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Medicine and Religion in Ancient Civilizations Essay



When your child is sick, do you call the doctor or pray? Is it an infection that attacks the body or is it a spiritual issue to confront? For many people in our modern times, these questions seem to be absurd. To the educated mind, the association between religion and healing seems an anachronism that is not very compatible with scientific medicine. However, most societies throughout history have shared a religious view of the world, and many of them still have the views today. Medicine and religion had always had a very close connection throughout history, a connection that can be traced back to the earliest attempts to heal the human body and to understand the nature of an illness. In the ancient times, when people knew very little about medicine and the structure of the human body, healers treated the symptoms of common diseases, while the causes of these diseases remained unknown.

The relationship between religion and medicine has always been a controversial topic discussed throughout centuries. Some said that religion is in the way of the medicine and stops it from evolving and changing while others stated that medicine undermines the sanctity of human life and goes against the natural way of life. Despite these controversies, there is evidence of medicine and religion going hand-in-hand and complement each other. This paper is an attempt to explore the relationships between medicine and religion in ancient civilizations as well as some medical practices inherent to the past times.

Wabw and Swnw in Ancient Egypt

The main means of healing in Ancient Egypt can be loosely divided into two categories: magic (wabw) and medicine (swnw). In Ancient Egypt doctors, priests and magicians took part in treating illnesses, and, as evident in Ebers papyrus, their role in healthcare was parallel. In contrast to our modern beliefs, any representative of these groups was considered to have a positive healing effect, although there were some differences in the harm they might do in case of an error. The Ancient Egyptian doctor, swnw, had a limited selection of operative tools, although he had other therapeutic tools that he shared with priests and magicians and that included attention to diet, care after the sick person, and the placebo effect. Many of the swnw had titles of the priests while some of them carried titles that were indicative of them being magicians, thus, the relationship between religion and medicine in Ancient Egypt was very close and interconnected.

Body and Spirit in Ancient Greece

The relationship between the body and the spirit has been a complicated question in the history of the human experience. The ancient Greeks described medicine as the most philanthropic act while religion was perceived as an instinctive search of a person for the divine (Hippocrates, 2005, p. 86). In ancient Greece, religion was constantly evolving with medicine connected to it and being under the patronage of god Asclepius. Asclepius was a god-man that could converse within the languages of divine and human and that could heal and save. For this reason, in the early Christian centuries, he was the main antagonist to Jesus Christ. In him, physicians saw a prototype of love and concern for other human beings.

Throughout Antiquity, the Greek society saw the great need in the divine solicitude of human infirmities. It was the person in need of treating who should decide to turn to Asclepius and to the priests-physicians to perform the needed treatment. The Asclepius cult became very popular in late antiquity. Its aim was to renewal in the human soul and the rebirth in human health. Some of the modern terms that included clinic, hygiene, and panacea.

The Father of Medicine

Western medicine has always recognized Hippocrates as the ideal. His works were accepted as authoritative in many kinds of medical problems as well as they were an essential part of training as a doctor. However, despite the fact that his importance has declined in recent decades, he still represents an idea of an ethical ideal, a caring and compassionate doctor. The importance of his writings is associated with three aspects: the still relevant ethical ideal of the doctor, the insights the writings provide into the development of Western medicine, and the influence they exercised over medical thought over the centuries.

Hippocrates was considered a ‘father’ of Greek medicine, because, before him, people recognized only two causes of death – heat or cold. Hippocrates stated that if it were the case, then doctors would be all equally inexperienced and ignorant as well as recognize the condition of their patient simply by chance. On the other hand, if it were not the case, the doctors will greatly differ among themselves both in theory and practice. His opinion was that medicine had possessed all qualities necessary to become a science (Hippocrates, 2005, p. 71).

In the first place, the science of medicine was never sought for, as there was no need for it. If sick men were treated by the regimen that the healthy have, there would be no need for such science. However, the need for medicine appeared because of the fact that the sick could not be treated by following the same regimen the way healthy men do.

Impact of Buddhism on Ayurveda

Ayurveda is a system of general medical practice that includes preventive and prescriptive aspects. It includes a great deal of good practical advice for people in almost every aspect of life imaginable, including diet, exercise, morality, etc. Moreover, it also includes specialized medical teachings on therapy and diagnosis that is aimed at professional doctors. Ayurveda is an all-embracing system of medical teachings that involves several various historical layers and interpretations. This makes it very hard to choose one set of ideas that can be called the Ayurveda foundations. Nevertheless, one of the most important aspects of ideas in Ayurveda is that which relates to the humors (dosa), body tissues (dhatu), and products of waste (mala).

Medical practices of Ayurveda were commonly used in the era of Buddhism. Initially, Buddhism was concerned with the well being of the human mind and soul while Ayurveda dealt with the well being of the human body (Wujastyk, 2001, p. 4). The concept of the human suffering was referred to as Dukkha, and the effort of Buddhism was aimed at finding the way to eliminate dukkha. Buddha was often called a surgeon and physician in the Buddhist literature as he could heal any wounds. Any foreign object to the human body was removed by a surgical procedure; however, grief and sorrow were considered foreign to the human soul. Buddha was said to be able to remove sorrow from the soul and to lessen the suffering in the body.

Harmony of the human soul and mind is one of the principal aspects of Buddhism, thus, the harmonious relationship between Ayurveda and Buddhism cannot be undermined by any religious beliefs or medical principles.

Medicine and Religion in the Medieval Times

Religion dominated all aspects of life in the Middle Ages. The Christian church began establishing monasteries that became hospitals for the sick and poor, later providing medical training. When it comes to Islamic countries, medicals schools gained a massive reputation and were developing very fast.

The Christian Church was determined to help all Christians to heal their diseases, but there were no medical methods for treatment beyond praying and faith. The majority of the population had relied on local healers before any medical institutions controlled by the Church began emerging. However, the Christian Church resisted many medical practices thought to violate the sanctity of human life; for instance, dissection was forbidden until the middle of the 14th century.

In the Islamic countries, religion had a more positive effect on medical practices. Qur’an gave guidelines on taking care of the sick and providing of the poor, thus, many hospitals were founded based on this principle. During the time, alchemists were able to find ways of purifying chemicals and creating medications, thus, Islam was much more accepting of medical practices and encouraged its development.

The Black Death

One of the most tragic but significant events of the medieval civilization is the Black Death that resulted in the decline of society and culture. Although the plague affected everyone, people had the power to change their destiny and battle the disease that forced the society to make quick decisions and acquire an empirical approach toward medicine. Because the majority of the population held an opinion that the Black Death was sent to them because of their sins, they attributed the emerging of medical treatments as a mercy from the divine (Alberth, 2005, p. 5).

Although doctors in the fourteenth century had a considerable amount of prestige in the community, they generally did nothing effective when it comes to the medieval chronicles of the Black Death. They were very often accused of cowardice and greed. One of the harshest critiques belonged to the Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani, who stated, “For this pestilential infirmity, doctors from every part of the world had no good remedy or effective cure, neither through natural philosophy, medicine, or the art of astrology. To gain money some went visiting and dispensing their remedies, but these only demonstrated through their patients’ death that their art was nonsense and false”. However, medieval authors gave equal relevance to the divine origin of the medical practices developed at those times.

When it comes to the religious aspect of the Black Death, a great number of documents criticize the priesthood for failing to administer to the needs of the sick during the plague, including hearing confessions and giving last rites. However, the predominant opinion was seemed to seek solace and hope in the prayers led by bishops and the clergy. Christians usually directed their prayers to God and saints that were known for their mercy and power against the disease, such as the Virgin Mary, St. Sebastian, St. Anthony and St. Roch (Alberth, 2005, p. 94).

There were fundamental differences in the way Islam and Christianity approached the plague. Islam did not recognize the apocalyptic ideas the Christians had when faced with the Black Death. Muslims did not develop a theology of original sin that burdened them with the guilt of plague victims, but instead, they viewed the disease as a natural disaster that God allowed with no reference to human punishment. Above all, Muslims rejected the ideas of contagion because this meant a cause of the disease outside the direct wish of God.


As religion is attributed to the well-being of the human soul and medicine is aimed at preserving the well-being of the body, these two aspects of human life are tightly intertwined. The exploration of the relationship between medicine and religion in the ancient civilizations have shown that religion greatly contributed to the development of medicine, however, like in Christianity, could be in control of what medicine pursued. A prominent example is the relationship between wabw and swnw in ancient Egypt, the two terms that determined magical and medical. These two aspects of Egyptian culture were inseparable, as both magic and medicine took part in the process of treating an ill individual.

Thus, no matter whether religion opposes or protects medicine, their interconnection goes back to the ancient times and should be recognized by historians, medics, and the religious authorities. With this in mind, religious belief should never be in the way of the person’s treatment as there is a bigger chance than a doctor will help a patient rather than a prayer.


Alberth, J. (2005). The Black Death: The Great Mortality of 1348-1350: A Brief History with Documents. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hippocrates. (2005). Hippocratic Writings. (I. M. Lonie, J. Chadwick, W. N. Mann & E. T. Withington, Trans.). London, UK: Penguin Books.

Wujastyk, D. (2001). The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from Sanskrit Medical Writings. New Delhi, India: Penguin Books.

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