Aesculapius, Cult of

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Greek hero and god of healing, known also by the Greek form of his name, Asklepios. He is mentioned in the Iliad and by Pindar (Pyth. 3) and is treated extensively by Pausanias (Description of Greece, bk 2). The town of Epidaurus claimed to be his birthplace and here was built the greatest of the temples and healing establishments dedicated to him. Other outstanding centers were on the island of Cos and at Pergamum and Smyrna in Asia Minor. The cult was brought to Rome in 293 b. c.

The practice of healing at temples of Aesculapius usually required that the patient stay within the sacred enclosure of the temple, where the god would send dreams prescribing treatments to effect cures. The treatments prescribed were frequently of an unexpected character and involved physical exertion, regardless of the patient's condition. In addition to balms, poultices, warm baths, purges, bloodletting, diet and fasting, the god frequently prescribed horseback riding, cold baths, going barefoot, smearing the body with mud from the sacred spring, and outdoor exercises, even in the coldest weather.

Many votive inscriptions from the temple at Epidaurus are known (published in Inscriptiones Graecae v. 4 and in other collections). These, along with the data supplied by Aristophanes (Plut. 653747) and the great 2d-century Sophist Aelius Aristides (Sacred Discourses ) and others, furnish a fairly full literature on the kind of ailments treated and miraculous cures attested to. These include cures of barrenness, paralysis of the fingers, blindness, dumbness, removal of branding marks, kidney stones, tumors, skin diseases, fevers, and bronchial ailmentsin fact, almost all the diseases known to man.

Some modern scholars have maintained that priests at the temples of Aesculapius often administered medicines and sometimes even performed operations, inducing the patient to believe that such events had occurred while they were asleep and were due to the intervention of the god himself. It is indeed probable that much of the medical lore contained in the so-called Hippocratic Corpus was collected, and perhaps used, at temples of this deity. The cult of Aesculapius was very popular and flourished until it was suppressed by Christian emperors.

Bibliography: f. r. walton, The Oxford Classical Dictionary (Oxford 1949) 16:106107. k. prÜmm, Religionsgeschichtliches Handbuch für den Raum der altchristlichen Umwelt (Rome 1954) 447453. e. j. and l. edelstein, Asclepius, 2 v. (Baltimore 1945). a. m. j. festugiÈre, Personal Religion Among the Greeks (Berkeley 1954) 85104.

[t. a. brady]