Dr. Robin Cohen
English 3329, Mythology
Imhotep: A Living Myth
The world has been captivated by Egypt almost from the beginning of its rise. The great Pharaohs have constantly fascinated the world and, except for a dark period shortly after the rise of the Christian era, Egypt has been a land of mystery and enchantment. The pyramids at Giza are the only surviving testament we have to the great wonders of the world. But who decided that the Egyptians would build pyramids? Who came up with the idea? The answer resides in a man called Imhotep who lived almost 2000 years before Christ walked the earth. A figure of heroic proportions, he himself was long believed to be a myth, but in fact, he is quite real, though still mythic in legacy. Though there are many other aspects of ancient Egypt to discuss, Imhotep is certainly one of the most fascinating, and the cornerstone on which rests much of what we think of when we think of Egypt.
Imhotep was 3rd dynasty Pharaoh Djoser’s head architect, chief physician and high priest. Widely regarded as the world’s first known genius, his trio of roles put him second only to the pharaoh himself in terms of importance. A master architect, he was responsible for designing and building the world’s first pyramid. As high priest, he was revered throughout the land and brought great honor to the order of Heliopolis, of which he was a member. Their sacred symbol was a pyramid shaped stone, and it is believed
that the stone was where he arrived at the shape of the step pyramid. But it was a physician, that he was eventually elevated to a god-like status. In fact, stories of Imhotep were so fantastical that for many years archeologists thought that he was merely a mythical figure, until a statue bearing his name and titles was found at Djoser’s pyramid in Saqqura. (“The Lost Mummy of Imhotep”)
It is fitting that the first true historical record of Imhotep was found at Saqqura, for that is the site of his greatest achievement. Imhotep himself designed Djoser’s pyramid and while it is only one of many things that earned him his fame, it is the most easily visible. The pyramid at Saqqura is the oldest stone building in the world and at the time it was built, it was the largest building of any kind that the world had ever seen. (Reader and Partridge, 18) This pyramid began the pyramid era in Egypt, and while Imhotep was not around to design the pyramids at Giza, they could not have been built without knowledge of how the pyramid at Saqqura was built. Up until the pyramid craze, pharaohs were buried in low, earthen brick mounds called mastabas, which is the Arabic word for “bench”. (“The Lost Mummy of Imhotep”) The new pyramids were much more elegant resting places, and brought many honors upon those who were placed there. After all, when your tomb dominates the skyline in an area, how will those people ever forget where you are buried?
Although he built a spectacular resting place for his ruler, the exact location of Imhotep’s tomb still remains a mystery. Many archeologists have searched for it over the years at Saqqura, and all they have found is evidence they are on the right track. An expedition in recent years found even more evidence that Imhotep’s final resting place
may be located somewhere at Saqqura. The archeological team found over 1.5 million ibises in a room buried under the sands. In the room beyond that, they found mummified baboons. All of the animals appeared to have been sacrifices, and both animals are typically associated with medicine and particularly Imhotep. All of this points to this location being a very important site associated with Imhotep, where people would come and give their sacrifices so that he would heal their relatives from beyond the grave. (“The Lost Mummy of Imhotep”)
But why would someone like Imhotep be revered enough to have sacrifices made to them in the hopes of healing the sick? Imhotep was deified for his work in the medical realm, over 2000 years before Hippocrates. There is evidence that the ancient Egyptians practiced a crude type of brain surgery, set broken limbs so they would heal, and even knew to use honey, a natural anti-bacterial, in many of their mystical poultices. (“The Lost Mummy of Imhotep”) It is thought, due to references back to an earlier time, that Imhotep was the one who invented or improved many of these practices, and wrote the first Instructions in Wisdom. Though his original copy does not survive, many other documents refer to it, or appear to be taken from it. (David, 123) In fact, some scholars believe that if the knowledge to read hieroglyphics hadn’t been lost in the early Christian era, doctors might even swear the Imhotepic oath, instead of the Hippocratic oath!
That Imhotep was deified should really be no surprise. Egyptians were fond, it seems of deifying mortals whom they felt deserved it, as they did with both Osiris and Seth, if legends are to be believed, (El Mahdy, 155) and it is certain that they felt Imhotep deserved this deification. While stories of him healing the sick and lame years after his
death at various shrines in his memory and honor cannot be proven, it is certain that the Egyptians revered life and believed that the most important thing one had to do was make sure that one’s eternal life would be as smooth as one’s life on this Earth. The fact that his title as court physician was his most enduring title, and that physicians were usually regarded as channeling the power of the gods, hint at a mystically centered culture with an obsession with life and death. But Imhotep would not have been revered as much as he was if his remedies hadn’t worked. The Egyptians might have been mystically inclined, but they were not gullible. Many of the ingredients in salves and poultices were actually medically effective—including the heavy use of honey as a main ingredient.
The story of Imhotep’s success as an architect, a physician and a priest underline Egypt’s fascination for the great and the mystical and our fascination with Egypt points to a similar drive within our own society even today. Fueled every few years by another great discovery, as long as there are sands in Egypt, there will be a yearning to know what they conceal. With our perception of Imhotep moving from a myth to a knowledge that he did in fact exist, to several failed attempts at locating his tomb, who knows what the next discovery will bring? This much is for certain, however, as long as the people of the world look to the pyramids as signs of a great culture and find and unwrap mummies, Imhotep’s legacy will live on.
David, Rosalie. Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
David, Rosalie and Rick Archbold. Conversations With Mummies. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
El Mahdy, Christine. Mummies: Myth and Magic. Spain: Thames and Hudson, 1989.
Reader, Colin and Robert Partridge. “Older than Djoser?” Egypt Revealed March/April 2001: 18.
“The Lost Mummy of Imhotep” Narr. Oskar Eustis. Discovery Channel. nd.