Freitag, 22. November 2019

Eye medication in ancient cultures: towards an ethnopharmacological analysis of Egyptian and Hippocratic treatment strategies. Report on the second Plenumssitzung of Wi/Se 19/20

A Blog post by David Usieto Cabrera.


Aleksandar Milenković
, doctoral candidate in the Department of Classical Philology and Jonny Russell, doctoral candidate in Egyptology at the University of Leiden and associate doctoral candidate in Mainz, presented a talk related to their doctoral dissertations at the second Plenumssitzung of the winter semester on November 21, 2019.

The point of the talk was eye diseases and their treatments. In the texts studied from both traditions, minerals played a central role (contra to what you find elsewhere).  As Aleksandar showed, ancient Greek texts mention diseases like eyelid disorders, squinting, impaired vision, blindness, etc. Interestingly enough, copper was often used as a treatment. Jonny on the other hand discussed pigments including the microbial activity of Galena, and the specification for the prescription of wꜢḏ.w which is commonly translated as ‘malachite’ and sometimes ‘papyrus’ (citing discussions on the Science in Ancient Egypt website of the Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Leipzig), but probably refers to any greeny-blue substance (likely mineral) used as pigment for colouring (and probably therefore also includes copper-based substances).

The focus of their investigation was the potential motivations for the selection and application of materia medica for eye-conditions. It was shown that the understanding of pathogenesis differed between the temporally disparate sources and was instead more coherent with prevailing cultural/philosophical models. The socio-cultural bases of the uses of plants and other natural remedies can be traced on a high number of societies around the globe. Several cultures have documented their knowledge of the use of plants in an extensive body of written sources. 

Greek sources

The first part of the talk focused on Ancient Greece. Aleksandar Milenković started out with his PhD project: “Concepts of visual perception in Greek scientific thought”. By using a philosophical perspective, eye envision was compared in early philosophy (Alcmaeon, Empedocles, Democritus), and perceived differently in antiquity (from the simplicity of water and fire, to atoms). Philosophers like Empedocles, have used the eye as a metaphor, and from a more scientific perspective, describing it as narrow vessels nourish with purest moisture, in which the image appears. 
Aleksandar Milenković showing different medical treatments. Photo © David Usieto Cabrera

Egyptian sources

Jonny Russell’s project, ”Ancient Egyptian Ethnomedicine: Explanatory Models and their Historical Contextualisation” focuses on historically contextualising the ancient Egyptian perspective of models for internal human physiology and pathogenesis and its link role as a potential motivator for the selection of materia medica. He referred to the Ebers Papyrus, which has the largest collection of eye medications.  This Papyrus is an Egyptian medical papyrus of not only plants, but minerals and animal products, as well as magical incantations knowledge dating to approx. 1550 BC. Among the oldest and most important medical papyri of ancient Egypt, we find the Ebers Papyrus.

Ebers Papyrus. Photo taken from: https://papyrusebers.de



Jonny Russell's part of the talk showing Egyptian medical sources. Photo © David Usieto Cabrera

Aleksandar and Jonny showed us, that there are similarities but also many differences comparing texts from these two disciplines. To cite just some of them, while the Greek model works with explicit theoretical information; the Egyptian model works under an implicit theory (and explicit remedy). Furthermore, the most common class of ingredients is mineral (for both ancient Egypt and Greece); while in ancient Greece most common ingredients are copper(-related) and myrrh, and also with alcohol employed; in Egypt were galena, pigments and resins with no alcohol employed. 


To sum up, by attending my first Plenumssitzung I realize that by having this sort of scientific meetings, help us not only professionally mature but grow our own particular research. In this case, by analyzing together two cases separated in time and space (ancient Egypt and ancient Greece), it is easier to spot differences and similarities that otherwise will not be shown.


Aleksandar and Jonny sharing different perspectives on the talk. Photo © David Usieto Cabrera