The Nature of Healing at the Epidaurian Asklepieion

Written by Jonas Tai


1§1 Within the Temple of Asklepios at Epidauros, enkoimêsis (ἐγκοίμησις), a form of sleep incubation, was the practice by which the god himself would supposedly manifest within dreams to heal his ailing patients.[1] Stories of these miraculous healings were documented in the iamata, a set of inscriptions memorializing Asklepios’ exploits. In light of Epidaurian enkoimêsis, the paper of Askitopoulou et al. gives evidence for the use of opiates as a form of pre-modern anesthetic within the Asklepieion (᾽Ασκληπιεῖον).[2] They posit that some of these miracle cures were in fact accomplished by physical means through surgery, and that induced sleep and visions of Asklepios were byproducts of opioid usage.[3] While these findings do not disprove the veracity of these stories in their entirety, they suggest that the Asklepieion was more than just a religious center, to which the ailing would come to be healed in exchange for payments, prayers, and sacrifices.

1§2 Rather, the Temple of Asklepios at Epidauros was an institution which provided practical healthcare services by virtue of its position as a religious site, in what can be considered a mixed treatment regime of applied and religious healing. The use of opium suggests not only that the Asklepieion provided a healthcare service in a way that involved divine imagery and suggestion, but also that there was a sense of transactionalism being enacted for the psychological experience with the divine. A number of other facilities, including baths and a gymnasium, surrounded the sanctuary, which also included a temple to the goddess Hygieia, who provided an additional divinity for women, and also for healthy suppliants. The presence of Mnemosyne helped to catalogue the services of Asklepios, moving from dreams to practicality via the inscriptions of the iamata. Furthermore, that the iamata also served as quasi-advertisements, regulatory guidelines, and a source of encouragement or suggestion to patients demonstrates an additional degree of complexity in the relationship between religious and practical functions. Strikingly, both the services rendered by the Temple of Asklepios and its regulatory framework see a consistent trend in the practical application of the religious. Ultimately, the Epidaurian sanctuary of Asklepios is a testament to the conceptual unity of religion, medicine, and healing in the Greek world.

The Use of Anesthetics in Religious Medicine

2§1 The application of anesthetics would have been necessary prior to any type of surgical procedure, lest the patient regain consciousness during the ordeal. During enkoimêsis, patients would lie down side by side within the Tholos (Θόλος), a special building set apart within the sanctuary, prior to losing consciousness.[4] Within the Tholos, ceiling coffers depicting poppy flowers can be found, which suggests opium’s soporific use in ritual processes.[5] Indeed, the use of opium is well-attested in the Greek world. The opium plant was likely domesticated around the Aegean, and an excavated Mycenaean terracotta figure with poppy capsules on her head and closed eyes demonstrates an awareness of the plant’s sleep-inducing effects.[6] The Odyssey mentions Helen as casting a drug into wine, the effects of which would banish pain and anger and cause one to forget all ills.[7] This drug nêpenthe (φάρμακον … νηπενθές), literally meaning something that removes pain and sorrow, could be a Homeric allusion to the liquid consumption of opiates.[8] This conclusion is supported by Pausanias’ description that inside the Tholos at Epidauros was also a picture of Methê (Μέθη), the personification of drunkenness, depicting her drinking out of a crystal goblet, implying that this opiate might have been administered in liquid form.[9]

2§2 Although some might claim that the use of drugs was psychological, rather than physical in nature, and that there is little by way of historical precedent to suggest otherwise, there is additional evidence for the use of drugs not only in a practical and therapeutic manner, but also in a sacral context. The previous example of Helen is one of the many cases in which drugs were cast into wine, which occurred with such regularity in similar contexts that it becomes impossible to speak of wine intoxication as a separate concept from drug intoxication.[10] In light of this, Athenaios quotes the fourth-century B.C.E. physician Mnesitheos, who states that wine grants strength in mind and body, and taken with drugs, brings aid to the wounded.[11] This aid need not merely be psychological, as Athenaios also mentions in the same passage that Dionysos is called physician (ἰατρός) everywhere and also the health-giver (ὑγιάτης) in connection to his position as god of wine. Could this be indicative of the practical use of mixed wine and drugs for healing in respect to the god Dionysos? One of the Pythian Odes of Pindar describes the various means by which Asklepios would cure his patients: through gentle incantations, soothing potions, surgery, and the wrapping of remedies around the patient.[12] Of the state of medicine in Pindar’s time, Rinella states that “Greek medicine and pharmacy of the archaic period combined theurgy with ‘the practical application of drugs, foreshadowing later … Greek medicine’.”[13] Similarly, in the Republic, Plato describes the typical Asclepian medicine of his day, which consisted of drugs and cutting (φαρμάκοις τε καὶ τομαῖς).[14] The philosopher criticizes both the biological and adoptive sons of Asklepios in contemporary Athens, who encourage an idle and easygoing way of life through these methods, instead of utilizing strict dietary regimens which could just as easily prevent disease.[15] Hence, while there was certainly a psychological aspect to the ingestion of the mixture of wine and drug, especially in relation to surgery, it also had clear connotations of physical restoration before and during the Classical period. Drugs were the means by which a god would act in the physical world, and if drug use in an applied healing context can be demonstrated, then one could simply go the next step in placing it in a specifically within the setting of the Asklepieion.

2§3 In any case, if the usage of opium as a surgical sedative in the Epidaurian Asklepieion suggests the presence of a practical therapeutic facility in conjunction with the religious, then another aspect of the drug’s use in a sacral setting could be seen as akin to a business deal. In ancient religion, there is a sense of do ut des, that a suppliant gives payment and makes sacrifices in order that some higher spiritual being might render to them a service.[16] Such a concept can be observed in the various spells of the Greek Magical Papyri, one of which describes the creation of a burnt offering to Eros in exchange for the creation of an aphrodisiac, notably involving opium among other ingredients.[17] The use of opium in the Asklepieion might be such a transactional interaction in that the patients might seek results then and there, not wishing to subject themselves to the appropriate spiritual discipline. Essentially, the patient pays for a psychological shortcut to a meeting with the god through psychoactive substances. In this way the Asklepieion seems to have offered a fast-track appointment with Asklepios himself.

2§4 Of course, to claim that opiates were used to summon Asklepios swiftly without the need for due spiritual discipline requires that this approach be justified through contrasting it with more protracted or less direct cultic tracks to the same goals for a healthy body. While Asklepios gave succor most effectively through temple dreams within the Asklepieion, he could be invoked through mere prayer outside of it. Diogenes the Cynic, upon gazing at a woman prostrating herself in prayer before of a statue of Asklepios, was enraged at the blasphemy of not praying upright before the statue, as was ancient tradition.[18] Ironically, he dedicated a sturdy slave to Asklepios, whose responsibility it was to assault suppliants who fell on their faces in front of the god’s figure. The cult of Asklepios also had regular worshippers, though it is unknown whether these observances were held monthly, twice a month, or less frequently in earlier times.[19]

2§5 However, evidence for the cult as it existed in the 2nd or 3rd century C.E. shows that these assemblies seem to have been held quite frequently, perhaps even daily. The Epigrammata Graeca contain a special morning hymn to Asklepios, imploring him to awaken and disperse the sleep from his eyes (Ἔγρεο…ὕπνον ἀπὸ βλεφάρων σκεδάσας).[20] Aelius Aristides also mentions that there was a specific time at which the sacred candles would be lit, when the sacristan would bring up the keys to open the temple at night, which had been closed (περὶ λύχνους ἤδη τοὺς ἱεροὺς τάς δὴ κλεῖς ἀνακομίζειν τὸν νεωκόρον. καὶ τυχεῖν ἐν τούτῳ κλεισθὲν τὸ ἱερόν…).[21] In addition, Pausanias mentions both the existence of a cave sacred to Asklepios near Zarax in Laconia (αὐτοῖς σπήλαιον ἱερὸν Ἀσκληπιοῦ), as well as a number of altars to the god in the same region (βωμοί τέ εἰσιν Ἀσκληπιοῦ).[22] All these sources suggest that frequent worship of the god was taking place, whether outside the Asklepieia or within them, presumably at fairly regular intervals. Furthermore, it is also clear that these regular worshippers were just as, if not more, intent on achieving and maintaining their health as were those who visited Asklepios in the manner of one visiting a physician, albeit through dreams. This devotion is attested in the same morning hymn of the Epigrammata Graeca, which beseeches ‘gentle-minded’ Asklepios to propitiate his prime power of health (σκεδάσας…σὸν σθένος ἠπιόφρων Ἀσκληπιὲ πρῶτον ‘Υγείαν), personified by Hygieia.[23] An anonymous paean from the early 4th century B.C.E. asks Asklepios to ‘come propitious to my spacious city’ (ἱλαος δ᾽ ἐπινίσεο τὰν ἐμὰν πόλιν εὐρύχορον), accompanied by bright Hygieia (σὺν ἀγακλυτῷ ἐοαγεῖ Υγιείᾳ).[24] Thus, long-term and Asklepian cultic approaches for health and healing might seem undesirable and overly laborious to those unwilling to maintain the appropriate spiritual discipline. As an alternative measure, these suppliants could circumvent or eschew these more indirect or long-term approaches through the use of opioids which functioned as an express queue for a swift appointment with the god.

Psychological Preparation

3§1 Provided that opium was indeed used in the Epidaurian Asklepieion, its efficacy would not have been at the level of modern anesthetics. Given that long-suffering patients journeyed to the Asklepieion with the promise of healing, set their sights on the sanctuary, and read the success stories of the iamata, it is no surprise that many dreamed visions of Asklepios. It may also be likely that in the ancient world, people more easily gained access to different states of consciousness.[25] The belief that higher entities manifested themselves not only to heroes, but also to ordinary people was widespread.[26] As a result, these semi-conscious psychological manifestations of the god could be triggered by a wide variety of stimuli or suggestions, aided by prevailing assumptions about the active presence of deities in the world. These considerations make it possible to interpret examples such as this particular inscription from the iamata:

A man with an abscess within his abdomen. When asleep in the Temple he saw a dream. It seemed to him that the god ordered the servants who accompanied him to grip him and hold him tightly so that he could cut open his abdomen. The man tried to get away, but they gripped him and bound him to a door knocker. Thereupon Asclepius cut his belly open, removed the abscess, and, after having stitched him up again, released him from his bonds. Whereupon he walked out sound, but the floor of the Abaton was covered with blood.[27]

There are several points of interest here. First, Asklepios had servants available to bind the man to a door knocker, possibly indicating the physical role of priests in facilitating surgical functions. The second is that the man tried to get away in the first place, suggesting that the patient was in a semi-lucid state and physically responded to whatever appeared in his visions. Lastly, the inscription notes that the floor of the Abaton was covered in blood, which demonstrates that some kind of procedure was physically performed. The combination of the physical role of the priests with psychoactive substances, all within the context of the patients’ cultural and environmental mindsets, serves to present an image of the Asklepieion as a facility which was both medical and religious in nature.

Procedural Preparations

4§1 The presence of certain regulations within the Asklepieion suggests dual therapeutic and religious aspects, highlighting the unity between religion and healing in the Greek world. Patients who entered the sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidauros were required to follow a set of purification procedures, which included the donning of a white gown, bathing in cold water, and providing flat cakes in sacrifice to the god before sleeping.[28] Unless a suppliant performed these actions, they were not allowed into the Tholos, also known as an Abaton (Ἄβατον), literally an inaccessible place.[29] Indeed, in Plutus of Aristophanes, Carion brings the deity Wealth to the sea and bathes him before the god’s subsequent healing rite (αὐτον ἐπι θάλατταν ἤγομεν, ἔπειτ᾽ἐλοῦμεν).[30] This ritual bathing had both a preventive or hygienic and symbolic importance, and Pausanias notes that a temple to Hygieia, the daughter of Asklepios and goddess of hygiene and healthy living, was present at Epidaurian sanctuary.[31]

4§2 However, provided that surgical procedures were indeed taking place at the Epidaurian Asklepieion, it is still not entirely clear whether this ritual cleansing was performed specifically with pre-surgical hygiene in mind. After all, purification through seawater or brine water was not a novel practice. The women of Tanagra initiated into the Dionysian rites were also washed in the sea, along with those being initiated through the Eleusinian goddesses, and not least the statue of Artemis which was polluted by the Orestes’ touch had to be cleansed.[32] The concept of hygiene in the ancient world symbolized the maintenance of one’s health and the promotion of future health. Hence the use of healthcare strategies which involved bathing, dietetics, and exercise vis-à-vis gymnasia, stadia, baths, and colonnades.[33] Furthermore, the Orphic Hymn to Hygieia beseeches the goddess to keep away the ill-fated sorrow of painful diseases (ῥυομένη νούσων χαλεπῶν κακόποτμον ἀνίην), implying the prevention rather than the cure of disease.[34] In addition, the preserved remains of porticoes, baths, a gymnasium, hostels, and a theater can be found neighboring the sanctuary.[35] All this is to say that hygiene, as it was known to the Greeks, was a lifestyle to be maintained, rather than a recourse to keeping oneself clean merely for whatever surgical functions may have been performed in the Asklepieion.

Broader Healthcare Services

5§1 While there is no firm basis on which to claim that Hygieia played a substantial role in connection with the surgical procedures of the Asklepieion, the goddess’ presence in the sanctuary did provide for other practices that allow the sanctuary to be viewed from a broader healthcare perspective. Her presence in the sanctuary as the female counterpart to Asklepios may have served to render the sanctuary more approachable to women seeking medical aid, potentially enlarging the body of patients. Of the forty-eight extant Epidaurian iamata, fourteen suppliants were women.[36] Whether or not the priests chose to record the stories of more male suppliants than female, this is still clearly a substantial number, and seems to be one of the few sure instances where women were allowed to travel as pilgrims outside the confines of their native poleis.[37] In addition, the offering of votive body parts was a common means of gratitude or petition for the healing of a particular area of the body.[38] While the greatest volume and variety of these body parts have primarily been found at the sites of two Asklepieia in Corinth and Athens, the gender classifications of these figurines could be indicative of the frequency with which women in relation to men appeared to have visited the Asklepieia in general.[39] The terracotta figurines at the Corinthian site contain the remains of sixty-five terracotta female breasts, either singly or in pairs, and thirty-five male genitals.[40] In comparison, there are roughly one hundred and twenty-five hands.[41] Although these votive body parts are not sufficient evidence for the accurate compositional analysis of the overall clientele, they do indicate the prominence of women in seeking the service of Asklepios in Corinth. As a result, it would not be unreasonable to assume that the larger and more renowned Asklepieion at Epidauros might display comparable figures of women participants. The pairing of male and female was not unusual in the ancient world, as Serapis and Isis, both deities of healing, shared a temple.[42] The relationship between Asklepios and Serapis is substantiated in the words of Aelius Aristides, who says that, as a light was coming forth from Isis, Serapis appeared the same night alongside Asklepios, both gods of wondrous beauty and size, also resembling each other (Ἐγένετο δὲ καὶ φῶς παρὰ τῆς Ἴσιδος … ἐφάνη δὲ καὶ ὁ  Σάραπις τῆς αὐτῆς νύκτός, ἅμα αὐτός τε καὶ ὁ Ἀσκληπιός, θαυμαστοὶ τὸ κάλλος καὶ τὸ μέγεθος καὶ τινα τρόπον ἀλλήλοις ἐμφερεῖς).[43] Thus, if Serapis and Asklepios resemble one another, perhaps it would not be illogical to posit a female counterpart in Hygieia to Asklepios much like Isis was to Serapis.

5§2 Additionally, in light of the conceptual view of hygiene as epitomizing the maintenance of health, the goddess may also have functioned as a divinity for cult worshippers who were present at the Asklepieion, but still ostensibly healthy.[44] The excavations of other surrounding facilities such as a gymnasium, baths, and hostels, imply that it is doubtful that it was only the ailing and malady-stricken who visited the Asklepieion.[45] On one hand, Asklepios can be seen as a “special god” whose sole responsibility was that of healing, while, on the other hand, his children represent other aspects of health and medicine working alongside their father.[46] Plutus of Aristophanes depicts Iasô (Ἰασώ) the goddess of recuperation, and Panakeia (Πανάκεια), the goddess of universal remedy, alongside Asklepios as he approaches each of the slumbering patients in his sanctuary.[47] In relation to these sisters of hers, Hygieia would function as the preserver of present health. Aelius Aristides claims about the water of the sacred well that:

καὶ τοῖς τε δὴ νοσοῦσιν οὕτως ἀλεξιφάρμακον καὶ σωτήριόν ἐστιν καὶ τοῖς ὑγιαίνουσιν ἐνδιαιτωμένοις παντὸς ἄλλου χρῆσιν ὕδατος οὐκ ἄμεμπτον ποιεῖ.[48]

Furthermore, not only is it remedial and beneficial to the sick, but even for those who enjoy health it makes the use of any other water not without censure.[49]

Aristides discusses the role of the well in the Temple of Asklepios and its intended beneficiaries, making it clear that it is meant for all. The term “σωτήριόν” has connotations of delivery and recovery, but can also be used to denote preservation or perpetuation. Hence its aptness for use in describing both the regaining and the maintenance of health. Thus, the presence of Hygieia, regardless whether she played a role in the surgical process, paints a picture of the Epidaurian sanctuary as a location which provided a wide array of practical health services (in contemporary terms), complemented by the presence of supporting deities. Hygieia’s presence suggests that the Epidaurian sanctuary was a location that encompassed all aspects of health and that its widespread appeal stemmed from more than the renown of its incubatory miracle cures.

Analysis of the Iamata

6§1 Hygieia was not the only deity whose presence augmented the functions of the Asklepieion as a dual healthcare-religious center. An inscription bearing the name of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, is also present at the site of the sanctuary in Epidauros.[50] While the other deities of health and healing in the sanctuary are associated with the divine persona of Asklepios, Mnemosyne’s role is unique in that her bestowal of memory likely functioned as a catalyst for the recall of dreams following enkoimêsis.[51] The Orphic Hymn to Mnemosyne calls on Mnemosyne to put memories into the thoughts of wakeful man (φιλάγρυπτος, ὑπομνήσκουσά τε πάντα), and without deviating from what is true, to awaken the mind of every person (οὔτι παρεκβαίνους᾽, ἐπεγείρουσα φρένα πᾶσιν).[52] The presence of the goddess helped suppliants not only to remember those dreams, but also to communicate them effectively and delineate them for the creation of the iamata.[53] At the beginning of the Theogony, Hesiod claims that the Muses, daughters of Mnemosyne, breathed into him a divinely-inspired voice in order that he might make famous the things that will be and the things that were before (ἐνέπνευσαν δέ μοι αὐδὴν θέσπιν, ἵνα κλεοίμι τά τ᾽ ἐσσόμενα πρό τ᾽ ἐόντα).[54] Much like the bards invoked the Muses to channel the divine inspiration and make known the great deeds of epic heroes, the priests and suppliants at the Asklepieion invoked Mnemosyne in order for their patients to record the deeds of Asklepios and preserve them for mankind.

6§2 This parallelism is evident in the miraculous story of Kleo (Κλεώ), who successfully gave birth after a five-year pregnancy, upon which her child immediately walked and washed himself at the shrine fountain.[55] The name of the patient seems to be no coincidence, with her particular tale endeavoring to bring kleos (κλέος), fame, to the Asklepieion. The Hellenic bard or rhapsode was generally the master of fame, receiving the kleos recited to him by the Muses. Therefore, the etymologically related verb kluô (κλύω), meaning ‘hear’ – kleos is essentially ‘that which is heard’.[56] If kleos in the realm of poetry is what the rhapsode hears from the Muses and imparts to the audience through epic, then in the context of the sacred healing, it is also what the Asklepian patient hears from Mnemosyne out of enkoimêsis and imparts to the world through the iamata.

6§3 The same concept of divine transmission, as delineated by Ion of Plato, is applicable for both the arts of the Muses and sacred healing. The god employs divinely possessed middlemen, be it the bard or the Asklepian priest, as an interpreter of the gods (ὅ θεὸς ἐνδείξασθαι ἡμῖν … ἢ ἑρμηνῆς εἰσιν τῶν θεῶν … κατεχόμενοι) so that we may not doubt (ἵνα μὴ διστάζωμεν), knowing that these deeds are not human (οὐκ ἀνθρώπινά), but divine and of the gods (ἀλλὰ θεῖα καὶ θεῶν).[57] Of course, this would reassure prospective patients, knowing that one was backed by the presence of a divine advocate in Asklepios. In addition, to equate the priests with bards would also clarify the conceptual role of the Asklepian priest. In Ion, Socrates makes it clear that it is not by skill that the bards speak on matters as varied as war or chariot-racing (οὐ γὰρ τέχνῃ ταῦτα λέγουσιν), since they themselves are not generals or charioteers, but rather by divine influence (ἀλλὰ θείᾳ δυνάμει).[58] Such a viewpoint would thus suggest that the medical competency remains completely with Asklepios, who imparts his knowledge to his priests or possesses them in order to perform the healing processes. That seems fitting, since the iamata are stories of the accomplishments of Asklepios, and not the records of his priests’ deeds; suppliants to the Asklepieia sought the aid of the god, not a human physician. Furthermore, the mind of the subject is not to be present during the process of divine reception (οἷς νοῦς μὴ πάρεστιν), so that the ones receiving kleos may know it was the god himself speaking, and not themselves.[59] Hence a further conceptual justification for the use of mind-altering and soporific substances. Similar to the role of bards, the priests also functioned as divine interpreters through the recall of dreams via Mnemosyne, whereby the iamata fill the role of an epic composition, with Asklepios as its hero. It is fitting that in the beginning of the dialogue, Ion begins by telling Socrates that he has just returned from the Asklepieia festival at Epidauros (ἐξ Ἐπιδαύρου ἐκ τῶν Ἀσκληπιείων), in which contests of rhapsodes are held to honor the god (ῥαψῳδῶν ἀγῶνα τιθέασιν τῷ θεῷ οἱ Ἐπιδαύριοι). The parallels between rhapsôidia and Asklepian healing mean that our understanding of the former will help inform the intents and methods of the latter, as ultimately, both endeavor to spread the kleos of Asklepios, whether it be through the Muses or through Mnemosyne. On the whole, the presence of the goddess of memory is significant in that much like Hygieia, this divinity provided a utilitarian function for the Temple of Asklepios, in this case through the creation of the iamata inscriptions, which will be shown below to have further practical uses.

6§4 The role of Mnemosyne in the recollection and chronicling of Asklepios’ deeds implies a degree of intention and deliberation in their composition. Indeed, this was the case – the stories depicted in the iamata, some more miraculous than others, had purposes besides preserving the deeds of Asklepios for posterity. Like the one of Kleo, some stories depicted in the iamata are too fantastical to be taken literally by us, and it should not be assumed that all had actually occurred down to their precise details. These stories served to reinforce specific ideals about the Epidaurian Asklepieion. One woman suffering from tapeworms in her stomach, Aristagora of Troezen, visited the local Asklepieion and dreamt during enkoimêsis that the sons of Asklepios (τοὺς υἱοὺς τοῦ θεοῦ) operated on her.[60] Her head was inadvertently cut off, (τὰγ κεφαλὰν ἀποταμεῖν) and because Asklepios’ sons could not reattach her head, they were forced to summon the god himself from Epidauros, who stitched it back to her body and removed the tapeworm. This particular anecdote served to remind readers of the primacy of Epidauros as the home of Asklepios and prime Asklepieion above all the rest.[61]

6§5 In addition, these iamata also served as regulations or warnings for clients and other curious individuals. One man, Aiskhines, tried to climb up a tree to observe the enkoimêsis inconspicuously (ἐπὶ δένδρεόν τι ἀμβὰς ὑπερέκυπτε εἰς τὸ ἄβατον), whereupon he fell from a tree onto some fencing and injured his eyes.[62] He came as a suppliant to Asklepios and was healed (τυφλὸς…ὑγιὴς ἐγένετο). Another blind man, Hermon of Thasos, was cured by Asklepios only to be blinded again by the god when he did not make the appropriate thank-offerings.[63] He came back and made the offerings and was promptly healed. The sanctuary expected to be afforded its due payment and offerings in exchange for its service, and stories such as this promised divine retribution otherwise.

6§6 Still, other inscriptions served to placate the concerns of skeptics and raise the hopes of the sick. A man with paralyzed fingers came to the god, reading and scoffing incredulously at the miracle inscriptions.[64] Asklepios appeared as he was playing dice and cured the man of his paralysis, questioning the erstwhile skeptic’s mockery. Not least, Ambrosia of Athens, blind in one eye, visited the Temple and laughed at some of the cures.[65] Asklepios visited her in her sleep and asked her to dedicate a silver pig to the Asklepieion for her ignorance. He then cut open her malfunctioning eyeball and poured in a drug, whereby her sight was cured. The self-awareness of inscriptions such as these served to confront skeptics and reassure patients, who were likely perusing them while anticipating their appointment with the god, that they could indeed be cured, perhaps rendering a helpful placebo effect in the process.

6§7 Thus, the iamata performed a variety of functions: to bolster the prestige of the temple, to regulate the behavior of visitors, and to admonish skeptics. Their austere diction and objective manner of narration is indicative of the empiricism and clarity with which the sanctuary engaged in therapeutic practices.[66] On the whole, the composition of the iamata demonstrates clear thematic trends, suggesting their deliberate creation over time, rather than existing as a series of naïve anecdotes with no further purpose.[67] Ultimately, not only was the formation of the iamata deliberate, but so were their epigraphic uses in the larger regulatory framework established around the Asklepieion. The manner in which the Epidaurian Asklepieion was managed suggests a purposeful application of religious ideals for practical uses in healing and administration. Thus, it might not be unreasonable to establish that the lack of distinction between the spiritual and physical colored the worldview of many Greeks. These were two sides of the same coin, and the physical manifestation of a deity’s power was merely an extension of their established role within the world.


7§1 In both the therapeutic and administrative functions of the Asklepieion, religious functions were applied for practical, real-world effect. Although the secrecy in which the priests conducted their procedures means that the exact details of these rituals cannot fully be ascertained now, focusing specifically on the nature of surgical procedures at Epidauros makes it possible to envisage how the power of the god manifested itself in a physical manner behind the enigmatic veil of cult practices. The continued existence and renown of the Epidaurian Asklepieion across the Mediterranean is a testament to the efficacy of the sanctuary’s approaches, which clearly produced tangible results on a consistent basis.

7§2 These tangible results can conceivably be expanded to include services for the healthy, as demonstrated by the presence of the surrounding facilities and accommodation of the goddess Hygieia. From this, it can be seen that the sanctuary provided a variety of therapeutic services in harmony with its role as a religious site. What can be considered the practical application of religion is further exemplified in the didactic uses of the iamata in regulating the Asklepieion, not least the role of Mnemosyne in transforming dreams into epigraphic reality. On the whole, the Epidaurian Asklepieion was indicative of the unity of religion and healing in the Greek world, where a distinction between the two need not necessarily be drawn in an era where gods and goddesses still walked the land.


[1] Askitopoulou, H. “Sleep and Dreams: From Myth to Medicine in Ancient Greece.” Journal of Anesthesia History 1, no. 3 (March 9, 2015): 70.

[2] Askitopoulou, H., et al. “Surgical Cures Under Sleep Induction in the Asclepieion of Epidauros.” In International Congress Series, vol. 1242, 12.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Elderkin, G.W. “Tholos and Abaton at Epidaurus.” American Journal of Archaeology 15, no. 2 (1911): 161.

[5] “Surgical Cures Under Sleep Induction in the Asclepieion of Epidauros,” 16-17.

[6] Tetenyi, P. “Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum): Poppy and Horticulture.” Horticultural Reviews 19 (1997): 480.

[7] Homer Odyssey 4.219-221: αὐτικ᾽ ἄρ᾽ εἰς οἶνον βάλε φάρμακον, ἔνθεν ἔπινον, νηπενθές τ᾽ ἄχολόν τε, κακῶν ἐπίληθον ἁπάντων.

[8] “Surgical Cures Under Sleep Induction in the Asclepieion of Epidauros”, 13.

[9] Pausanias Description of Greece 2.27.3.

[10] Rinella, M.A. Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens, (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2010), 26.

[11] Athenaeus Deipnosophistae 2.36a-b.

[12] Pindar Pythian Odes 3.47-53.

[13] Pharmakon, 151.

[14] Plato Republic 3.407d.

[15] Pharmakon, 152.

[16] Luck, G. Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Collection of Ancient Texts, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 479-480.

[17] Greek Magical Papyri 4.1820-30.

[18] Diogenes Laërtius Lives of Eminent Philosophers 6.2.37-38.

[19] Edelstein, E.J. and Edelstein, Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1945), vol. 2, 193-195.

[20] Epigrammata Graeca 1027.

[21] Aelius Aristides ‘Ιεροὶ λόγοι α᾽ (Sacred Tales) 276.6-8.

[22] Description of Greece 3.24.2; 3.23.7.

[23] Epigrammata Graeca 1027.

[24] Anonymous, “Paean Erythraeus in Asclepium,” Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, vol. 1, 327.

[25] Arcana Mundi, 480.

[26] Ibid.

[27] IG IV2 1 122, XXVII; Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, vol. 1, 235.

[28] Walton, A., The Cult of Asklepios (Boston: Gin & Company, 1894), 77-78.

[29] Tomlinson, R.A., Epidauros (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983), 19.

[30] Arist. Plutus 656-657.

[31] Cult of Asklepios 77; Descriptio Graeciae 2.23.4.

[32] Cult of Asklepios 77.

[33] Compton, M.T. “The Association of Hygieia with Asklepios in Graeco-Roman Asklepieion Medicine.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 57, no. 3 (2002): 327.

[34] Orphica Hymni 68.13.

[35] Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds, 185.

[36] Dillon, M.P.J. “The Didactic Nature of the Epidaurian Iamata.” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (1994), 245.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Hughes, J., “Fragmentation as Metaphor in the Classical Healing Sanctuary.” Social History of Medicine, 21, no. 2 (2008): 221.

[39] Ibid, 219.

[40] Ibid, 220.

[41] Ibid.

[42] “The Association of Hygieia,” 323.

[43] Aristides Orations 49; 46.

[44] “The Association of Hygieia,” 324.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, vol. 2, 91.

[47] Plutus 701-703.

[48] Aristides Orations 39.14-15.

[49] Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, vol. 1, 207.

[50] IG IV2, I 303.

[51] Ahearne-Kroll, S.P. “Mnemosyne at the Asklepieia.” Classical Philology 109, no.2, (2014): 102-103.

[52] Orphica Hymni 77.6-8.

[53] “Mnemosyne at the Asklepieia,” 102-103.

[54] Hesiod Theogony 31-32.

[55] IG IV2, I 121, I.

[56] Nagy, G. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 1§2.

[57] Plato Ion 534e.

[58] Ibid, 534c.

[59] Ibid, 534d.

[60] IG IV2, I 122, XXIII.

[61] Dillon, M.P.J., “The Didactic Nature of the Epidaurian Iamata,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (1994): 242.

[62] IG IV2, I 121, XI.

[63] IG IV2, I 122, XXII.

[64] IG IV2, I 121, III.

[65] IG IV2, I 121, IV.

[66] “Surgical Cures Under Sleep Induction in the Asclepieion of Epidauros,” 16.

[67] LiDonnici, L.R. “Compositional Background of the Epidaurian ‘Iamata.” The American Journal of Philology 113, no. 1 (1992), 40.


Ahearne-Kroll, S.P. 2014. “Mnemosyne at the Asklepieia.” Classical Philology 109, no. 2: 99-118.

Askitopoulou, H., et al. 2002. “Surgical Cures Under Sleep Induction in the Asclepieion of Epidauros.” International Congress Series 1242: 11-17.

Askitopoulou, H. 2015. “Sleep and Dreams: From Myth to Medicine in Ancient Greece.” Journal of Anesthesia History 1, no. 3: 70-75.

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Hughes, J. 2008. “Fragmentation as Metaphor in the Classical Healing Sanctuary.” Social History of Medicine 21, no. 2: 217-236.

LiDonnici, L.R. 1992. “Compositional Background of the Epidaurian ‘Iamata.” The American Journal of Philology 113, no. 1: 25-41.

Luck, G. 2006. Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds: A Collection of Ancient Texts. Baltimore.

Nagy, G. 1999. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Baltimore.

Rinella, M.A. 2010. Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens. Plymouth.

Stafford, E. 2005. “Without You No One is Happy: The Cult of Health in Ancient Greece.” Health in Antiquity (ed. Helen King) 120-35. New York.

Tétényi, P. 1997. “Opium Poppy (Papaver somniferum): Poppy and Horticulture.” Horticultural Reviews 19, (ed. Jules Janick) 373-405.

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