Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Mental Health in Ancient Egypt

I have spent the past week on a long-awaited trip exploring temples and tombs along the Nile. It has been a journey through time and place. From the pyramids to Karnak Temple, from kings and queens to pharaohs, gods, and goddesses, it has stretched my understanding of ancient history and got me thinking about continuities and discontinuities over the millennia.

The hieroglyphs, statues, and mummies from thousands of years ago tell stories of war, leadership succession, cultural beliefs, and the evolution of ideas. Images of strength and long life abound. What about mental health?

1. Where spiritual, mystical, magical, and medical meet. Mental health in ancient Egypt cannot be understood without exploring the rituals, amulets, incantations, and beliefs that were at once spiritual, mystical, magical, and medical. Papyrus Ebers, the best preserved and most extensive medical text from ancient Egypt, was written approximately 1500 BCE, reflecting some teachings that are thought to date as far back as 3000 BCE. Papyrus Ebers records over 700 spells to send away illness-causing demonic forces. It also documents an empirical practice of testing and refining interventions to improve outcomes, including guidance on birth control that foreshadows modern-day barrier methods of contraception and a treatment for guinea worm still in use today. It is a mix of spiritual, mystical, magical, and medical.

2. What about the brain? The Edwin Smith Papyrus, also dating from approximately 1550 BCE, stands out because it describes the brain for the first time in history as enclosed in a membrane with two hemispheres patterned with convolutions. It contains the first known descriptions of the meninges, cerebrospinal fluid, and intracranial pulsations. Despite these early anatomical descriptions of the brain, the mummification process suggests that the ancient Egyptians had limited understanding or appreciation of brain functioning. The afterlife was all-important in ancient Egypt, and extensive measures were taken in the process of mummification to prepare people for the world hereafter. Death was nothing but a further step in life. But, for reasons I have yet to understand, they thought that the brain was not necessary for the afterlife. During mummification, it was scooped out through the nostrils with an iron hook in a process known as excerebration.

3. Ancient Egypt’s description of depression. The ancient Egyptian medical texts describe somatic, emotional, and psychological symptoms of depression with language that foreshadows clinical descriptions of mood disorders today. As discussed by Professor Mervat Nasser, Papyrus Ebers contains descriptions of ill health that are easily recognized as what we would call mental health conditions today. Excerpts include “the mind in the heart which goes up and falls down,” “the mind kneels, his heart in its place, his heart becomes weary, he eats little and is fastidious,” and “his mind is drowned, this means his mind is forgetful, like one who is thinking of something else…as if his mind is dark.” The ancient Egyptians focused on the somatic aspects of conditions we would describe as mental disorders today. This prioritization of somatic features in mental health is something that endures in many parts of the world, including modern-day Egypt.

4. Dream Interpretation. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, published “The Interpretation of Dreams” in 1899. As one of his earliest publications, it contributed to the foundation of ideas and theories that revolutionized our understanding of mental health, human development, interpersonal relations, and intrapsychic dynamics. The ancient Egyptians had their own version of dream interpretation many centuries earlier. In ancient Egypt, a person suffering from psychological distress would be sent to a sanatorium, a sleep temple dedicated to healing. In the sanatorium, they would enter a dark cell and prepare for a “therapeutic dream.” A hypnotic sleep state was induced by lamps and burning perfumed wood. Priests interpreted the dreams and consulted the “Egyptian Dream Book” to find cures. Unlike Freud who believed that dreams represent an individual’s unconscious and internal psychic conflict, the ancient Egyptians understood dreams to be supernatural, where gods were responsible for shaping dream content and protecting against bad dreams.

5. First Psychology Experiment. Psychology historian Morton Hunt suggests that the first psychology experiment conducted might be an experiment performed by the Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus I in 7th century BCE. He wanted to ascertain whether Egypt was the oldest civilization on earth. He hypothesized that children raised in isolation from birth with no language instruction would spontaneously develop the capacity to speak the language of the original civilization of humanity and posited that it would be Egyptian. He had two children raised in a remote region by a shepherd who was instructed not to speak to the children. At the age of two, the first word they spoke was becos, which turned out to be the Phrygian word for bread. Clearly, the experimental design was seriously flawed, and it would never get through a modern research ethics review board, but it is remarkable in its attempt to experimentally answer the question of whether the human capacity for language is innate.

Ancient Egypt’s extraordinary history and monumental ruins have inspired the imaginations of historians, writers, linguists, scientists, architects, artists, and travelers for millennia. Let’s add psychologists to the list.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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