ASKLEPIOS , also known as Asklapios (Gr.) and Aesculapius (Lat.), was the ancient Greek god of healing. The etymology of the name Asklepios is uncertain, but it may derive from ēpiotēs, meaning "gentleness."
Origin of the Cult
Asklepios's cult seems to have originated at Tricca (modern Trikkala in Thessaly), where he must have been consulted as a hērōs iatros ("hero physician"). Though excavated, his site there has yielded no further information about his cult. From Tricca, Asklepios traveled in the form of a baby in swaddling clothes to Titane on the Peloponnese. His fame as a healer grew, and he came to settle at nearby Epidaurus. There he ranked already as a god and was recognized by the state cult (as was also the case later in Kos, Athens, Rome, and Pergamum). Epidaurus maintained the cult and the rites associated with it; furthermore, the city founded numerous sanctuaries elsewhere that were dedicated to the god. Two hundred are known to have existed throughout the Greco-Roman world. Migrations of the cult were always effected by transporting one of Asklepios's sacred snakes from the sanctuary in Epidaurus. The snake was the god in his theriomorphic manifestation, for Asklepios was an essentially chthonic deity (one having origins in the earth), as his epithets "snake" and "dog" amply testify. The snake embodies the capacity for renewal of life and rebirth in health, whereas the dog, with its reliable instinct for following a scent, represents a healthy invulnerability to both illusion and sham. Asklepios probably inherited his dog aspect from his father Apollo Kunegetes ("patron of dogs").
Asklepios was apparently more successful than other mortal healers such as Amphiaraos or Trophonios. Nevertheless, knowledge about these two figures is invaluable in our reconstruction of the cult of Asklepios. After proving himself a healer of extraordinary success, serving for instance as genius loci ("guardian spirit") at the oracle of Tricca and curing the most hopeless illnesses, Asklepios went so far as to resurrect the dead, a display of pride or hubris that greatly angered Zeus. Zeus then cast a thunderbolt at the physician, but instead of killing him, the shock rendered him immortal by way of apotheosis.
The history of the divine Asklepios is found in both Pindar's Pythian Ode and Ovid's Metamorphoses 11, in which the mortal woman Coronis becomes pregnant with Asklepios, fathered by Apollo. She wants to marry one Ischys in order to legitimatize the birth of the child, but Apollo gets jealous and causes her to be burned to death. While the mother dies on a funeral pyre, Apollo rescues his child by means of a Caesarean section, and entrusts the infant to the centaur Chiron. Chiron teaches the child the art of healing, and Asklepios grows into his role as a god-man (theios anēr ). Additional knowledge about the healer is derived, for the most part, from tales about the cures he effected, especially through the process called incubation.
The cult of Asklepios is hardly documented, whereas literary evidence of his cures is abundant. Extant are more than seventy case histories from the sanctuaries at Epidaurus, Kos, and the Tiber Island at Rome. Edited with care by priests, the texts have been carved on stone slabs, or stelae. Each gives the identity of the patient, the diagnosis of the illness, and the dream experienced during incubation in the holy precincts. The dream was believed to have been the therapeutic experience resulting in the cure.
Upon arriving in the hieron, the sacred precinct, the patient was lodged in a guest house and came under the care of the priests. A series of lustrations for purification, followed by sacrifices, were performed by the patient as preparation for the ritual cure. Baths, in particular cold baths, were always required of the patients. Abundant springs existed in the sanctuaries of Asklepios, but because they were cold rather than warm or mineral baths, the Asklepieia never degenerated into mere spas for pleasure.
The preferred sacrificial animal was the cock, as witnessed by Plato (Phaedo 118a), who tells how Socrates, having taken his lethal drink, asks his friends to offer a cock to Asklepios for having cured him of the sickness of life. The patient reported his dreams to the priest and, as soon as he had a propitious dream, was taken the following night to the abaton (or aduton ), that is, to the "place forbidden to the 'unbidden' ones." There the patient had to lie on a cot, or klinē (from which our word clinic derives), in order to await the healing experience, which came either during sleep or while he was yet awake from excitement, in other words, by means of a dream or a vision. During this night the patient nearly always had a decisive dream; called the enupnion enarges ("effective dream"), it was considered to constitute the cure. Indeed, a patient not healed at this time was deemed incurable. A small offering of thanksgiving was required at this point; should the patient forget, the god would surely send a relapse.
We learn a great deal more about the god Asklepios through the records (iamata ) of the healing dreams themselves. If the god manifested himself, he appeared as a tall, bearded man with a white cloak (much like the modern physician) and a serpent staff (the emblem of the healer even today), possibly accompanied by a dog. He was often accompanied as well by his wife or daughters: Hygieia ("health," whence our word hygiene ), Panakeia ("panacea"), Iaso ("healing"), and Epione ("the gentle-handed"). The serpent, the dog, or Asklepios himself by means of his digitus medicinalis ("healing finger") would touch the diseased part of the incubant's body and disappear.
Such is the pattern of the typical miraculous cure, but many variations were witnessed. Some of the dreams were prophetic (revealing the location of lost property, or the mending of a broken object, for instance), and showed Asklepios to be the true son of Apollo, the god of prophecy. Additional cases are known, however, where the god refused to effect an immediate cure and instead prescribed a specific therapy: the taking of cold baths, attending the theater, making music (analogous to Socrates' daemon), or writing poetry (as in the case of Aelius Aristides). In yet other cases, he prescribed a certain medicine or applied shock therapy. Rumor had it that Hippocrates learned his art of medicine from the dreams of the patients of the Asklepieion at Kos, the activity of which he tried nevertheless to suppress in favor of his so-called scientific method. After Hippocrates' death, however, the Asklepieion was further enlarged, and theurgic medicine flourished there all the more, with the result that the Hippocratic physicians, claiming a scientific tradition, were unable to eliminate the cult altogether. Thus, a period followed during which physicians and priests coexisted in the treatment of disease to the benefit of the patients.
On account of his spectacular successes in healing, Asklepios soon became the most popular deity of the Hellenistic world. His shrines multiplied until no large settlement existed without one. Well over two hundred shrines are known today, and still more are being discovered from time to time. The radius of this explosion was considerable: even today it is possible to find his snakes (elaphē longissima ) at the German spa Schlangenbad ("snake bath"). With the rise of Christianity, Asklepios, because of his gentleness and willingness to aid suffering people, came into rather serious competition with Christ, so that the Christian bishops, Theophilus in particular, found themselves compelled to eradicate his temples.
At this point, it may be useful to examine the history of the Asklepieion on the Tiber Island in Rome. In 291 bce a devastating plague ravaged Latium, and neither medicine nor sacrifice had any effect. The Roman authorities sent a delegation to Epidaurus to ask Asklepios for help. The god accepted their invitation and boarded the Roman boat in the guise of a huge snake. When the boat arrived at Ostia and was being drawn up the river Tiber, the snake jumped onto an island (Isola Tiberina) and insisted on dwelling there. A temple was built and dedicated to Asklepios, and the plague subsided.
This Asklepieion flourished for centuries, and the island was enclosed with slabs of travertine (a light-colored limestone) in the shape of a ship, the stern of which was adorned with a portrait of Asklepios and his serpent staff. Later, an Egyptian obelisk was erected in the middle of the island to represent the ship's mast. The temple has since been turned into a Christian church, San Bartolomeo, which is still adorned by fourteen splendid columns from the Hellenistic temple. In front of the altar is a deep well that contains the water of life so indispensable to Asklepios. Still more striking is the fact that, to this day, the Tiber Island remains a center of healing: the hospital of the Fatebenefratelli, the best of all the clinics in modern Rome, is located right across from the church.
Emma J. and Ludwig Edelstein (1945) have tried to reconstruct the cult of Asklepios from carefully collected testimonies; their attempt remains unconvincing, however, because they failed to develop a comparative point of view. It is important to take note of comparable heroes or deities connected with the ritual practice of incubation: Amphiaraos, Trophonios, Sarapis, and Imhotep, to name a few. In every instance the cure is regarded as a mystery, and the rites leading to the cure become models for the ritual components of the mystery cults. The oracles and healing cults were always found in sacred groves, were entered by means of a descent into the earth, and included a sacred well for purificatory baths. An analogy may be noted to the worship of Mithra, which took place inter nemora et fontes ("among groves and springs") and whose incubants regarded themselves as prisoners of the deity in a state of sacred detention (katochē). Aristides called the literary works that he owed to Asklepios hieroi logoi ("sacred words"), the technical expression reserved for mystery texts. Here also we discover the symbolism of the ritual bridal chamber (thalamos ) and the sacred marriage (hieros gamos ) that later became central in both Gnosticism and Christian mysticism (especially in the writings of Origen). The paraphernalia surrounding the cult of incubation guaranteed the people of the ancient world a restoration of health and wealth by restoring the harmony of body and soul (soma kai psuche ), the disturbance of which was understood to be the source of any illness, a notion present already in Plato's Symposium (186d).
The Tiber Island is only one example of the assimilation into Christianity of an important religious phenomenon belonging to one of its closest neighbors. In modern Greece, moreover, and in the Balkans, there are still numerous churches where people go to sleep in order to receive beneficial dreams. Most of these belong to the Panagia Pege ("all-hallowed fountain") taken over from Asklepios's consort, Hygieia. Each one has its own well or is situated close by a river.
Because the Christian bishops were so thorough in destroying the temples of Asklepios, architectural remains are very scanty. However, three things associated with the shrines are worth noting: the theater, the rotunda, and numerous statues. Drama and music were essential elements in the treatments of Asklepios. The theater at Epidaurus is the largest and finest of the ancient world. The rotunda there was the most beautiful and most expensive building of antiquity and was under construction for twenty-one years. Its foundation is a classical labyrinth, and the cupola is covered with Pausias's paintings of Sober Drunkenness (methē nēphalias ) and Eros, the latter having thrown away his bow and arrows to hold instead the lyre. We can only guess at the function of this building. Several of the statues of Asklepios have been preserved, and the best one (from the Tiber Island) is now in the Museo Nazionale in Naples. Reliefs illustrating memorable dream events from the abaton are also on view there. The statues of Asklepios are often accompanied by the dwarfish figure of Telesphoros ("bringer of the goal"), a hooded boy who is associated with mystery cults like the one at Eleusis. From Pausanias we know that Asklepios was eventually assimilated into the Eleusinia.
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