Montag, 9. Juli 2018

Dissertation project by Jonny Russell: “Ethnomedical Theory in Ancient Egypt: Explanatory Models and their Historical Contextualisation”

Blog entry by Aleksandar Milenković.

Jonny Russell is a first-year PhD candidate doing his research at the department of Egyptology at the University of Leiden, while at the same time being an associate member of the GRK 1876. At the Plenary session on June 21st, he presented an outline of his dissertation project “Ethnomedical Theory in Ancient Egypt: Explanatory Models and their Historical Contextualisation”. In his paper, Russell focused specifically on the over-all aims of the project, the beginning phase of his research regarding the concept of ra-ib, and a case study on the concept of setet.
Figure 1: Jonny Russell presenting his paper (Photo by Shahrzad Irannejad)
What is medicine?

Russell begins by highlighting the discussion of making distinctions between “medicine”, “healing”, and “magic” in the context of ancient cultures. Medicine is distinguished as making use of scientifically acquired knowledge of the normal and abnormal states of the body, whereas healing “is the endeavour to prevent abnormal states of the body and to treat them if they occur… no theory is needed for this. It is pure empiricism” (Fn. 1).  Moreover, what Unschuld
in his monograph defines as medicine starts in the classical period (with Graeco-Roman and Chinese medical practices), while everything that happened before this period, including Egyptian medicine, is considered as a healing practice with no theory, and therefore not medicine. In order to avoid this western-centric and etic approach, Russell looks into Ethnomedicine — a sub field of Medical Anthropology — and its “explanatory models” as a method to examine ancient Egyptian medical texts and concepts found within.

Beginning with the work of Kleinman who — as Russell informs us — argued that, when speaking about medical theory, one must understand that there is a biophysical and a human (or cultural) science to any form of medicine. The former includes what is generally observed about the human body (e.g. water comes out of the eyes, we need to consume food, we defecate, etc.), while the latter includes what is “embedded in a given cultural context” (Fn. 2), which provides insight into how different cultures form different concepts regarding the body and its illnesses, and consequently how they apply treatments to such illnesses. Today, ethnomedicine studies “different societies’ notions of health and illness, including how people think and how people act about well-being and healing….” (Fn. 3).

Explanatory models (EM) show how people understand and make sense of their illness. They are a result of idiosyncratic and popular beliefs where culture plays a crucial role in influencing those beliefs. Russell explains that reasons for EM’s to develop are numerous. For the purposes of this presentation, he emphasises the relevance of the surrounding environment and phenomenological experiences as influencers of certain themes in ethnomedicines, such as — in certain cases — the theme of symmetry. This is arguably a product of symmetry in nature itself (flora and fauna) and even geography for certain societies (for example, the Nile—which dissects the landscape of ancient Egypt — played a huge role in cultural and cosmological conceptualisations, as well as how people conceptualized the body itself).

The aims of Russell’s project are quite clear. He primarily focuses on examining concepts of internal physiology represented in selected ancient Egyptian medical papyri, dating from the second millennium BCE up to the Roman period. He aims to examine how these concepts appear and, by means of historical contextualization, if they change over time. Additionally, looking into the surrounding cultures, Russell wants to see which of the concepts found in Egyptian source material can be seen as universal, culturally specific and interchanged. In order to approach these questions through an emic perspective, Russell naturally has to move away from the biomedical expectations on classifications of internal structures, physiology, and subsequent treatment strategies in the ancient Egyptian healing tradition. 
The beginning of the project: the concept of ra-ib

Russell’s work begins with the examination of the concept of ‘ra-ib’ mentioned in a part of the Ebers papyrus (Eb. 188-220). The Ebers papyrus — just over 18 meters long — dates to c. 1550 BCE, and is currently kept at the library of the University of Leipzig. The ra-ib is oftentimes translated as stomach, rarely as thorax/chest, but this translation — as previously remarked by Imhausen and Pommerening — “was established based on the symptoms of some diseases [and] does not adequately express the ancient Egyptian concept anatomically or physiologically…” (Fn. 4).  

The starting point of the project was aimed at re-accessing the ancient Egyptian concept of ra-ib, Russell looked into symptom clauses in order to understand what part of the body it refers to. The text provides a variety of examples, where most common body parts affected by the ra-ib are located in the torso (heart, belly, sides), but also mouth and rear, among others, as can be seen in Figure 2. In many explanations from the Ebers cases it has a gastrointestinal function, whereas in others it seemingly carries others such as respiratory attributes, distinguishing it from ‘stomach’. In all the Ebers cases, the health complaint is caused by an obstruction of the ra-ib, and the causes are varied to include food, faeces, obscure classifications such as setet (discussed below), or even ancestors or obscure demons or entities, as can be seen in Figure 3.

Figure 2: Data compiling anatomical designations listed in symptom clauses (Courtesy of Jonny Russell)

Figure 3: Data compiling aetiological matter in diagnoses (Courtesy of Jonny Russell)

Russell also notices how metaphors are often employed to describe such conditions, especially with the use of terminology drawn from the riverine landscape domain, as these concepts played a crucial role in the everyday life in ancient Egypt. Human body is described through the concept of river, where illness is conceptualized as obstruction of a flow due to various causes.

The literal meaning of the ra-ib is not easily interpreted either, as the first part ra means mouth, and the second part ib (often translated as heart) actually carries more semantic information, and shouldn’t, as Russell suggests, denote heart in the biomedical way. Using what Russell calls the ‘ra-X paradigm’ in Egyptian classifications, he demonstrates that the term ra-ib represents an ‘inner thoroughfare’ which shouldn’t be translated with biomedical terminology. It is an anatomical explanatory model – a concept which includes a region from the mouth to the anus. 
Case study: the concept of setet

In some cases, as seen in the Figure 2, the obstruction of the ra-ib was caused by setet, the translation of which is quite vague. It is mostly translated as some kind of secretion (Schleimstoff, Sekret), and the verb that it is derived from has the meaning of shooting or pouring. In medical texts its occurrence is negative for the well-being of the body.

In the examples provided by Russell, it is evident that the classification of setet has to descend downwards through the body, while in a case of an illness, such descending is obstructed. In cases where setet is obstructed further down the body, it then becomes something else; in an example shown, it transforms into a type of ‘worm’. One treatment from the ra-ib book (Ebers papyrus 192) includes the use of onions, beer and the fatty flesh of a cow, among other ingredients to treat fever-like symptoms: inflamed eyes and a running nose. The link between onions and the eyes is drawn upon as a potential explanation for why this ingredient was included. Furthermore, Russell highlights a striking similarity in the Akkadian Therapeutic Corpus (Fn. 5), where beer and fatty meat are often used as treatment for fever originating in the libbu (interestingly, the Akkadian for heart, stomach, or more generally the insides). Based on the exemplary evidence, it is very difficult to determine what physical substance setet can refer to – or indeed if it needs to be translated at all. In the light of the provided examples, Russell sees it as yet another culturally specific explanatory model of how disease occurs in the body, impossible to translate into the western medical tradition, but by all means worthy of being labelled as medicine.


[1] P. Unschuld, What is Medicine? Western and Eastern Approaches to Healing (Berkeley: 2009), 6.
[2] A. Kleinman, Medicine’s Symbolic Reality: On a central Problem in the Philosophy of Medicine, Inquiry 16 (1973), 206-13.
[3] M. Quinlan, ‘Ethnomedicine’ in M. Singer and P. Erickson (eds.), A Companion to Medical Anthropology (Chichester: 2016), 381.
[4] A. Imhausen and T. Pommerening (eds.), ‘Introduction’ in Writings of Early Scholars in the Ancient Near East, Egypt, Rome, and Greece (Berlin: 2010), 3-4. 
[5] See J. Johnson, Towards a Reconstruction of SUALU IV: Can we Localize K. 2386+ in the Therapeutic Corpus, Le Journal des Médicines Cunéiformes 24 (2014), 11-38. 

Montag, 2. Juli 2018

Report on the AKAN Conference, June 16th 2018, Mainz

Blog entry by Mari Yamasaki.

For the 29th year, on June 16th the University of Mainz hosted the AKAN Conference (AKAN-Tagung, Arbeitskreis antike Naturwissenschaft und ihre Rezeption), organized by Prof. Dr. Jochen Althoff, to discuss issues on ancient scientific knowledge and its understanding.

A number of interesting papers were presented during this 29th edition. Among these, I would like to point the readers’ attention to the outstanding work of two of our colleagues from the #GRK1876: Aleksandar Milenković and Shahrzad Irannejad.

With his talk, “The curious case of χλωρὸν δάκρυ in Greek poetry,” Aleksandar Milenković opened the first session of the day discussing the conceptual metaphor underlying the concept of crying through the analysis of the expression chlōrón dakry. The paper explored the meaning of the term and its fate. 

Figure 1: Aleksandar Milenković presenting his paper (Photo by Mari Yamasaki)

Concerning the meaning, chlōrós is variably translated with the colours green or yellow, or pale, or again green in the sense of fresh and unripe. What emerged from Milenković’s analysis of the variety of translations is that chlōrós is more than a simple adjective but rather expresses a concept of “freshness, moisture and sap” and it was used in relation to wine, cheese, honey, but also fear and, eventually, tears. In the Homeric poems, chlōrós was used in the description of fear, possibly in relation to sweat. Whilst there appears to be a relation between fear and bile in Sophocles and Euripides, in the V century tragedies, chlōrós describes tears rather than fear. In both Homeric and tragic contexts, it is possible to trace the close association of the term to moisture (sweat and tears respectively) and to the vegetal world. Therefore, the term chlōrós underlies the conceptual metaphor that the human body is a plant: where plants have sap, humans have bile, and while sap comes out of plants following a disturbance, human emotions cause moisture in the form of sweat (in Homer) and tears (in Euripides). The “human body is a plant” metaphor, however, was bound to become a dead metaphor as a consequence of an obsolete use of chlōrós describing fear in Homer. The later authors possibly did not understand the original usage and the term chlōrós came to acquire the meaning of pallor in relation to grief and fear, and the connection with sap and moisture was forgotten.

The human-plant metaphor was also analysed by Marcel Humar (Berlin) in his talk “Pflanzen sind Menschen – zu einer konzeptionellen Metapher bei Theophrast.” While in Milenković’s talk the poetic metaphor was “humans are plants,” in Humar’s work the metaphor individuated in Theophrastus’s scientific literature showed the opposite perspective, that “plants are humans.” In other words, whilst source and target domains in these different types of texts appear inverted, the mappings are still the same: both humans and plants in fact have seed, grow, contain moisture, produce fruits and die.

Shahrzad Irannejad’s paper moved the focus from V century BCE Greece to early XI century CE Persia with her research on the transmission of Greek medical knowledge within the Arabic tradition. Her talk, “Making sense of Aristotle’s appearance in Avicenna’s anatomy of the brain,” analysed one particular chapter in Avicenna’s Canon concerned with the description of the brain and its functions. Most of the source material for the three pages that cover the anatomy of the brain comes from Galen. However, in between the Galenic description, Avicenna curiously inserts a passage of clear Aristotelian echo in the explanation as to why the brain is made like it is, and stating that its function is to cool down the heart. According to Irannejad, while displaying a general loyalty to Galenic anatomy, Avicenna was devoted to an overarching Aristolelian agenda and with his work attempted at the reconciliation between Galenic and Aristotelian positions, between encephalocentric and cardiocentric views. 
Figure 2: Shahrzad Irannejad presenting her paper (Photo by Mari Yamasaki)

Further talks during the conference investigated the scientific aspects of the astronomical knowledge contained in Synesios “Ad Peonium de Dono” (Helmut Seng, Frankfurt). A sociological perspective was proposed by Leonid Zhmud (St. Petersburg) in individuating the variability in the population of scientists and their distribution within ancient Greece, thus highlighting which city was at what time the effective centre of knowledge.

In conclusion, once again the AKAN conference renovated the interest on ancient science and raised questions about our understanding of ancient scientific knowledge and its reception and last but not least, provided a great chance to exchange feedback and ideas.

Montag, 11. Juni 2018

Roboter – Androide – Maschinen. Internationale Tagung in Bologna, 29.-30.05.2018

Ein Beitrag von Sandra Hofert.
Ein Bett, hergestellt vom Zauberer Clinschor, das in der Kemenate eines großen Schlosses ununterbrochen hin und her fährt, wie in Wolframs von Eschenbach Parzival (s. Abb. 1), ein Baum aus Erz mit einem Rad an der Spitze, darauf die Figur eines Trompeters, der beim Herannahen eines fremden Ritters in sein Horn bläst, wie in Heinrichs von dem Türlin Diu Crône, oder ein großes, mit Schwertern und Kolben beschlagenes Rad, das jeden Eindringling am Eintritt in die Burg hindert, wie im Wigalois Wirnts von Grafenberg – immer wieder werden die Ritter mittelalterlicher Literatur mit magisch-mechanischen Wunderwerken konfrontiert. Doch literarische Automaten finden sich nicht nur in höfischen Romanen, denn schon antike Literatur kennt Maschinen verschiedenster Form.
Abb. 1: Ritter Gawein auf dem Zauberbett. Pariser Elfenbeinschnitzerei (ca. 1320–1330) im Museo Civico Medievale (Medieval Museum) in Bologna (Photo: Sandra Hofert)
Die zahlreichen Varianten unterschiedlicher technischer Werke, ihre Rolle im narrativen Zusammenhang und im historischen Kontext standen im Zentrum der Tagung „Robots – Androides – Machines. Les automates entre la magie et la technique en Littérature depuis l’Antiquité“, die vom 29. bis zum 30. Mai 2018 im Dipartimento di Lingue, Letterature e Culture moderne in Bologna (Italien) stattfand.

In der von Michael Dallapiaza (Bologna) in Kooperation mit Danielle Buschinger (Amiens) organisierten Veranstaltung haben sich in diesem Jahr über 20 Wissenschaftlerinnen und Wissenschaftler verschiedener Disziplinen versammelt, um sich dem Thema aus ganz unterschiedlichen Perspektiven zu nähern:
Danielle Buschinger eröffnete die Tagung mit einem Vortrag zu den Kriegsmaschinen im Werk Livre des faits d'armes et de chevalerie von Christine de Pizan und dessen mittelhochdeutscher Fassung Das buoch von dem vechten und von der ritterschaft (Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, Ms. germ. fol. 1705). Im Zentrum des Vortrags von Friedrich Wolfzettel (Frankfurt a. M.) mit dem Titel „La descente aux enfers dans la Joyeuse Garde du Lancelot en prose: un roman noir avant la lettre“ stand die Burg Joyeuse Garde aus dem Prosa-Lanzelot. Ferner sprach Ronny F. Schulz (Kiel) über Diomenas künstliches Paradies in Heinrichs von Neustadt Apollonius von Tyrland.

Es war ein interessantes und abwechslungsreiches Programm mit zahlreichen weiteren anregenden Beiträgen, die in Kürze in einem Tagungsband erscheinen werden.

Auch das GRK 1876 „Frühe Konzepte von Mensch und Natur“ war vertreten durch Sandra Hofert (die Autorin dieses Beitrags). In diesem Vortrag, mit dem Titel Geliebte Statuen, Statuen Geliebter, standen zwei besondere magisch-technische Wunderwerke im Zentrum: der Statuensaal in Thomas’ Tristran (um 1170), in dem Tristran u. a. eine belebte Statue seiner geliebten Ysolt konstruieren lässt, und das Scheingrab Blanscheflurs bei Konrad Flecks Flore und Blanscheflur (um 1220), das von einer technischen Installation des Liebespaares beherrscht wird. Beide Kunstwerke spielen mit der Grenze zwischen An- und Abwesenheit, lebendig und tot sowie Vergessen und Erinnern, denn beide Kunstwerke sind nach einer Vorlage entworfen, beide sind durch technische Installationen verlebendigt und beide führen schließlich dazu, dass sich die Protagonisten wieder auf den Weg zum eigentlichen Original machen.

Abb. 2: Bild und Text im Widerspruch. Die Grabplatte Blanscheflurs (Quelle: Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Cpg 362, fol. 54r)
Insgesamt war es ein sehr vielfältiges und interessantes Programm mit spannenden Diskussionen in freundlicher Atmosphäre in einer schönen und eindrucksvollen Stadt und so möchte ich mich schließlich an dieser Stelle nochmal ganz herzlich bei Michael Dallapiaza und Danielle Buschinger für die Organisation der Veranstaltung bedanken und bei dem GRK 1876 „Frühe Konzepte von Mensch und Natur“ für die Finanzierung meines Bologna-Aufenthaltes.