Egyptian Days and Ayurvedic Man: medical cultural connections

One of the advantages of working in central London is the sheer number of interesting exhibitions and other events going on all around me.  The other day I wandered into the Wellcome Collection to see if they had anything interesting to see, and was rewarded with a free exhibition called Ayurvedic Man: Encounters with Indian Medicine, which is on until the 8th of April 2018, exploring health and illness in India and nearby countries.  The exhibits on display mostly relate to a much later era than the one which I study: indeed, the exhibition posters emphasise that the theory and emphases of ayurvedic medicine did not remain static, but changed over time, in response to imperialism and western influence.  Nevertheless, when I look at something from a different culture to the one that I study, I like to look for connections and continuity, even when you might not expect to find them.  So when I encountered bloodletting and references to the humours, I immediately started drawing mental comparisons with English medical books and the wider European context in which they existed.  The Leechbooks, to which I have referred on numerous occasions in this blog, have long been known to be derived from Mediterranean medical works: the healing plants recommended in them attest to this.  This post is part of an (entirely inadvertent) occasional series on bodily fluids – having previously looked at vomit and snot, I think it’s now time for blood!

This drawing, the star piece of the Wellcome exhibition and that after which it is named, was made in Nepal around 1800, using text from the sixteenth-century Bhāvaprakāśaḥ.

Ayurvedic Man Wellcome Library no. 574912i
Ayurvedic Man, Wellcome Library no. 574912i

This is entirely drawn from the Ayurvedic understanding of the human anatomy, unlike other Indian images of the human body. The channels and organs drawn on the torso are specified as in Ayurvedic literature, with organs named as receptacles for one or other of the organic fluids … They are the seats of the humours (wind, bile and phlegm) and do not generally engage in the kind of processing which modern western biomedicine expects of an ‘organ’.

Catalogue entry for Wellcome Library no. 574912i

This excellent article, an extract from In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room by Aarathi Prasad, explains in brief the ancient and long-lasting ayurvedic philosophy of Indian medicine and the ‘balance through moderation’ which underpins it.  Prasad explains how this principle would have been familiar to Europeans whose own ancient medical theories were based on the idea of the four ‘humours’ – blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile – which had to be kept in balance, and are roughly analogous to the three doshas of wind, bile and phlegm referred to in ayurveda.  The humours are referred to as wætan, fluids or moistures, in Old English.

Roy12Dxvii8r waetan and bloodletting
London, British Library Royal MS 12 D. xvii, f. 8r

Signs of the illness: the illness comes from bad humours flowing from above, or from vapours, or from both. Then, in this illness, one must first let blood from the upper vein, after which one must give a plant drink …

But when should you let a person’s blood?  A Tibetan manuscript in the Wellcome exhibition offers many answers to this question, showing which days are good and which are bad, and when one should guard against demons.  According to the description online, it ties together a great deal of different ideas in a single poster-sized diagram:

Wellcome Library Or Tibetan 114 - Bloodletting chart, Tibet
Wellcome Library, Or Tibetan 114

Chart indicating good and bad bloodletting days and when to guard against demons. The chart also contains a sme ba, 9 figures symbolising the elements in geomancy, in the centre with the Chinese pa-kua, 8 trigrams, surrounded by 12 animals representing months and years. Below this, symbols of the 7 days of the week. 106 compartments containing an ornamental letter in each and written in dbu indicate bloodletting days. The protector deities, top, are Manjursri, the White Tara and Vajrapani, below them the 8 fortune signs and other symbols.

Catalogue entry for Wellcome Collection, Or Tibetan 114

The idea of good and bad days for bloodletting would have been completely familiar to Anglo-Saxons who were in the know.  Several manuscripts include a list of what were known as dies Egyptiaci, the ‘Egyptian days’, on which it was considered dangerous to let blood – in this case, either from a human, or from a farm animal:

CotTitDxxvi3v Egyptian Days
London, British Library Cotton MS Titus D. xxvi, f. 3v

Beate Günzel notes that these are so called because Egyptian calendars had once listed them as unlucky days.  On medieval English calendars, which show the feasts of the saints and the signs of the zodiac, these are sometimes marked with the abbreviation D’, or, in this twelfth-century example, with the words ‘Dies egiptiacus‘.

Add38819 Dies Egip
London, British Library Additional MS 38819, f. 2v

According to the Lacnunga medical collection, not only should you not let the blood of either humans or animals on these ‘plihtice dagas’ (dangerous days), but you also shouldn’t eat goose meat on them, and anyone who is born on these days will meet a sticky end!

Har585.190r Egyptian Days
London, British Library Harley MS 585, f. 190r

There are three days in the year which we call ‘Egyptian’ – that is, in our language, dangerous days – on which no-one, for any need, is to diminish the blood either of a human or of an animal …

When we study different periods of history, we find ourselves seeing more and more connections, confluences and continuities, across time and across space.  While the early medieval English may not have had direct contact with India, they were in contact with the rest of the western church, and with Rome and the Mediterranean, as also were many parts of Asia, a network of influences by which ideas were spread widely across the world.


Works used:

Beate Günzel, ed. Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (London: Boydell Press, 1993).


4 thoughts on “Egyptian Days and Ayurvedic Man: medical cultural connections

  1. This is some great collection and correlation effort, but as a qualified Ayurvedic physician, I would like to point out that there are some very evident discrepancies in the ‘Ayurvedic man’ painting here. For example, Ayurvedic sources had very clear knowledge that the kidneys are two in pair, each on one lateral side of the body; and ‘Indriya’ is not a particular visceral organ as shown therein. The said diagram does borrow its labels heavily from Ayurvedic terminology, but it is nowhere near the ‘Ayurvedic understanding of human anatomy’ as the source claims. Historical documentary evidence clearly points that Ayurvedic physicians have to perform cadaver dissections as part of their training since at least 3000 years. The person who drew this painting clearly hadn’t ever engaged in one. Also, some of the label terms are nowhere found in Ayurveda. It took me a day to cross verify all the sources but nothing is to be found. A wild guess would be that this painting may belong to Sowa Rigpa, the traditional medical system of Tibet that is a lot similar to Ayurveda, or is just a flawed rough sketch drawn by an amateur who got his hands on some treatise. I hope the source you got this from investigates more and amends the incorrect description. I would be happy to help with the sources for what I just claimed here and their translation, if you would like to investigate. Best,

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I appreciate your open response to my comment, which was tbh, a critical one coming from a total stranger.
        There’s a myriad of exhibits at this link, and more in the hashtag feed. Firstly, there are some authentic Ayurvedic ones made with commendable accuracy, most notably the surgical instruments, chakra diagrams and the enema syringe. Then there are a large number of mythological/religious paintings visible in the IG feed relating only vaguely with Ayurveda or any of the Indian medical systems. There are also some genuinely interesting anatomy diagrams from the Unani system in Urdu script, of which I’m no expert, so won’t be able to comment. However, there is general similarity in their graphic details with Ayurveda, as would be expected. One notable deviation is the ‘fetus-in-utero’ painting which shows uterus as part of the intestines, a view totally contrary to the Ayurvedic understanding of anatomy. It is again, it seems from comments, wrongly attributed to Ayurveda. Ayurvedic manuscripts describe uterus exactly as per the factual position.
        There’s another very interesting diagram partly in Gujarati script, which I couldn’t examine due to insufficient pixel resolution. Then there’s this blob-on-two-legs sculpture thing in an IG photo, which probably got misplaced from the LOTR theme exhibition next door. My Ayurveda knowledge can’t make anything even remotely Ayurvedic out of it. Lastly, Ayurvedic kitchen section is one superb idea that brings practical utility of Ayurveda to the masses. Totally appreciated.
        Overall, the exhibition looks a rich mix of Indian medical systems and Indian mythology. The only glitch I think is that many viewers get confused between other faculties like Unani (at places, even mythology) and Ayurveda, as is evident in the IG comments. That risks making a negative impression about Ayurveda on a scientific minded viewer.
        My specific reservations about the ‘Ayurvedic Man’ painting, and now the ‘fetus-in-utero’ one too, remain – that they no way represent the ‘Ayurvedic understanding of human anatomy’ as described, not even the source cited (the Bhavprakash manuscript).
        Funnily enough, the Ayurvedic Man diagram even contradicts the very verses written alongside it. For example, the second top stanza on the left describes how the five types of Indriyas (sensory organs), Vatas and Pittas are distributed all over the body, while the painting shows a single visceral organ named ‘Indriya’ and another three labelled ‘reservoirs of Vata, Pitta and Kapha’. The second-from-bottom stanza on the right describes the lungs alongsides the heart, which are nowhere to be seen in the diagram, and more such discrepancies. I wonder how nobody even seems to have read that.
        As a qualified Ayurvedic physician having professionally studied Indian medicine’s history and multiple Indic languages and scripts, my technical views about the exhibition are mixed ones. I can gladly help with the required corrections and more, if the exhibition’s hosts are interested. My LinkedIn contact page is .
        Warm regards and goodwill blogging,

        Liked by 3 people

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