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Throughout history, women were pharmacists, cultivating healing herbs and exchanging the secrets of their uses. They were also nurses, counselors and midwives who traveled from home to home and village to village. They have always been healers. In around 3500 BCE, Queen Puabi of Ur was buried with surgical instruments so that she might practice surgery in the afterlife. In ancient Egypt, priestesses of Isis were regarded as physician-healers who obtained their healing powers from the goddess Isis herself. Egyptian records even show that women studied at the royal medical school at Heliopolis as early as 1500 BCE.

With the fall of Corinth in 150 BCE, Greek female prisoners were taken to Italy where those with medical knowledge fetched the highest price. In his collection of work, called Sixteen Books on Medicine, Aëtius of Amida, a Byzantine Greek physician, describes the surgical techniques of Aspasia, a GrecoRoman female surgeon. These books served as a prominent surgical texts well into the 11th century where an Italian woman by the name of Tortula, herself an established physician, became well-known for teaching male doctors about the female body and childbirth. Later in history, though, spoil-sport King Henry VIII of England proclaimed that “No carpenter, smith, weaver or women shall practice surgery.”

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Hans von Aachen , “Pallas Athena, Venus and Juno” (1593)

Women’s mythological association to birth, death and immortality are well documented, and this leads to the goddesses’ association with healing and restoration even though they might later be more well-known by their other functions. In ancient Greece, for example, the goddess Athena cured blindness and the goddess of Marriage, Hera, was also known as the chief healing deity. Other healing goddesses in ancient Greece include Aceso, the goddess of curing sickness and healing wounds, Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, Epione, the goddess of the soothing of pain, Hygieia, the goddess of health, cleanliness and sanitation, and Panacea, the goddess of the universal cure. Statues of Hygeia and Panacea were located in over 300 healing temples throughout Greece, where oracles were interpreted by male and female priests who prescribed treatments to their patients.

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