The complications in using art to solve medical mysteries

It is simultaneously fascinating, amusing, and occasionally annoying that people are constantly trying to find answers to old mysteries: Where are the remnants of Noah’s Ark? Who was the Mona Lisa (was it Lisa del Giocondo? Or a feminized self-portrait of a young Leonardo da Vinci?)? Did the Devil plant dinosaur skeletons to make us question our faith in God? (I would like to take this opportunity to state the obvious: this last “mystery” does not reflect my personal beliefs in the slightest, as I am a firm believer in science and evolution).

However, my “firm belief” in science can sometimes only take me so far. A recent theory about what caused King Tut’s death was posed by Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon at Imperial College London who happens to have an interest in medical history. He claims that Tut died from a form of temporal lobe epilepsy, providing evidence for this theory using the following factors: paintings and sculptures of Tut and his immediate predecessors, which show feminized features such as large breasts and wide hips, and historical accounts of hallucinations (the Egyptians called these religious visions) that occurred during or after exposure to sunlight. According to The Washington Post, “The temporal lobe is connected to parts of the brain involved in the release of hormones, and epileptic seizures are known to alter the levels of hormones involved in sexual development. This might explain the development of the pharaohs’ large breasts.” Ashrafian claims that Tut’s broken thigh bone could have been a result of fall during an epileptic seizure, and that he very well could have died young from the disorder. Furthermore, three of his predecessors all died young and all exhibited feminine features in art, “proving” the hereditary nature of temporal lobe epilepsy. He even goes so far as to say that the associated hallucinations brought about ancient Egypt’s brief period of monotheism, since Akhenaten (Tut’s father) had a vision/sun-induced hallucination to turn the minor deity Aten, or “sun-disk,” into the supreme god.

Epilepsy is an interesting theory, to be sure, and it is now added to an ever-growing list of what killed Tut: malaria, a fall from a chariot, sickle-cell anemia, murder, a hippopotamus attack… However, I resent that this new theory completely ignores two important factors: spiritual agency in creating a new religion and creative agency in the manufacture of ancient art.

Tituba and the children

Let’s start with my first beef: the implication that the creation of a religion was based solely off of a sun-induced hallucination that was a symptom of temporal lobe epilepsy. I will admit that, being a non-religious skeptic, I personally prefer regarding “visions” as results of realistic external factors. People can have hallucinations for any number of reasons, including heat poisoning, high blood pressure, and poisoning. These are a few of many possible causes. We all now acknowledge that the hallucinations the girls of Salem were having in the late 1600’s were not because of witchcraft, but were likely due to ergot poisoning from consuming rye bread made with moldy grains. This, combined with grudges against other women in the community, led to the deaths of 25 people.


However, just because I like a good scientific explanation about some things doesn’t mean that I’m right. Why does there need to be a medical reason behind why Akhenaten had a vision that inspired him to create the first monotheistic religion? Such a notion could easily lead to the implication that it is just as likely that almost every saint in Catholicism had an illness that gave them a hallucination, not a vision from God. I can think of a lot of Catholics who would not appreciate having their religion so reductively scrutinized.

Let’s move on to my next beef, which irks me infinitely more than the first: the complete lack of consideration for artistic agency when using ancient art as evidence for a medical condition. The “sculptures and paintings” that Ashrafian was referring to were from a specific period of time and exhibited unusual characteristics in comparison to previous Egyptian sculpture. He seems to be under the assumption that art is always “honest” and an accurate depiction of real life. However, art is often a reflection of ideals.

Having looked up pictures of Amenhotep III and Tuthmosis IV, I can say that I definitely don’t see concrete evidence that these two male figures were consistently depicted with feminine features. This picture of Amenhotep III does seem to have an slight indication of moobs, but this other picture definitely does not. And check out this picture and this picture of Tuthmosis IV. The lack of consistency doesn’t convince me of epilepsy. The sculpture of Akhenaten on the right definitely is a little strange for a depiction of male– I mean look at those hips! That guy has some serious “junk in the trunk” for a man. I don’t really see breasts here– the crossed wrists really prevents a good view of the chest– but maybe my eyes don’t deceive me and there really aren’t “unusually large breasts.” However, the pouchy stomach is also definitely not something one usually sees in ancient Egyptian art. In fact, one usually sees something like this:

This sculpture screams “ancient Egyptian royalty” and was from a much different time period than the Akhenaten sculpture. But take a good look at the defined musculature of the pharaoh and then ask yourself the following question: what is the actual likelihood that Egyptian royalty took time out of their day to exercise? Or eat healthy food? The thing about being “royal” thousands of years ago was that it meant unlimited means to a sedentary lifestyle and eating the most expensive, rare, and delicious crap-for-your-body food, all the while watching everyone else do the work for you. Therefore, it is highly improbable that this pharaoh actually looked like this. He was depicted as such because it was a fitting way to depict an ideal: he needed to look powerful so as to imply his political authority. 

Going back to Akhenaten, the shift to monotheism was a massive undertaking that required a complete restructuring of societal and political beliefs in addition to religious ones. This could explain the drastic shift in pictorial and sculptural representation, moving away from the chiseled (haha, pun) body to a softer one. Furthermore, reconciling the notion of a singular, sexless sun-disk of a god could very well have manifested in androgynous figuration in art. Feminization of the male body may have been due to artistic agency and NOT a reflection of physical reality.

The Cambrai Madonna (c. 1340)

Another (drastically different) way to think about this agency is to fast-forward a couple thousand years and take a look at the Byzantine era. People tend to see Byzantine art as extraordinarily simplistic, especially in comparison to the centuries of the beautiful (and uber-realistic) Greek and Roman marbles preceding it. However, it would be silly to think that Byzantine artists suddenly took a downhill turn towards a “less refined” aesthetic because skill seemingly flew out the window. It was also not a symptom of the “darkness” of the Dark Ages. The Byzantine aesthetic was a conscious artistic choice that reflected the Church’s desire to eliminate all remnants of paganism, which included forms of artistic representation. Realism, in other words, represented barbarism and occultism because the creators did not worship the same God. Thus, artists can alter their styles to reflect the political and religious beliefs of their time.

This theorizing about Akhenaten and Tutankhamen having temporal lobe epilepsy may have some credence to it, but basing such a notion off of artistic evidence is tenuous as best. Art  can be ultimate truth, but it can reflect what was once believed to be true, it can tell a modified truth, and it can downright lie. I know that I am not alone in saying that I would be more inclined to believe this theory if there was actual biological evidence to back it up, but there is no genetic test for epilepsy, and it seems that looking at the mummies for physical evidence is not a plausible option. Therefore, I am going to continue to treat this theory with incredible skepticism.


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