An Egyptian medical document dating back about 3,500 years is being translated by a Danish Egyptologist, who reveals strange ingredients that to most modern people may not seem beneficial. The recipes call for bull fat, blood of a bat and donkey, heart of a lizard, pulverized pottery, honey, lizard dung and the milk of a mother nursing a boy.
Egyptologist Sofie Schiød spent six months translating the ancient text but says she could spend another year working on it, Science Nordic says in an article about her research.
One side of the text includes what may be a treatment for trichiasis or ingrown eyelashes. The other side is a gynecological text that may relate to the gender of a fetus.
“It’s something to do with whether someone is having a boy or a girl and birth prognoses. But I’ve mainly been working on the other side,” Schiødt told Science Nordic.
The recipe on the other side includes the fat of a bull, blood of a bat, blood of a donkey and possibly the heart of a lizard. The recipe or treatment also calls for the apothecary to add a little pulverized pottery and a little honey.
The ingredients on the side that records gynecological treatment include lizard dung, beer, celery, and the milk of a woman who has delivered a boy.
The hieroglyphs include small birds, snakes and ships, reading from right to left. She says the characters in red are recipes and quantities, while the black texts give ingredients and how to put the concoction together.
Schiødt is at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. A German researching a similar text gave Schiødt some help with the meaning of the papyrus, which has been untouched in Copenhagen for 80 years.
She said working with the German colleague was a eureka moment because her papyrus and the text in Germany had similar ingredients. She hopes to do further research into the texts as part of her Ph.D. project.
She told Science Nordic that there is much to be studied just in these papyrus fragments. She added that many ancient texts of Egypt appeared later in Greek. She wants to explore further why people adopt others’ culture and what barriers, whether cultural or linguistic, there are.
The Weird Sisters of Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Wikimedia Commons/Wellcome images)
Indeed, about 2,900 years after this Egyptian document was written, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, in which appear three witches or the Weird Sisters. Shakespeare sets out a strange scene in which they are gathered around a cauldron in a cave with thunder crashing. They throw ingredients similar to the ancient Egyptians’ into the cauldron:
Round about the cauldron go,
In the poisoned entrails throw.
Toad, that under cold stone
Days and nights has thirty-one
Sweltered venom sleeping got,
Boil thou first i' th' charmèd pot.
Double, double toil and trouble,
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake.
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.
The list of ingredients in Macbeth goes on at some length. You can read it in its entirety in Act 4, Scene 1.
Schiødt does not reference Shakespeare in the Science Nordic article, but she says:
Several treatment methods travel throughout the Arabian countries to Greece and on into Europe. Parts are weeded out along the way, the religious aspects especially disappear. But many of the ingredients, like lizards and bats appear again. I’d really like to map this transfer of knowledge,” she says.
The text she translated is in seven fragments that make together a document about the same size as an A4 sheet of paper, 21 by 29.7 cm (8.5 by 11 inches).
Top image: An ancient Egyptian medical text from 3,700 years ago; this is not the papyrus that Sofie Schiødt worked on. (Wikimedia Commons/Jeff Dahl photo)
By Mark Miller