The Ebers Papyrus, also known as Papyrus Ebers, is an Egyptian medical papyrus of herbal knowledge dating to circa 1550 BC.
Among the oldest and most important medical papyri of ancient Egypt, it was purchased at Luxor (Thebes) in the winter of 1873–74 by Georg Ebers. It is currently kept at the library of the University of Leipzig, in Germany.
The papyrus was written in about 1500 BC, but it is believed to have been copied from earlier texts. The Ebers Papyrus is a 110-page scroll, which is about 20 meters long.
Along with the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus (c. 1800 BC), the Edwin Smith papyrus (c. 1600 BC), the Hearst papyrus (c. 1600 BC), the Brugsch Papyrus (c. 1300 BC), the London Medical Papyrus (c. 1300 BC), the Ebers Papyrus is among the oldest preserved medical documents.
The Brugsch and the London Medical papyri share some of the same information as the Ebers Papyrus. Another document, the Carlsberg Papyrus, is identical to the Ebers Papyrus, though the provenance of the former is unknown.
The Ebers Papyrus is written in hieratic Egyptian writing and represents the most extensive and best-preserved record of ancient Egyptian medicine known.
The scroll contains some 700 magical formulas and folk remedies. It contains many incantations meant to turn away disease-causing demons and there is also evidence of a long tradition of empiricism.
The papyrus contains a “treatise on the heart“. It notes that the heart is the center of the blood supply, with vessels attached for every member of the body.
The Egyptians seem to have known little about the kidneys and made the heart the meeting point of a number of vessels which carried all the fluids of the body—blood, tears, urine, and semen.
Mental disorders are detailed in a chapter of the papyrus called the Book of Hearts. Disorders such as depression and dementia are covered. The descriptions of these disorders suggest that Egyptians conceived of mental and physical diseases in much the same way.
The papyrus contains chapters on contraception, diagnosis of pregnancy and other gynecological matters, intestinal disease and parasites, eye and skin problems, dentistry and the surgical treatment of abscesses and tumors, bone-setting and burns.
Examples of medical remedies
Examples of remedies in the Ebers Papyrus include:
- Birth control
To prevent conception, smear a paste of dates, acacia, and honey to wool and apply as a pessary.
- Diabetes mellitus
Drink a mixture including elderberry, asit plant fibers, milk, beer-swill, cucumber flowers, and green dates.
- Guinea-worm disease
Wrap the emerging end of the worm around a stick and slowly pull it out. 3,500 years later, this remains the standard treatment. It is not known exactly which plant is referred to as “asit.”
Medicinal use of ochre clays
One of the more common remedies described in the papyrus is ochre or medicinal clay. It is prescribed for intestinal and eye complaints. Yellow ochre is also described as a remedy for urological complaints.
The modern history of the papyrus
Like the Edwin Smith Papyrus, the Ebers Papyrus came into the possession of Edwin Smith in 1862. The source of the papyrus is unknown, but it was said to have been found between the legs of a mummy in the El-Assasif district of the Theban necropolis.
The papyrus remained in the collection of Edwin Smith until at least 1869 when there appeared, in the catalog of an antiquities dealer, an advertisement for “a large medical papyrus in the possession of Edwin Smith, an American farmer of Luxor.”
The Papyrus was purchased in 1872 by the German Egyptologist and novelist Georg Ebers (born in Berlin, 1837), after whom it is named.
In 1875, Ebers published a facsimile with an English-Latin vocabulary and introduction, but it was not translated until 1890, by H. Joachim.
Ebers retired from his chair of Egyptology at Leipzig on a pension and the papyrus remains in the University of Leipzig library.
An English translation of the papyrus was published by Paul Ghalioungui. The papyrus was published and translated by different researchers (the most valuable is the German edition Grundriss der Medizin der Alten Ägypter, based on the Paul Ghalioungui edition).