The Quick and the Dead: Biomedical Theory in Ancient Egypt

The Quick and the Dead: Biomedical Theory in Ancient Egypt

The Quick and the Dead: Biomedical Theory in Ancient Egypt

The Quick and the Dead: Biomedical Theory in Ancient Egypt


This volume uses a cross-disciplinary approach to examine the origins of ancient Egyptian medicine in the domestication, care and sacrifice of cattle. Ritual cattle sacrifice in Egypt led to a rudimentary understanding of animal anatomy and physiology, which was then applied to humans. Two original theories developed from this comparative medicine: Life as movement, especially seen in the fasciolations of excised limbs, and the males role in reproduction. Discussions include Egypt as a cattle culture, the ka as an animating force, living flesh," the possible animal origins of the ankh, djed and was hieroglyphs, the bulls foreleg and the Opening-of-the-Mouth ritual, Egypts healing establishment, and veterinary medicine as it relates to the origin of human medicine."


‘Consider the connection of things.’

- John Woolman, 1763

‘To lift us out of a Ptolemaic or anthro
pocentric into a Copernican or universal

- Sir Clifford Allbutt, 1888

One of the human species' most important attributes is its inquisitiveness, an urge to speculate about and understand the workings of the world around it. This inquisitiveness about things observed in nature led early on to attempts to explain how things observed related to people themselves. However, as some scholars have looked back upon the world of ancient man and woman, including societies such as those of the early Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Greeks, they have tended to consider certain aspects, especially the religious practices and beliefs, as a hodge-podge of conflicting traditions we can never fully understand, as if their religions were divorced in some fashion from the physical world these people occupied and observed. Moreover, there has been a scholarly tendency to view ancients' interests in — and their understanding and treatment of — other animals as an inferior line of study to that about humans per se, one being scarcely related to the other. Because of those two tendencies, we have been led to view the ancients as non-critical thinkers whose rituals were meaningless beyond their own groups and/or as peoples whose relationships to their animals were as peripheral as they seem in today's increasingly industrialized world. We believe both perceptions are untrue.

For ancient Egypt, we shall attempt to illustrate the importance of curiosity about the natural world — especially about relationships of other animals to people — to the Egyptians' ways of thinking overall and to the society they developed. We will pusue this largely in the context of their evolved religion and its relevance to the emergence of a rudimentary scientific approach to understanding nature, including the heavens, the land and its living creatures. For that purpose, we shall view the available evidence not only from an Egyptological perspective, but also, where appropriate, from complementary biological and ethnographic ones. Through such a synthetic process, we will focus on some of the biomedical consequences of the Egyptians' observations of animals, especially of cattle, a species of altogether extraordinary importance among them. Our most specific intent will be to identitfy, and ex-

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