Sunday, March 25, 2012

From Melancholia: Egypt

One of the oldest Egyptian medical papyri, the Kahun Papyrus, dates back to approximately 1900 BCE. The papyrus, which survives only in fragments, deals with a number of gynecological complaints: particularly noteworthy is the case of the "woman who loves bed" and who refuses to rise. The author believed this (and several other complaints) were caused by "starvation" of the uterus, or by the womb wandering from its proper place. 1,500 years later Greek scientists would call this "wandering womb" hysteria, after the Greek hystera (uterus) – a disease that would persist in clinical texts for many centuries even after our knowledge of anatomy improved.

Written in or around 1500 BCE, the Ebers Papyrus is believed to be a copy of an earlier document. Based on some of the archaic terms used therein many scholars believe it dates back to between 3000 and 2500 BCE: some think it may have originated with the legendary Egyptian physician and architect Imhotep. Among the diseases it describes in the section entitled "Treatises of the Heart" are conditions we now would recognize as mental disorders.
As to "the mind's kneeling (breakdown?)": this means that his mind is constricted, and his heart in its place in the blood of the lung. becomes small through it. It is (due to the fact) that the heart is hot, and then his mind becomes weary through it; he eats little and is fastidious.

As to "drying up of the mind": it is (due to the fact) that the blood dm3 (coagulates?) in the heart.


As to "his mind is dark (melancholic?), and he tastes his heart": this means that his mind is contracted, there being darkness in his, interior (lit. belly) through dnwd, and he makes the deed to consume his mind (i.e. he repents).

As to "his entire flesh (i.e. the muscles) is ddnw like the tiredness of a man whom the way has found": this means that his flesh is tired through it, as the flesh of a man is tired through long going.

As to "raving (?) through something entering from above": this means that his mind raves (?) through something entering from above.
As to "his mind is drowned": this means that his mind is forgetful like one who is thinking of something else.
Perhaps the most intriguing example of Pharaonic Egypt's views on depression comes from a XII Dynasty (ca.1938 - 1759 BCE) text entitled Discourse of a Man with his Ba [part of the human soul]. As the surviving fragment of the tale begins, the man wishes to end his own life and is seeking the approval of his Ba. Without that approval he faces total annihilation in the Afterlife, while his Ba will be forced to wander the world without offerings and ultimately perish. The Ba tries to dissuade him, saying " Follow the happy day and forget worry!" but the man is adamant in his desire, saying:
 Death is in front of my face today,
{like} health to the sick,
like deliverance from detention.
Death is in front of my face today,
like the fragrance of myrrh,
like a shelter on a windy day.
Death is in front of my face today,
like the fragrance of lotus,
like sitting on the shore of drunkenness.
* * *
Death is in front of my face today,
like a man's longing to see his home,
having spent many years in captivity.
The Ba continues with its efforts to cheer the man up: alas, the surviving manuscript ends here. We do not know how this tale ended, but we do know that the writer was most certainly aware of  - if not personally familiar with – the terrible craving for death that so often accompanies depression