When you think of Ancient Egypt, you probably conjure up images of hieroglyphics, the Sphinx, pyramids. Maybe you’ll imagine an embalmer burning the midnight oil, hunched over a corpse, candles flickering all around, casting shadows.
And if you think of the brain in relation to the Egyptians, you’ll most likely imagine a hook going up a body’s nose, pulling out the brain bit by bit.
But the Ancient Egyptians knew more about the brain than how to pull it out with a hook up the nose.
The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead was not written as one whole book. Instead, the book is made up of scrolls of papyrus that have been found buried with the dead. The Book is a collection of spells and incantations, meant to be recited by the departed, to ease them through their journey into the afterlife.
But what is more interesting is that the Book of the Dead may have described spinal surgery, reflected in one of the scrolls about Osiris, the god related to the cycle of harvest, regrowth and rebirth, an apt role for the god presiding in the afterlife and the world of the dead.
The assembly of Osiris’ spine was described in the Book. Osiris, husband and brother to Isis, the mother god of Egypt, is also brother to Seth. Seth becomes jealous of the relationship between Osiris and Isis and decides to kill him. At a feast, Seth persuades Osiris to lie down in a sarcophagus. When he does, Seth quickly closes the lid over the sarcophagus, thereby killing Osiris. The sarcophagus is sent out to sea, where it washes up in Byblos (in modern-day Lebanon). Osiris and his sarcophagus become part of a tree in the royal palace.
Isis mourns the loss of Osiris and searches the world for his remains. When she finds him in the royal palace of Byblos, she reclaims his remains and his sarcophagus, taking them back to Egypt.
But Seth finds out and cuts Osiris’ body into thirteen parts, scattering them all over Egypt. Determined, Isis scouts the land for the body parts, finding twelve of them. The thirteenth, the spine, is never reclaimed since it was eaten by a crocodile.
With Thoth, the god of medicine, Isis recreates Osiris’ spine and resurrects him. But the problems are not over.
Osiris resides in the underworld, determining each dead person’s fate based on their righteous and unrighteous deeds. Through immaculate conception, Isis finds herself with child and gives birth to a baby boy named Horus. To escape Seth’s wrath, Isis hides baby Horus in a basket in the reeds of the Nile River. Horus survives and eventually fights Seth. During battle, Seth gouges out one of Horus’ eyes. Ever faithful Thoth, though, is able to restore Horus’ eye. (Incidentally, the restoration of Horus’ eye has become the symbol of modern-day prescriptions, the Rx.)
What is interesting is that Osiris’ resurrection is symbolized by the djed column, which is a cross with four bars perpendicular to a tall one. The djed column is symbolic of the spine and the ribs of Osiris, and was painted on sarcophagi to express desires for the dead to be resurrected, that is, live for eternity, in the underworld, just like Osiris.
The Egyptians knew about the relationship between spinal injury and paralysis. They also knew that sprains and wounds of the spine could be treated, and they had recommendations on treatment options. But they knew that paralysis due to spinal injury was not treatable. This is not so different an analysis to the modern-day, though now we have some options arising in the field of neuroengineering. Today, there are some treatment options emerging that uses neuroprosthetics to allow an injured person to command a robotic limb with just thought, just as you and I are able to move by just thinking about movement.
I cannot talk about the ancient Egyptians and their contributions to medical science without referencing the Edwin Smith Papyrus. This medical treatise not only contains the first written use of the word “brain,” but it is also a collection of forty-eight patient cases with head, spinal, neck, and other injuries. One case describes how a patient can be left without speech after a wound suffered to the temple. This is consistent with today’s findings that the language centers of the brain are found in the temporal lobe (usually the left temporal lobe).
The Edwin Smith Papyrus had three diagnostic conclusions:
That the patient be told a particular injury is
“an ailment that I will treat”
“an ailment that I will not try to treat,”
“an ailment that I will not treat.”
In case six, where the word “brain” is first used, a male patient has had a wound to his head, “penetrating to the bone, smashing his skull, (and) rending open the brain of his skull.”
The examination describes this:
“If thou examinest a man having a gaping wound in his head, penetrating
to the bone, smashing his skull, (and) rending open the brain of his skull, thou shouldst
palpate his wound. Shouldst thou find that smash which is in his skull [like] those
corrugations which form in molten copper, (and) something therein throbbing (and)
fluttering under thy fingers, like the weak place of an infant’s crown before it becomes
whole-when it has happened there is no throbbing (and) fluttering under thy fingers
until the brain of his (the patient’s) skull is rent open-(and) he discharges blood from
both his nostrils, (and) he suffers with stiffness in his neck…”
The diagnosis: Tell him that his wound is “an ailment not to be treated.”
But the wound could be anointed with grease, and no bindings should be put on it.
Case 29 describes “a gaping wound in the vertebra” of a patient’s neck.
The examination describes this:
“If thou examinest a man having a gaping wound in a vertebra of his
neck, penetrating to the bone, (and) perforating a vertebra of his neck; if thou examinest
that wound, (and) he shudders exceedingly, (and) he is unable to look at his two
shoulders and his breast…”
The diagnosis: Tell the patient that his wound is “an ailment with which I will contend.”
The treatment includes binding the wound “with fresh meat the first day.”
Another case, case forty-eight, describes a sprain in the vertebra of the spinal column:
“If thou examinest [a man having] a sprain in a vertebra of his spinal
column, thou shouldst say to him: “Extend now thy two legs (and) contract them both
(again).” When he extends them both he contracts them both immediately because of
the pain he causes in the vertebra of his spinal column in which he suffers.”
The diagnosis: Tell the patient that his injury is “an ailment which I will treat.”
The treatment includes placing the patient prostrate on his back.
The Edwin Smith Papyrus holds information about head trauma cases and neck injuries
The Edwin Smith Papyrus is not the only ancient Egyptian written work that has references to the spinal cord.
Even with the emphasis on head injuries described in the Edwin Smith Papyrus, the ancient Egyptians still believed that it was the heart, not the brain, that was the seat of intellect and sensation. This is evidenced by the famous Egyptian practice: mummification. The first step was to remove the brain through the nose using a long hook. In contrast, the heart, as well as other organs, was wrapped and placed in canopic jars for the dead to use in the afterlife. The brain was disposed of.
This view that it was the heart that was the mind was held even by the great Greek philosopher Aristotle, who maintained that the brain was only a cooling radiator for the body. This view of the heart versus the brain persisted for over one thousand years and traversed not just the Egyptian and Greek cultures.