Seeing Politics Through Medicine

Changes and Continuities in Second Intermediate Period and New Kingdom Medical Papyri


  • Isabella Heffernan Stanford University Undergraduate Student


The war at the end of the Second Intermediate Period lasted from around 1700 to 1550 BCE, and it shaped almost every aspect of life. Understanding of this war does not just come from ancient bureaucratic sources. Analyzing wartime and post-war medical texts provides unique insight into military and political views. Different sources can give invaluable insight into changing perspectives based on their variations in who is the subject of treatment, why they are being treated, what they are treated with, how they are treated, and when the treatment is occurring. The answers to these questions also reveal what a society is prioritizing at the time. This can be applied to two medical papyri dating from the end of the Second Intermediate Period and the beginning of the New Kingdom. The Edwin Smith Papyrus dates from around 1600 BCE. It reflected the renewed need for surgical treatments for acute traumas as a tool to succeed in war. Contrarily, the Ebers Papyrus, written around 1550 BCE, reflects the stability of peace during the beginning of the New Kingdom. The differences in illnesses, patients, methods of treatment, and even structure of these medical papyri reflect the complex nature of ancient Egyptian medicine during this transitional period. Medicine is far from apolitical. It is an invaluable tool in understanding shifting political and military situations. By examining the Edwin Smith and Ebers Papyri, a better picture of the transition out of the Second Intermediate Period and into the New Kingdom is achieved.






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