The Three Gods of Medicine in Ancient Egypt

From the lecture series: History of ancient Egypt

By Bob Brier, Ph.D., Long Island University

In ancient Egypt, the priests were also the physicians, and there were three gods of medicine who could be considered the patron gods to these physicians. And, if we know and understand even a little about mythology, it will make sense to us why they were patrons to the physicians.

Isis and Nephthys as kites.
There are many myths and legends that show how the gods of medicine were associated with healing and restoration of life. (Image: Painter of fresco anonymous/Public domain)

Wabu: The Physician Priests of Ancient Egypt

The physician priests of ancient Egypt were callled wabu. A priest is was called wab. The word itself is quite interesting. It means “to purify”, and the man who purifies is the priest. Thus, most of these physicians were called wabu which is a plural form of wab.

Sekhmet: The First God of Medicine

These priests revered Goddess Sekhmet. It is interesting to see that Goddess Sekhmet is associated with priests. She is usually shown in statues as a woman with the head of a lioness.

Statue of goddess Sekhmet.
Goddess Sekhmet is usually shown in statues as a woman with the head of a lioness. (Image: McLeod/National Museum, Copenhagen/Public domain)

So she’s fierce; and there is a myth that talks about her being fierce: The Sun God Re was getting old, but the mankind wasn’t listening to him, which ticked him off. So he asked Sekhmet to be his eye and sends her to the earth to destroy mankind. In the meanwhile, the Sun God gives up his plan, but now, he is unable to turn Sekhmet off. So Re has his assistants make up a mixture of ochre and beer to make it look like blood. They then cover the earth with this mixture and tell Sekhmet that that’s the blood of mankind. To this, a happy Sekhmet said, “I’m going to drink the blood of mankind.” And she consumes the mixture, gets drunk, and forgets about destroying the rest of mankind, in turn, saving mankind.

Thus, it is definitely unusual that she is associated with healing and other nice things. Still, she is considered to be one of the Goddesses or Gods of medicine.

This is a transcript from the video series History of Ancient Egypt. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Toth, the Second God of Medicine

Toth is another God connected with physicians, and his association with physicians seems more logical. Toth is generally shown as an ibis—a bird with a long beak. Although Toth has the body of a man, but he has the head of an ibis. Apart from being one of the gods of medicine, Toth is also known as the god of writing, as he invented writing.

Writing was a very strange thing in the ancient world. There is no doubt that writing is a great and important invention, but for the reasons best known to them, Egyptians did not write a lot many things. We all know that they did not write about the mummification process. They also did not leave any notes on how to build pyramids and temples. But, they did write about medicine.

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The Myths around Toth

The reason Toth is considered one of the gods of medicine can be explained by some myths. Almost all of them are related to Isis, Osiris, and Seth. In one of these myths, their son Horus battles his uncle, Seth. Horus beats Seth, but ends up losing one of his eyes. The pieces of the eye are found except for one piece. That’s when the god of medicine, God Toth, supplies that piece of the eye and restores the vision of Horus. So the eye of Horus became a magical charm for health.

There’s another myth in which he actually saves Horus’s life. Isis had hidden an infant Horus from Seth in a thicket. But Horus was stung by a scorpion and was dead. Isis started wailing and crying so loudly that the sound reached up to the gods. Thus Toth came down and resurrected Horus.

Thus, Toth was understandably a god of physicians. This is one of the reasons why many physicians also came from the temples of Toth.

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Isis, the Third God of Medicine

Isis nursing Horus.
Goddess Isis was probably the most important goddesses of medicine of ancient Egypt. (Image: Walters Art Museum/Public domain)

Now, the third, and probably the most important, god (or goddess) of medicine is no doubt Isis. She restored her own husband back to life. And that is really wonderful. But again, there’s an amazing story about Isis that is very close to the Bible.

According to the story, Isis and her infant son Horus were trying to escape from Seth. Isis had the company of seven little scorpions as bodyguards. While looking for shelter, she knocked on the door of a woman, who, on seeing the scorpions, refused to help Isis.

This enraged the scorpions, who put their entire venom in the tail of one of them. Now, this woman who refused to help Isis also had a child. And the scorpion with the poison stung him, and the child died. Seeing the distressed woman, Isis took pity on her and put her hands on the child, who got healed and came back to life. Therefore, Isis also had the power of healing.

Mythology shows how these gods of medicine were associated with healing and restoration of life. This also explains why physician priests in ancient Egypt came from the temples of these gods.

Common Questions about the Three Gods of Medicine in Ancient Egypt

Q: Who were the three gods of medicine in ancient Egypt?

The three gods of medicine in ancient Egypt were: Sekhmet, Toth, and Isis.

Q: How were Sekhmet and Toth depicted in ancient Egypt?

In ancient Egypt, Goddess Sekhmet was usually shown in statues as a woman with the head of a lioness. While Toth was generally shown as an ibis—a bird with a long beak. Although he had the body of a man, but his head was of an ibis.

Q: According to the myth, ho did Toth save Horus?

According to a myth, Isis had hidden an infant Horus from Seth in a thicket. But Horus was stung by a scorpion and was dead. Isis started wailing and crying so loudly that the sound reached up to the gods. Thus, Toth, the god of medicine, came down and resurrected Horus.

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