Belief and the Healing Arts of Ancient Civilizations
The majority of this article and all of the quotes are taken from The Healing Gods of Ancient Civilizations (1925), by Walter Addison Jayne, M.D.
The various superstitious practices of the ancients may seem strange to us, but some of the drugs and therapies that were used then have been rediscovered over the last several hundred years, and have proved to be of great value.
Today, the modern doctor has the snake symbol of Aesculapius. In those ancient times (as well as today), medical practitioners faced the problem of how to stimulate the recuperative powers of the afflicted patient into action. Old temple disciplines included purification, temple-sleep, and various hypnotic rest states. Bodily processes were aroused and focused through intensities of suggestion, through touching the patient, along with lifting the faith of one who was ill.
Perusing the deeper concept of the ancient healing gods, we find it focuses upon the idea of a body-mind relationship. Hippocrates believed that body and mind are a unity, and to affect one is to affect the other. Modern medicine has taken more of the viewpoint of isolating the “one cause” and prescribing a specific remedy that will bring the solution. Interestingly, although Pasteur originally held strongly onto the effect of the microbe in medicine, his dying words were, “the microbe is nothing, the terrain is everything.”
The earliest definite knowledge of Egyptian medicine is obtained from several medical papyrus manuscripts from the twelfth dynasty, about 2000 B.C. In those writings, it stated that it was the duty of the pharaohs to maintain the health of their subjects. From the ancient writer Maanetho, we read that King Athotis of the first dynasty of the Thinites practiced healing and wrote anatomical works. “Eventually all the great medical centers were located at the chief capitals along the Nile. These shrines were depositories of medical lore, and the ancient traditions are confirmed by the lists of diseases and their cures. Clement refers to forty-two Hermetic books at the temple of Hermopolis, of which six were medical texts giving formulas and remedies. On the walls of sanctuaries were inscriptions and tablets in commemoration of miraculous cures with statues and steles erected by former patients in grateful recognition of cures effected by the divinity.”
Healing methods in the ancient days consisted of religious rites, ceremonies and special formulas which brought forth the mysterious, miraculous powers of deities and other supernatural beings. The healing theme centered around the idea of expelling the unseen, malicious actions which caused disease. Appeals to the gods for the cure of disease were made orally or in writing.
The priest/doctor would make the examination and give the ceremonial form of diagnosis. The patient would then make a formal statement regarding the problem, such as, “I, (patient name), am a sufferer with (naming the disease or the problem).” Treatment consisted of incantations, prayers and possibly the giving of some remedy along with commands, spells, coaxing and threatening. All of these had some symbolic meaning which served to impress the mind of the patient.
“Egyptians assumed that the body was divided into 36 parts, each of which was under the sway of a certain god. ‘There is no limb of his without a god,’ (Leyden Papyrus, a.k.a. Leiden Papyrus) and so invoking these, they heal the diseases of the limbs.”
On some occasions the priest would put on a disguise and would appear to a patient as the god of the body part, imitating the god in voice and gesture, and utilizing relics to chase the evil spirits away.
Remedies were given to assist the spoken formulas, with many remedies given to patients, by the gods, during their dreams. Time has proven the value of many of the modalities then employed, such as castor oil, aloe, mint, myrrh, copper, lead, salt, cedar, opium, and others that are still in pharmaceutical use. “It would appear that remedies used without the magical words were valueless or failed their full effect.”
There is no question that the aspect of the mind in the healing process was a strong consideration. When we review the wording of the incantations from any of the ancient papyri, then this theory becomes very clear. The Ebers Papyrus states in its opening line, “this is a book for healing all disease.” An example of an incantation given while drinking a remedy states, “Welcome, remedy, welcome that which destroyest the trouble of this my heart and in these my limbs… the magic of Horus is victorious in the remedy.”
Another incantation for cataract of the eye reads, “come ointment, come to the patient and take from him the water, the pus, the blood, the pain in the sys, the chemosis, the blindness, the flow of matter which are being worked there from the god of inflammations, of each kind of death, of each kind of pain.”
The Greeks also believed that disease and death, like other processes of nature, were ascribed to superhuman agencies. Although there was a belief that Zeus sent disease, in a declaration attributed to Zeus in the Odyssey, we read, “Alas, how forsooth, do mortals reproach the gods! For they say that their evils are from us, whereas they themselves, through their own infatuations, suffer grief beyond what is destined.”
The Greeks looked to the power of the gods for healing, using customary rituals, hymns of praise, prayers and sacrifice. An elaborate system existed of beneficent acts of friendly deities, demigods, and heroes. These took precedent irrespective of all other means employed. Greek cures consisted of two major methods, direct and indirect.
Direct healing was through divine intervention, very commonly by the transmission of the divine power by means of some agent or sacred object. The healing power of the gods was transmitted by simple divine presence, by the laying-on of hands, through some sacred relic, or through the medium of a priest, priestess, or sacred animal.
Asklepios (Asclepius) healed Theopompos, the writer of comedies, by the laying on of hands. A man having but one good eye slept in the temple, and dreaming that Asklepios applied an ointment to the empty socket, he awoke in the morning with two sound eyes. Marinos tells of Procius, the philosopher, who suffering from arthritis, had covered the part with a cloth. A sparrow, sacred to Asklepios, plucked the cloth away, and the disease with it.
Gaining power to cure oneself by touching the image of the god, or his altar, was often used. For example, the statues of Theagenes in Thasos, Pulydamas at Olympia, and the Corinthian general Pelichos was thought to possess healing powers for fevers.
Indirect cures were obtained by following directions received through dreams and visions. Fragments from the shrine at Lebena records cures due to application of remedies indicated by the gods in visions. Therapies included mild and innocent purgatives, roots, herbs, diets, fasts, baths, rubbing with ointments, and gymnastics. “Tales of the marvelous cures effected at the healing temples spread the fame of the healing deity, Asklepios, throughout Greece. It was such common knowledge that the sick, in going to these sanctuaries for relief, were probably already imbued with a certain religious fervor, while their imagination was excited by the hope that they also might be the recipient of the divine grace.”
The dream temples were quite well known. Psychology played an important part in the healing success. “At Pergamon, patients were conducted through the sacred spot by attendants who related the legends and explained the remarkable cures recorded on the steles and tablets. The tablets and symbols that covered the walls of the temple were examined, then, the patient being properly prepared, was allowed to approach the image of the god, offer sacrifice with prayer, and allow the diseased part to come in contact with the hand or other part of the statue. An air of sanctity pervaded the temple and the sacred spot, and the sick could not fail to be deeply impressed by the majesty of the deity and the supernatural powers with which he was endowed, so that, with imagination fired by the marvels of the sanctuary, the patient awaited the mysterious events which would take place during the night of dreaming in the temple.” In the morning, the dreams and visions of the night were told to, and interpreted by, the priests, who then gave appropriate directions for any treatment that should be carried out. Belief was an integral part of the ancient healing arts. The learning of the virtues and attributes of the gods produced the activation of the healing powers within the patient. Whether it was the Egyptian, Greek, or other ancient civilization, they understood the importance of stimulating the patient’s own healing energies that surely led to the miraculous cures which did take place.
There is an important place today for the theories of healing utilized by the ancient civilizations. The mind and body have not changed significantly in the last few thousand years, only the manner in which we view and utilize their relationship.