the tomb of hesy-ra
Page 8 of 9
Hesy-ra’s primary role in ancient Egypt seems to have been that of a Doctor. As the "Chief
of Dentists and Physicians," he dealt with Egypt’s rather advanced medical pursuits. (West, pg.
210) With the idea of ‘ancient’ civilizations, images are sometimes conjured of a general lack of
control over the afflictions of the flesh. Ancient Egypt, however, seems to have had a fairly
decent understanding of the human body. In Greek times, the Egyptians’ medical knowledge was
well reputed, specializing in various areas of the body such as the feet, eyes, teeth, belly, and
head. (Michaels, pg. 232) These practitioners died with splendid tombs, showing Egypt’s
appreciation of the healing arts. Hesy-ra, well known for his dental proficiency, was also one of
the earliest to hint at some form of Diabetes. A papyrus record mentions Hesy-ra’s recognition of
a symptom of Diabetes, polyuria, or frequent urination. (CDA)
There are, it seems, several conflicting opinions on the state of Egyptian medicine, even
some from the same source. When today’s scientists look back, they find an Egyptian people
inundated with painful dental conditions. The grainy, often sandy, foods would eventually grind
down the hard tooth coatings, leading to caries, or cavities, and abscesses. These problems were
especially prevalent in the wealthier classes after the Pyramid Age. (Michaels, pg. 233) While
the ancient physicians communicated amongst themselves, there are few remaining records.
Seven papyri, related to medicine and dated from the time of pharaohs, still exist. The
information, however, is mixed. The active ingredients are the puzzle, as magic seems to have
played a role as well. Modern scientists have, in some cases, been able to discern what the
substance may have been, yet definitive answers are scarce. Some conclude that the Egyptians
made no significant discoveries in medicine. (Michaels, pg. 234) Dentistry, however, was well
established in ancient times. It is hinted in the biography of Hesy-ra, that Egyptian "toothpullers"
exhibited "care and professional courtesy" in their field. (Rice, 1990, pg. 193) Yet modern
analyses of mummified remains have shown that some still suffered. One set of remains,
possibly those of Amenhotep III, reveal a man with "teeth so badly abscessed that they must
have reduced the poor man to a state of screaming misery, and semi-invalidism." (Michaels, pg.
235) Issues such as these clearly hint at an underlying conflict among modern scholars.
Another of Hesy-ra’s titles is "chief of the King’s scribes." (James, pg. 155) While this at
first seems like a lesser title than that of physician, the scribal designation was a badge of honor.
As seen in both of his wooden panels, he is shown with his scribe’s kit. Regardless of his stance
as active or relieved, he cherishes his abilities and position as a learned man. The idea of literacy
and its enormous benefits can still be seen in the Post-Amarna period. The pharaoh
Tutankhamon, for example, was found with, among other related items, a resplendent scribe’s kit
in the shape of a column fitted with palm-leafed capital. Made of guilded wood, inlaid with semi-
precious stones and colored glass, this was a beautiful tool for the afterlife. Still, its form
remained true to tradition, including a brush, palettes for the red and black inks and a carrying
case. Tutankhamon even is described as "beloved of Thoth, lord of god’s words." (James, pg.
155) Thoth, as the god of writing, as well as of scribes, lends special weight to the understanding
of the ancient respect for the scribe’s task.