der Nervenarzt 57:383-390.

Session IV -- Epilepsy
Monday, 3 June 2002, 8:30 am

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

Los Angeles, California, USA