Medicine and magic through the ages

December 8, 2017
large box segmented into smaller boxes containing amulets

Medical amulets

by Lynne Raughley

When curator and outreach librarian Pablo Alvarez took on responsibility for the Library’s history of medicine collection back in 2014, he found among its thousands of rare texts a small box of gemstones and spells, made to cast off demons and cure ailments.

These ancient amulets, which come from places like Egypt and Syria during the Roman Empire, were used as both preventive and cure. People wore them as bracelets or necklaces, and healers used them on their patients, often in combination with more conventional medical practices.

The amulets address a gamut of physical complaints and conditions, and many intermingle physiology and sorcery, like the uterine amulets that symbolically depict the womb and its mechanics, along with engravings of Egyptian deities meant to offer divine protections for pregnancy and childbirth. Others are directed at healing the pains and diseases of the stomach, and bear carvings of the lion-headed serpent Chnoubis or the ibis, both of which were imbued with the power to remedy such ailments. And still others seek to protect the backs and hips of laborers, or to heal the eye.

Alvarez—with a Ph.D. in classics and a special interest in the pedagogical use of rare books—has spent much of his professional life focusing on texts and the writings they contain. Still, he was fascinated by these evocative carved gemstones, which speak vividly of the magic-inflected medical beliefs and practices of their era. He saw in them, he writes, “a window to a more  complex, plausibly more real, world of anxieties and beliefs,” one quite different from the theoretical perspectives handed down by the medical authorities of the time.

The amulets sparked in Alvarez an idea for creating an expansive dialogue between texts and objects by juxtaposing writings from the Library’s collection with artifacts retrieved from archaeological digs. This dialogue would illuminate the purpose and context of the artifacts, animate our knowledge of the lived experiences of both practitioners and patients in the ancient world, and increase our understanding of how medical and magical healing practices were transmitted over the centuries.

By bringing together related holdings from the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the Library’s history of medicine collection, Alvarez knew he could offer an unprecedented look at the practice of medicine and the healing arts over two millennia. In fact, the University of Michigan is one of very few institutions in North America whose extensive holdings could furnish an exhibit like this.

Inspiration and raw materials, though, would not be enough. Mounting the exhibit would require willing collaborators and financial support. Fortunately, the Kelsey Museum readily signed on to the idea, committing their space, artifacts, and expertise. And Alvarez found a benefactor in U-M alumnus Carl D. Winberg, M.D., a longtime supporter of the Library and a physician bibliophile, like the two 19th-century U-M alumni who originated the history of medicine collection. Winberg’s gift made possible the physical exhibit, and the publication of a handsome hardcover edition of the exhibition catalog.

The exhibit, The Art and Science of Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance, was on display at the Kelsey Museum from February through April. Among the earliest objects shown was a second-century CE papyrus with a text from the Greek botanist Dioscorides’ On Materia Medica, while the most recent was a first edition of William Harvey’s Anatomical Treatise on the Movement of the Heart and Blood in Animals (1628). Among the themes illuminated were the role of religion and superstition in healing the soul and body, the influence of Graeco-Roman methods of diagnosis and treatment in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and the contributions of Islamic doctors and scholars to the preservation of Greek and Roman medical knowledge.

The exhibit drew thousands of visitors, and was used as a teaching tool by a number of instructors. In her course “Ancient Medicine in Greece and Rome,” Professor Aileen Das assigned exhibit critiques, and Alvarez gave tours and talks in units across campus, including to first year medical students in the Medical Humanities Program.

A related symposium gathered scholars from around the world to explore topics related to medical texts and materials from the pre-modern period, including the relationship of medicine and religion, medical illustration, and the role of materials and formats in the transmission of medical ideas.

With the exhibit having come to a close, Alvarez reports that the amulets have been returned to their box. “We might today deny their power to heal,” he reflects. “But their power to fascinate and inform remains.”



The physical exhibit has closed, but a slightly modified version of the exhibit lives on as The Art and Science of Healing: From Antiquity to the Renaissance. These are snippets from the online exhibit:

History of Medicine Collection

This extraordinary gathering of rare books acquired an international reputation by the first half of the twentieth century via the addition of two extraordinary libraries of rare medical books, bequeathed by the famous bibliophile physicians, Le Roy Crummer (1872–1934) and Lewis Stephen Pilcher (1845–1934). As well as their U-M affiliations, Crummer and Pilcher shared an interest in the transmission of Greek medicine in early printed books and particularly in the development of anatomy from the fifteenth century onward. The medical amulets that inspired the exhibit The Art and Science of Healing (see p. n) came to the collection via U-M  Professor of Greek Campbell Bonner (1876–1954), who literally wrote the book on them (Magical Amulets, Chiefly Graeco-Egyptian, which was published by the University of Michigan Press in 1950.)

Medical Instruments in Antiquity

Archaeological remains of medical instruments provide us with extraordinary evidence for actual medical practices in the Graeco-Roman world, illustrating the information given by ancient authors such as Aulus Cornelius Celsus (fl. AD 25) and Paul of Aegina (ca. AD 625–690). Forceps, bifurcated hooks, ear probes, spoon probes, and scalpels might suggest a number of uses, both cosmetic and medical. But it is only when we read Celsus vividly describing how to use a probe to assess the damage of a fistula, or Paul of Aegina recommending the use of tweezers to extract a hair from the eye affected by conjunctivitis, that we fully understand the varied contexts in which these tools were used.

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Last modified: 12/08/2017