18 minute read

Imhotep and Asclepius: How Egyptian Medical Culture Influenced the Greeks

Kayley Boddy, Hamilton College, Class of 2022


The ancient Egyptians and ancient Greeks worshipped a variety of gods that governed medicine, healing, fertility, and health, and often turned to them in times of illness, struggle, and disease. For the Egyptians, these gods ranged from Heka, the divine embodiment of magical healing methods, to Serket, known for healing stings and bites. The Greeks worshipped dozens more gods of health than the Egyptians, from Apollo and Hera to the centaur Chiron. More is known about the Greek gods of healing than their Egyptian counterparts, given the accessibility and comprehensibility of Greek and Roman medical treatises as opposed to Egyptian medical papyri. 1 However, one Egyptian god of healing is particularly prominent: Imhotep. Imhotep stands out for his resemblance to the Greek god Asclepius and his presumed influence on ancient medical practices. In myth, both Imhotep and Asclepius were mortal healers deified after their deaths for their skill, had healing cults surrounding them and healing temples built in their honor, and influenced their respective medical cultures. Though less is known about Imhotep and his practice as a physician, he held a similar role in Egyptian medicine to that of Asclepius and Hippocrates in Greek medicine and was crucial in the overall development of ancient medical knowledge and practice. 2 This is not to say that the gods are the same or derived from the same source, but rather that Imhotep’s significant role in ancient medicine demands more recognition.

In order to fully explore Imhotep’s resemblance to Asclepius and his influence on Egyptian and Greek medical culture, we must understand that religion and medicine intersected more directly in ancient Egypt than in ancient Greece. Egyptian medicine featured significantly more magic than that of the Greeks, with “magic, religion, and medical health being [considered] one holistic experience.” 3 They believed that demons, spirits, and gods determined disease and that magical remedies were vital to successful treatments. In many medical and non-medical papyri, natural medical treatments such as drugs and oils were suggested to be more effective when prefaced or followed by incantations. 4 Some of the more common methods of magical treatment in Egypt also involved “amulets, aromas, offerings, tattoos, and statues.” 5 The Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BCE) summarizes the Egyptian view on the intersection between magic and medicine quite well: “magic is effective together with medicine. Medicine is effective together with magic.” 6

Egyptian medicine and doctors were highly regarded by the Greeks. Though ancient Greek medicine had strong Egyptian influences, it was less reliant on magic. This contrast is evident in the Hippocratic Corpus, in the works of Galen, and in the work of later writers, both Greek and Roman. The Greek theory of residues echoes the Egyptian pathological theories. Hippocratic gynecological treatises list many of the same fertility treatments that the Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus (c. 1800 BCE) and Brugsch Papyrus (c. 1570 ‒ c. 1069 BCE) do. Due to the similarities, many scholars believe that Galen (129 ‒ 210 CE) used the Brugsch Papyrus in his writings. Even Roman encyclopedists, like Aulus Cornelius Celsus (c. 25 BCE ‒ c. 40 CE), filled their pharmacologic recipes and treatments with Egyptian ingredients or copied Egyptian medical recipes in their entirety. However, the use of magic and incantations is relatively absent from these works and is even condemned in The Sacred Disease. 7 Greek physicians practicing magic were discredited as frauds by Galen and later writers. Despite their stated disapproval of magical forms of healing, the ancient Greeks still worshipped gods of healing and often regarded prayer as a form of treatment.

Asclepius first appears in the Greek literary record in Homer’s Iliad as a mortal physician practicing on the Trojan battlefields. Worship of Asclepius and his skill began around the fifth century BCE, when his birth and experiences were reshaped by Greek mythology. According to these stories, Asclepius was born to Apollo and a mortal woman, Coronis of Thessaly, via caesarean section (hence the name “Asclepius,” which means “to cut open”), and raised by the centaur Chiron, whom Apollo had taught the art of healing and who in turn taught Asclepius his craft. In Pythian, the Greek poet Pindar (517 ‒ 438 BCE) writes:

“[Apollo] took [Asclepius] and gave him to the Magnesian Centaur / for instruction in healing the diseases that plague men.
Now all who came to him afflicted with natural sores / or with limbs wounded by gray bronze / or by a far-flung stone, or with bodies wracked by summer fever or winter chill, he relieved of their various ills and / restored them; some he tended with calming incantations, / while others drank soothing potions, / or he applied remedies to all parts / of their bodies; still others he raised up with surgery. (3.45‒53) 8

In Greek mythology, Zeus killed Asclepius at the request of Hades, who feared Asclepius’ craft would keep too many souls from him and the underworld. Despite his mortal death, Asclepius’ deification allowed the Greeks to continue worshiping him. In Hippocratic times (460 ‒ 370 BCE), he replaced Apollo as the god of healing.

Asclepius’ impact on the ancient Greek medical world, especially in terms of religious and spiritual healing, shaped everything from the practices of physicians to the methods by which the diseased sought healing. Asclepius’ cult was large enough by Hippocratic times for Hippocrates to include him in the oath all Hippocratic physicians were expected to recite before beginning their practice. 9 The first line of the Oath reads “I swear by Apollo the healer, by Aesculapius (Asclepius), by Hygeia, and by all the powers of healing…” 10 This suggests Asclepius had accumulated a great amount of prestige and respect by the Classical Greek period. By the fifth century BCE, Greeks started seeking treatment from healing temples, known as Asclepions, built in his honor. Over three hundred Asclepions have been discovered, the largest temples being at Epidaurus and on the island of Cos, where Hippocrates and Galen were rumored to have learned the medical arts. 11 However, most Greeks came to Asclepions not for learning the medical arts but for incubation in the temples’ abatons. A typical visit to the temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus consisted first of a preparatory bath or purification process called katharsis, then making an offering at the god’s altar (usually in the form of money), and lastly incubation. 12 During incubation in the abatons, Greeks would have dreams in which Asclepius or other healers, such as his children Hygeia and Panacea, would appear and heal them. 13 If one of these healers or a symbolic vision cured their illness through either surgery, drugs, or the prescription of diets and regimens, the patient was expected to make a gift to Asclepius upon awakening. 14 Inscriptions made at the temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus denote the cases and healings of over 70 patients, several of which reflect healing through incubation, including the following:

Sleeping here, [Ambrosia from Athens] saw a vision. It seemed to her the god came to her and said he would make her well, but she would have to pay a fee by dedicating a silver pig in the sanctuary… he cut her sick eye and poured a medicine over it. When day came she left well. 15

For the most part, temple treatments seemed to be effective either through physical treatments or through the placebo effect. Moreover, the cult of Asclepius was strong enough to expand into Rome in the early 2nd century BCE, and a temple of Asclepius at Pergamum was built sometime after. At the same time, the Egyptians were worshipping a similar god: Imhotep.

Compared to other wealthy and important figures in Egyptian history, little is known about Imhotep’s life, career, and practice. In fact, there is little concrete, contemporary evidence that Imhotep practiced as a physician at all. Imhotep’s tomb, which would likely contain a collection of artifacts that would give archaeologists a more conclusive perspective on his life and work, has yet to be discovered. Tomb S 3518 in North Saqqara, Egypt is suspected to be his, but this has not yet been confirmed. 16 Large areas to the north and west of the Pyramid of Djoser in Saqqara remain unexcavated and could possibly contain the information on Imhotep necessary to help archaeologists recover his tomb, if not the tomb itself. 17

What is known about Imhotep, both before and after his deification, comes from mentions in papyri, recorded stories, and inscriptions from both the Egyptians and the Greeks. Before deification, Imhotep was a chancellor, scribe, architect, and physician to the pharaoh Djoser (reigned 2630 ‒ 2611 BCE) and probably lived into the early 26th century BCE, through the Third Dynasty (2686 ‒ 2613 BCE). 18 He is credited with having designed the first step pyramid in Egypt, the Pyramid of Djoser, and its entire surrounding complex. 19 Many of his most important titles, such as “prince, royal seal-bearer of the king of Lower Egypt, high priest of Heliopolis, director of sculptors” are inscribed on the base of the pyramid, suggesting that Imhotep was a highly regarded figure of Djoser’s royal family. 20 It was during the New Kingdom of Egypt (c. 1570 ‒ c. 1069 BCE) that Imhotep became venerated for his work as a scribe, and the first signs of deification began with the revering of his mortal mother Khereduankh as a demigoddess, and the replacement of his mortal father Kanufer with the demiurge of Memphis, Ptah. Because his parents were divine, Imhotep could then also be divine. This rewriting of his birth and experiences resembles that of Asclepius’ deification; for this reason, we can infer that Imhotep made a strong enough impact on Egyptian medicine to warrant continued worship through deification.

Understanding the reasons for his deification involves his speculated work as a physician and scribe. Some have compared Imhotep with Hippocrates for the amount of medical work credited to him. Imhotep is sometimes believed to be the original author of the Edwin Smith papyrus (c. 1600 BCE), the earliest known writing on medicine, based on its archaic terminology dating to the Third Dynasty. Though it was written a century after his time, the Edwin Smith papyrus is believed to be an incomplete copy of an older manuscript; and if this is the case, Imhotep could have been the author of the original manuscript. 21 The papyrus contains information on trauma surgery and accidental traumatic injuries, detailing the diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis of forty-eight different medical issues, most of which are trauma-related. 22 As the architect and builder of the Pyramid of Djoser, Imhotep likely would have witnessed a multitude of trauma-related injuries sustained by the pyramid workers, providing him with a basis of knowledge for writing the papyrus. For instance, the final case described in the Edwin Smith papyrus incompletely discusses back pain, which would have been common amongst heavy construction workers and pyramid builders in ancient Egypt. 23 If Imhotep was the original author of this papyrus, he could also be credited with being the first physician in the ancient Meditteranean to extract medicine from plants, used in several of the papyrus’ treatments. He is known to have discovered the diagnosis and treatment of over 200 medical issues, including tuberculosis, appendicitis, gout, gallstones, and arthritis. 24 He is also recorded as the first physician to use honey to treat wounds, and is believed to have founded the first school of medicine in Memphis, though material and archaeological evidence for these claims is nonexistent. 25 If evidence for these claims surfaces in later years through the work of Egyptologists in Saqqara, his contributions to medicine as a mortal physician must become a more prominent focus in the holistic study of ancient medicine.

Imhotep became recognized as a god 2000 years after his death with Persia’s conquest of Egypt in 525 BCE. His full deification meant “replacing Nefertem in the great triad of Memphis,” the confirmation of his father as Ptah, the creator of the universe, and the changing of his mother to Sekhmet, the goddess of war and healing. 26 Hieroglyphic inscriptions on the bases of a multitude of statues of Imhotep found in tombs confirm the respect and admiration he acquired as a god of healing; one inscription at the temple of Khnum at Esna credits Imhotep with “heal[ing] every illness with his art.” 27 Like in the case of Asclepius, cult centers began developing around Imhotep in Memphis during the New Kingdom, in Saqqara during the Late Period (712 ‒ 323 BCE), and in the village of Deir el-Medina during the Ptolemaic period (323 ‒ 30 BCE). These centers reached their heights during Greco-Roman times and largely promoted the practice of incubation, which was similar to the Greek and Roman practice. 28 Moreover, Imhotep also had several healing temples built in his honor during the Ptolemaic period, which remain unattested in the archaeological record, but have been extensively mentioned in papyri and texts. His temple in Memphis is rumored to have contained hallways devoted to teaching healing methods and preserving the materia medica, a medical papyri rumored to have contained a history of Egyptian medical knowledge; its contents remain unknown, as it has never been recovered. He also had a temple on the island of Philae on the Nile River and “a sanctuary on the upper terrace of the mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri.” 29 A typical visit to a temple of Imhotep reflected a visit to a temple of Asclepius. Patients were expected to first undergo a purification bath — as Egyptians were required to be pure before deities — and then an incubation period. 30 If Imhotep did not appear in patients’ dreams to provide them with remedies, the dreams were told to priests and interpreted to help Egyptian doctors better understand their illnesses. 31 Egyptologist Kyle Raios explains the origin of Imhotep’s skill in aiding fertility via the practice of incubation:

One particular tale describes the wife of Sutni, Mahituaskhit, going to the temple to pray for a ìman-child, and after a dream in which Imhotep prescribes a remedy, is able to conceive for her king. 32

Imhotep’s temples were often “crowded with sufferers who prayed and slept there with the conviction that the god would reveal remedies to them in their dreams,” just as the Greek Asclepions were. 33 Egyptians also brought offerings to Saqqara in the hope of being healed from disease, similarly to how Greeks brought offerings to temples of Asclepius seeking healing. Egyptian offerings included “mummified Ibises and clay models of diseased organs and limbs,” similar to the Greek votive models of ill-affected body parts. 34 Imhotep was also associated with curing widespread disease, famine, and plague. These associations are made evident by the Famine Stela, a rock-cut inscription in upper Egypt dated to the Ptolemaic period. In this inscription, Djoser asks Imhotep to help him end a seven year famine in the Nile River region. Imhotep, after partaking in an incubation period in the temple of Khnum (the god of the Nile), reports that Khnum came to him in his dreams and promised to fill the Nile, which effectively ends the plague in the following year. 35 In oral retellings of the tale following Imhotep’s deification, Imhotep is credited with having ended the famine himself.

Imhotep’s role as a mortal physician is still uncertain, given the lack of contemporary evidence to support conclusions on his life and practice. However, enough is attributed to him as a deified god to assume he possessed a considerable amount of skill as a physician. If Imhotep was the author of the Edwin Smith papyrus, his influence on both ancient Egyptian and Greek medicine becomes self-evident; his rational work on trauma injuries and his introduction of plant-based pharmacology to medicine were so well-received that they became a large part of the Greek Hippocratic and Galenic medicine. Moreover, his resemblance to the Greek Asclepius indicates that he was such a prominent medical figure that the Egyptians chose to worship him. From what is known about their timelines of deification and the methods in which they were worshipped, it would be logical to assume that Asclepius’ characterization and mythology drew from Imhotep’s. Though there is less conclusive archaeological evidence supporting our knowledge of Imhotep, he still warrants recognition in ancient medicine. If Imhotep is given the credit he has, and if archaeological evidence to confirm details of his life and practice are discovered in later years, he holds a larger role in the overall development of ancient medicine than currently acknowledged in western scholarship, beyond even that of his deification as the Egyptian god of healing.


Works Cited

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Jacques, Jouanna and Allies Neil. “Egyptian Medicine and Greek Medicine.” Greek Medicine from Hippocrates to Galen: Selected Papers, edited by Van Der Eijk Philip. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/ 10.1163/j.ctt1w76vxr.6. 3‒20.

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Raios, Kyle. “Wailing Saves No Man From The Pit: How the Cult of Thoth Facilitated the Growth of the Cult of Imhotep.” ANTHROJOURNAL. January 18, 2012. http://anthrojournal.com/issue/october-2011/article/ wailing-saves-no-man-from-the-pit-how-the-cult-of-thoth-facilitatedthe-growth-of-the-cult-of-imhotep.

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