Today, we will be talking about the Kahun Papyrus, which is among the oldest and most important medical papyri of Ancient Egypt and of the world. This is a papyrus dealing with women’s health – gynecological diseases, fertility, pregnancy, and contraception; it dates back to the Twelfth Dynasty of Egypt, c. 1800 BCE. It is a three page document, 1 m long and about 33 cm wide. The name Amenemhet III was written in the right upper corner behind third page name. The document was torn in places and patched with gum and papyrus.
It was found at El-Lahun (Faiyum, Egypt) by Flinders Petrie in 1889 and first translated by F. Ll. Griffith in 1893 and published in The Petrie Papyri: Hieratic Papyri from Kahun and Gurob. The later Berlin Papyrus and the Ramesseum Papyrus IV cover much of the same ground, often giving identical prescriptions. ‘Kahun’ is the name Petrie gave to the Lehun town site, which in 1825 BC had been a thriving, prosperous town; the name was probably a misspelling from this European in contact with a foreign language (see Abidjan). The papyrus had been so heavily used that its ancient owner had to repair it, with a patch bearing an administrative fragment visible at one point on the back. This gynecological papyrus originates from the Middle Kingdom (Twelfth Dynasty of Egypt) to the reign of the childless female-king Sobekneferu, whose interest in gynecology might have been sparked by her elder sister dying at an early age.
The text is divided into thirty-four sections, each section dealing with a specific problem and containing diagnosis and treatment; no prognosis is suggested. Treatments are non-surgical, comprising of the application of medicines to the affected body part or swallowing them. The womb is at times seen as the source of complaints manifesting themselves in other body parts.
The first seventeen parts have a common format starting with a title and are followed by a brief description of the symptoms, usually, though not always, having to do with the reproductive organs. The second section begins on the third page, and comprises eight paragraphs which, because of both the state of the extant copy and the language, are almost unintelligible. Despite this, there are several paragraphs that have a sufficiently clear level of language as well as being intact which can be understood.
Paragraph 19 is concerned with the recognition of who will give birth; paragraph 20 is concerned with the fumigation procedure which causes conception to occur; and paragraphs 20-22 are concerned with contraception. Among those materials prescribed for contraception are crocodile dung, 45 ml of honey, and sour milk.
The third section (paragraphs 26-32) is concerned with the testing for pregnancy. Other methods include the placing of an onion bulb deep in the patients flesh, with the positive outcome being determined by the odor appearing to the patients nose.
The fourth and final section contains two paragraphs which do not fall into any of the previous categories. The first prescribes treatment for toothaches during pregnancy. The second describes what appears to be a fistula between bladder and vagina with incontinence of urine “in an irksome place.”
To learn more about it, check out “The Kahun Gynaecological Papyrus: Ancient Egyptican Medicine” by L. Smith, J Fam Plann Reprod Health Care 37 (2011) 54. University College London also has an extensive page on the manuscript with its translation, as the manuscript for the health of mother and child.