This blog explores the human body, and more specifically the human heart, from an interdisciplinary and multifaceted perspective. 

The Heart of Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egyptian culture and history have intrigued researchers for centuries. The topic of medicine, specifically cardiology, in ancient Egypt has stimulated vibrant discussions. These discussions gained momentum following the discovery of what is considered to be ancient Egyptian medical papyri, in late nineteenth century. Two of these papyri, within which extensive sections are dedicated to concerns involving the heart and vessels that converge at the heart, are the Edwin Smith and the Ebers papyri, both discovered in tombs at Thebes in 1862 and believed to have been originally scribed around 1550 BCE. Examinations of their content accelerated in the early twentieth century when their translation was sufficiently completed.

              Historically, the ancient Greeks acknowledged the value of Egyptian medicine. “It was said in Greece that to have studied medicine in Egypt was the highest credential a physician could present.”[1] Scholars agree that “the role of Egyptian medicine in the development of the scientific foundations of Greek and Roman medicine is significant.”[2] In approximately 1550 BCE, within the Edwin Smith papyrus, the scientific methods to measure and quantify the condition of a patient with a calibrated instrument were recorded.[3] Similarly, “in the context of historical timeline, the clinical observation of patients with a weak heart and congestion included in the Ebers Papyri, written circa 1553 – 1550 BC, preceded by many years the descriptions of Hippocrates, Celsus in early AD in Rome, and Avicenna in medieval medicine.”[4]

              Ancient Egyptian physicians had discovered the link between the human heart, pulse, and various health-related conditions. Saba et al. cites Henry Breasted, one of the main translators of the Edwin Smith papyrus, stating, “He (our ancient surgeon) knew of a cardiac system and was surprisingly near recognition of the circulation of the blood, for he was already aware that the heart was the center and the pumping force of a system of distributing vessels. He was already conscious of the importance of the pulse and had probably begun to count the pulse, a practice heretofore first found among Greek physicians of the third century in Alexandria.” Breasted adds, “It is doubtless a significant fact that the first physician who is known to count the pulse, Herophilus of Alexandria, lived in Egypt. It will probably also not have been wholly an accident that this was done in the land which produced the earliest known time-pieces for Herophilus used an Egyptian water-clock for timing the count of the pulse.”[5] In short, it can be stated with confidence that in ancient Egypt, “native physicians, as well as priests and even common amulet sellers, were all aware of the pulse (the ‘speaking of the heart’) and took steps to monitor it in the various sections of the body.”[6]

              The knowledge of the heart, pulse, and vessels in ancient Egypt ought not to be surprising. “To the ancient Egyptians, the heart was the center of thought, emotion, and all other nervous function – an organ of such importance that it was thought necessary to salvation after death, and was left in the body at the time of mummification to ensure its availability at judgment and during the afterlife. The heart was thought capable of recording all the good and evil acts performed by a human being during life.”[7] Laura M. Zucconi affirms that for ancient Egyptians, “The soul of a person was seated in the heart and during the Judgement of the Dead one’s heart was weighed against the Feather of Maat.”[8] Maat is the concept of universal balance and harmony, which can be personified in the goddess Maat. “The idea of maat (balance, order, justice) governed the relationships in and between these [mundane/mortal and supernatural/divine] worlds.”[9] It is clear that for ancient Egyptians, the heart was not a mere anatomical organ.

              In ancient Egyptian texts there are two words that are used for the heart, IB and HATY. Teodor Lekov explains that the usage of IB “implies nuances of ‘internal’, ‘hidden’, ‘invisible’, ‘inner self.” The usage of HATY, on the other hand, “means literally something like ‘(that) which is in front’, in sense of ‘outer’, ‘visible’.”[10] Lekov agrees with the proposal that “in most of the cases the heart-IB is identified with the consciousness, with the organ of thoughts and senses, while the heart-HATY more often designates the physical heart, the anatomical organ.”[11] At this point, it may appear that similar to our contemporary view of the heart, ancient Egyptians used “heart” in two ways, metaphorically and literally. When the heart-IB is used, it is a metaphor, and when the heart-HATY is used, it denotes the literal heart. However, Lekov, reveals in his article that “in many cases the two words are used as synonyms, and one can replace the other in variants of given text.”[12] Moreover, he states, “when the heart-IB is not present, the heart-HATY is lacking too,”[13] implying that there is a real, non-metaphorical, interdependence between the two modes of the heart. In addition, Lekov offers examples to show that in ancient Egyptian texts the heart-HATY, which is commonly assumed to be the anatomical physical organ, can and at times does leave the body, and when this occurs, “the hole complex of human perception is interrupted.”[14] The presence of the heart-HATY is necessary for the organs of perception to function because, “The heart is the center who commands the process of perception, and controls every limb in the body.”[15] These examples lead Lekov to surmise that the heart-HATY “is more like some sort of designation for the functions of the physical heart,”[16] and not the physical heart itself.

              A closer inspection of the ancient Egyptians’ papyri indicates that the contemporary literal-metaphorical understanding of the heart was absent in ancient Egyptian consciousness. Lekov sees the mutual relation and interdependence between the two modes of the heart as a form of cause-and-effect or reason-and-result. However, it is not clear which heart, IB or HATY, is the reason and which is the result.  Lekov concludes, “Our modern terms of anatomy and understanding of the physiological processes in human body do not fit to the ancient notion of human nature. The attempts to explain ancient terms with modern ones are destined to fail.”[17]

              Laura M. Zucconi provides a potential reason for our modern difficulty with understanding ancient Egyptian medicine, anatomy, and physiological processes. She states, “Ancient Egyptians … did not see a strict dichotomy between medicine and religion.”[18] According to her, in ancient Egypt “the worlds of the mundane and the supernatural intersect, a mortal body and the actions of a god became integral. Health meant a balance either within the body itself or with entities outside of the body. Illness signaled that something disrupted maat [balance.]”[19]  Our modern conceptualization of two separate fields, medicine and religion, scientific/empirical and faith-based, did not exist in ancient Egypt. She further elaborates, “A natural-supernatural dichotomy did not constrain the Egyptian concept of disease causation but, rather, that an episode of illness can straddle both categories. The supernatural aspect to disease etiology could function as a form of punishment from the gods, a reminder of one’s social obligation or an outright attack by a malicious or capricious entity.”[20] In other words, a strict regimen of healthy diet, exercise, and social activities did not guarantee health and wellness. Other factors related to one’s beliefs and morality-related deeds could have resulted in illnesses. Any actions that could have disrupted the balance of the universe either within or without one’s body could have attracted punishment in terms of physical punishments and/or bodily illnesses. Health denoted balance or being in line with maat.

              There are three types of healers mentioned in the medical papyri: “SWNW (physician), WAB (pure) priest, and SAU (magician.)”[21] However, “The ancient Egyptian healer apparently did not finely distinguish the categories of spell, ritual, and prescription but blended them in the process of using heka [magic power.]”[22] In other words, on many occasions, there was an overlap of practices, among the three healers in treating illnesses. “The three types of healers frequently resorted to the same treatments in addition to having strong connections to the religious structures in ancient Egypt. …The SWNW [physician], just like the WAB [pure] priest and SAU [magician], accessed heka [magic power] in order to provide a cure to his patients.”[23] What is clear and what we know is that in ancient Egypt, all three types of healers, “regularly employed the religious ideology of ancient Egypt in order to help the afflicted.”[24] Throughout history we have come to delineate knowledge into distinct fields. Within each field, experts focus on acquiring knowledge related to their own distinct domain. A physician learns about medicine, and a priest learns about religion. It is not common for the experts within each field to seriously research topics of interests in other fields. Nevertheless, this delineation was indistinct in ancient Egypt. According to Zucconi, our strict use of “physician,” “magician,” and “priest,” when reading and examining ancient Egyptian texts, “only reinforces the artificial dichotomy of medicine and religion as distinct activities among the Egyptians rather than seeing health care as a part of their religious practices.”[25] Our attempts to explain ancient terms, such as the terms for the heart, in ancient Egypt, may fail due to our attempt to impose a secular vision upon a deeply religious structure. The human body, like nature itself, was not a soulless secular entity, it was an entity governed by religious principles. The human heart was a sacred body part, and its health depended on its contribution to the universal harmony.



[1] Boisaubin, Eugene V. "Cardiology in ancient Egypt." Texas Heart Institute Journal 15, no. 2 (1988): 80-85.

[2] Saba, Magdi M., Hector O. Ventura, Mohamed Saleh, and Mandeep R. Mehra. "Ancient Egyptian medicine and the concept of heart failure." Journal of cardiac failure 12, no. 6 (2006): 416-421.

[3] Ritner, Robert K. "The cardiovascular system in ancient Egyptian thought." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 65, no. 2 (2006): 99-109.

[4] Saba, Magdi M., Hector O. Ventura, Mohamed Saleh, and Mandeep R. Mehra. "Ancient Egyptian medicine and the concept of heart failure." Journal of cardiac failure 12, no. 6 (2006): 416-421.

[5] Ibid., P. 420

[6] Ritner, Robert K. "The cardiovascular system in ancient Egyptian thought." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 65, no. 2 (2006): 99-109.

[7] Boisaubin, Eugene V. "Cardiology in ancient Egypt." Texas Heart Institute Journal 15, no. 2 (1988): 80-85.

[8] Zucconi, Laura M. "Medicine and religion in ancient Egypt." Religion Compass 1, no. 1 (2007): 26-37.

[9] Ibid., P. 27

[10] Lekov, Teodor. "The Formula of the" Giving of the Heart" in Ancient Egyptian Texts." The Journal of Egyptological Studies 1 (2004).

[11] Ibid., P. 4

[12] Ibid., P. 1

[13] Ibid., P. 10

[14] Ibid., P. 16

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., P. 17

[18] Zucconi, Laura M. "Medicine and religion in ancient Egypt." Religion Compass 1, no. 1 (2007): 26-37.

[19] Ibid., P. 29

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., P. 34

[22] Ibid., P. 31

[23] Ibid., P. 34

[24] Ibid., P. 36

[25] Ibid., P. 34

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