Epidauros – Asklipios and ancient medicine

Statue of Asklipios - Epidauros

Statue of Asklipios – Epidauros

Although it seems strange that the theatre at Epidauros is in such a remote place, the theatre is in fact a side-show to the main attraction. The theatre was built from the donations of people who came to Epidauros primarily to be cured at the Asklipeio and to provide entertainment.

Asklipeio

Epidauros was said to be the birthplace of Asklipios, the god of healing, an honour also claimed by Trikala in Thessalia. Asklipios was the son of the god Apollo and Koronis and was killed by a thunderbolt from Zeus for bringing Ippolitos back from the dead and was eventually made a god. His family embodies different aspects of healing: his wife is Ipioni – goddess of the soothing of pain and his daughters are Igeia (goddess of health, cleanliness and sanitation), Iaso (goddess of recuperation from illness), Akeso (goddess of the healing process), Aglaia (goddess of beauty, splendour, glory, magnificence and adornment) and Panakeia (goddess of universal remedy).

I find the cult of Asklipios and its practices fascinating for several reasons.

Asklipeio at Epidauros

Asklipeio at Epidauros

The practices used by the priests of the cult are at the origins of medical treatment. At the small on site museum and at National Archaeological Museum in Athens there are large number of medical instruments on display that were used by the priests as part of their treatment of the sick.  Many people were trained in healing and it must also have helped to create a corpus of knowledge and experience about diseases, different treatments and what worked and didn’t work.

Secondly, there is a curious link with modern psychoanalysis in the way that treatments were determined. After undergoing ritual purification practices, mostly involving water and eating communal meals, the sick were taken by the priests of the cult to a building called the Avlaton. Here they laid down to sleep amongst sacred snakes and waited for the god to appear to them a dream to give them a sign for their cure. Also the sick were read stories about those who had found incredible cures, so perhaps there is an element of subconscious suggestion and prompting about the dreams.  The dream sign of course had to be interpreted and the appropriate cure administered by the priests.

Asklipeio and Abaton

Avlaton at Epidauros

Avlaton at Epidauros

In the iconography of Asklipios he is usually shown holding a staff around which curls a snake – this is the origin of the caduceus – still used to indicate European pharmacies.

Asklipeio

At Epidauros there are examples in the small museum of the types of problems cured. For example a man with a poisoned toe dreamt that the god touched his toe and he was cured. Also there are thank offerings for cures and replicas of statues that stood in the Asklipeio, the originals long since moved to Athens.

The Asklipeio at Epidauros is enormous. In addition to the buildings of sacred and ritual significance, there are huge buildings used to house the large number of visitors who came in search of a cure for their illnesses.

There is one round building on the edge of the site whose function is not clear, it has an underground section which may have been used as a labyrinth for priestly initiations or as a sacred snake pit. It has even been conjectured that this snake pit / labyrinth was used to administer shock therapy to people suffering from what we would call today mental illnesses.

Stadium at Epidauros

Stadium at Epidauros

The Asklipeio was looted by the Romans. It managed to survive, for several years alongside a Christian church, until eventually it was closed down during the Theodosian campaigns against paganism in the 4th and 5th centuries AD.

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