(c. 2980 B.C.)
NO INDIVIDUAL of the ancient world has left a deeper
impression on history than Imhotep. He was the real Father of Medicine.
He is, says Sir William Osier, "The first figure of a Physician
to stand out clearly from the mists of antiquity."
Of the details of his life, very little has survived though numerous
statues and statuettes of him have been found. He lived at the court
of King Zoser of the Third Dynasty, about 2980 B.C., where he established
such a reputation as a healer that he was worshipped as a god for
the next 3000 years, not only in Egypt but also in Greece and Rome.
Even early Christianity worshipped him as the Prince of Peace.
His father was an architect named Kanofer; his mother was Khreduonkh,
and his wife, Ronfrenofert. Imhotep appears to have been versatile
like Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci. In addition to being the chief
physician to the king, he was sage and scribe, chief lector priest,
architect, astronomer, and magician. At that time magic and medicine
were allied, as in native Africa and the East today.
He was also a poet and a philosopher. He preached cheerfulness and
urged contentment. His proverbs, embodying a philosophy of life, caught
popular fancy, and were handed down from generation to generation.
One of his best-known sayings is: "Eat, drink, and be merry for
tomorrow we shall die."
There is evidence that the Egyptians, and perhaps Imhotep also, diagnosed
and treated more than 200 diseases, among them 1 diseases of the abdomen,
11of the bladder, lo of the rectum, 29 of the eyes, and 18 of the
skin. They knew how to detect disease by the shape, color, or condition
of the visible parts of the body, as the skin, hair, nails, tongue.
They treated spinal tuberculosis, gallstones, appendicitis, gout,
rheumatoid arthritis, mastoid diseases, and dental caries. They practiced
surgery, knew of auscultation, and extracted medicine from plants.
They were also familiar with the position and functions of the stomach,
the lungs, and other vital organs. Imhotep, it is said, knew of the
circulation of the blood, which is 4000 years before it was known
in Europe. This could be true because Egyptian civilization lasted
for 6000 years, which was sufficiently long for its thinkers and scientists
to have carried research along most lines to a high degree. That Egypt
excelled in architecture we know, and as regards medicine, Homer said
in the Odyssey, "In Egypt the men are more skilled in medicine
than any of human kind." The Greeks sent their young men to be
educated in Egypt, as today students from Egypt go to Europe.
Imhotep's fame increased with his death. He was worshipped as a medical
demi-god from 2850 B.C. to 525 B.C., and as a full deity from 525
B.C. to A.D. 550. Kings and queens bowed at his shrine. Later he was
jointly worshipped with the great conqueror Amenophis III, and still
later as the Son of Ptah, Father of the Gods. "Turn thy face
towards me, My Lord Imhotep, Son of Ptah. It is thou who dost work
miracles and who are beneficient in all thy deeds" were the words
of supplication addressed to him.
The great temple of Amen (Karnak) contains two bas-reliefs of him.
On the island of Philae there is a temple in his honor. The inscription
to him there reads: "Chancellor of the King of Lower Egypt; Chief
under the King of Upper Egypt; Administrator of the Great Mansion;
Hereditary Noble, Heliopolitan High Priest, Imhotep."
When Egyptian civilization crossed the Mediterranean to become the
foundation of Greek culture, the teachings of Imhotep were also absorbed
there. But as the Greeks were wont to assert that they were the originators
of everything, Imhotep was forgotten for thousands of years and Hippocrates,
a legendary figure who lived 2000 years after him, became known as
the Father of Medicine.
The Encyclopedia Britannica says, "The evidence afforded by Egyptian
and Greek texts support the view that Imhotep's reputation was respected
in very early times.... His prestige increased with the lapse of centuries
and his temples in Greek times were the centres of medical teaching."
Breasted says of Imhotep:
In priestly wisdom, in magic, in the formulation
of wise proverbs; in medicine and architecture; this remarkable figure
of Zoser's reign left so notable a reputation that his name was never
forgotten. He was the patron spirit of the later scribes, to whom
they regularly poured out a libation from the water-jug of their writing
outfit before beginning their work. The people sang of his proverbs
centuries later, and 2,500 years after his death, he had become a
god of medicine in whom the Greeks, who call him Imouthes, recognized
their own Asklepios. A temple was erected to him near the Serapeum
at Memphis, and at the present day every museum possesses a bronze
statue or two of the apotheosized wise man, the proverb-maker, physician,
and architect of Zoser.
As regards Imhotep's influence in Rome, Gerald Massey,
noted poet, archaeologist, and philologist, says that the early Christians
worshipped him as one with Christ. The early Christians, it will be
recalled, adapted to their use those pagan forms and personages whose
influence through the ages had woven itself so powerfully into tradition
that they could not omit them. Thus, says Massey:
The child-Christ remained a starrily-bejewelled blackamoor
as the typical healer in Rome. Jesus, the divine healer, does not
retain the black complexion of Iu-em-hotep [Imhotep] in the canonical
gospels but he does in the Church of Rome when represented as a little
black bambino. A jewelled image of the child-Christ as a blackamoor
is sacredly preserved at the headquarters of the Franciscan order,
and true to its typical character as a symbolical likeness of Iusa,
the healer, the little black figure is taken out in state with its
regalia on to visit the sick and demonstrate the supposed healing
power of this Egyptian Esculapius, thus Christianized. The virgin
mother, who was also black, survived in Italy as in Egypt. At Oropa,
near Bietta, the Madonna and her child-Christ are not white but black,
as they so often were in Italy of old and as the child is yet conditioned
in the little black Jesus of the Eternal City.
He adds as regards the worship of Imhotep in Rome,
"Surely the profoundest sigh of an ever-warring world went up
to Heaven in the cult of Iu-em-hotep, who is worshipped as the giver
of rest, the Kamite prince of peace.".
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