History is filled with bizarre, and often degrading, jobs that we can’t imagine doing today. Shepherd of the Royal Anus is up there with the worst of them. The ancient Egyptians have been remembered for their advanced medical care. They not only appreciated the need for a healthy diet, but also performed surgery, dentistry, understood human anatomy, had a deep appreciation for herbal remedies and even used prosthetics. Nevertheless, few people know that they paid particular attention to the anus.
The only image found to date which shows ancient Egyptian surgery in action depicts a circumcision. Plaster copy of bas relief dating back to 2500 BC discovered at Sakkara in Egypt showing a circumcision. (Wellcome Collection / CC BY 4.0 )
Evidence about their knowledge has been deciphered from the hieroglyphics of ancient Egyptian medical papyri, including the Edwin Smith Papyrus (circa 1550 BC) and the Brooklyn Snake Papyrus (300 BC). The Ebers Papyrus (circa 1500 BC), which contains over 800 remedies for illness and injuries, is the oldest text to reference enemas, a process whereby liquid or gas is injected into the rectum via the anus in order to insert medicine or to expel poop.
Medical papyri and tomb inscriptions have shown that healers or physicians, known as swnw, practiced specialties and were responsible for different parts of the body. There were neurologists, dentists, gastroenterologists and ophthalmologists. While these days the anus is the realm of proctologists, in ancient Egypt the Iri was a medical specialist with the magnificent title of Shepherd of the Anus.
Statue of Niankhre, chief physician to Egyptian court during the VI dynasty. (Wellcome Collection / CC BY 4.0 )
One such physician was Irynachet, who lived around 2200 BC and whose medical titles were discovered on a recycled door discovered at Giza shaft tomb. The inscriptions stated that he was senior physician of the great house, physician of the belly, physician of the eyes, and protector of the anus. The anus was important within ancient Egyptian medical beliefs because it was believed to be the source of wekhedu, a corruptive substance which had to be removed in order to cure disease.
Both Herodotus and Diodorus Siclus recorded that enemas were a common form of administering treatment and the rectum was regularly cleaned as a way of preventing disease. Lois N. Magner in his A History of Medicine explained that within Egyptian mythology, the enema was invented by the god Thoth, often represented with the head of an ibis. In fact, many believe that enemas were discovered through observation of the venerated bird using its curved beak to clean out its anus with water.
At court proctologists held the enviable title of neru phuyt, or Guardian of the Royal Rectum, charged with performing the enemas of the pharaoh. Keep in mind that the pharaoh was not just a king, but was considered a living god. It was an honor to work for the pharaoh and especially to be able to touch him.
Administering enemas with a golden cannula was a privilege, much like being the Groom of the Stool in medieval England, a position which not only kept the kings bowels in working order, but also conferred its holder with unfettered access to the king.
Top image: Depiction of the ancient Egyptian deity Thoth silhouette, said to have invented the enema, which were performed by a type of physician known as shepherd of the anus. Source: SunFrot/Adobe Stock
By Cecilia Bogaard