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The Asclepius Centers: an Examination of the Healing Traditions of Ancient Greece

By Dr Dimitra Kamarinou
The National Herald
Vol.19 Issue 961, p. 14
March 12-18, 2016

In the Western world there are clear references to the Hippocratic medicine, and particularly to its morality. Nevertheless, the specific practices applied at the Asclepius Healing Centers have been less investigated.

These Healing Centers are the Western World’s first general hospitals. Hippocrates’ texts and the advanced surgical tools that were found during the excavations at Epidauros indicate that in the classical era medicine was not mastered by magic and superstitions.
Among the approximately 300 Asclepius Healing Centers of the ancient world, the Asclepieion at Epidauros was the most significant and has been claimed as the maternal of many others.

The art of medicine had a long tradition in Greece, before the Classical times, when the Asclepieion at Epidauros was founded. The Homeric texts describe herbal and wound healing treatments during the Trojan War. Surgical tools and skeleton remains indicate the application of surgical acts as early as the Bronze Age. Most of the city states were poorly manned and their survival was based on each and every citizen’s good health. They had developed considerable medical knowledge based on systematic observation in order to heal their precious human capital. Consequently the question is, what more would the Asclepieion at Epidauros offer the patients?

It is widely known that for the Ancient Greeks, body, soul and mind exist as a unity, in terms of health as well. How was this belief translated into healing processes and healing centers’ infrastructure? Unfortunately, only one description of the healing process at Epidauros has survived: Aristophanes in Ploutos refers to the incubation from a sarcastic point of view. It is often mentioned that Ancient Greek medicine determined the transition from magic to science. This is true. At the enclosed Avaton of Epidauros a considerable number of specialized surgical tools have been found.

Besides the Avaton, other buildings existed, that could host additional healing practices: the stadium, ritual estiatoreia, thermal baths, the theater, and rooms for the dream incubation. The buildings at the Asclepieia show the application of a combination of practices. We know that not only rituals with water but the theatrical plays as well could contribute to the catharsis of the soul by the acting out of difficult emotional situations. Ancient Greek writers’ texts mention the power of music for the healing of various ailments. Pausanias cites that inside the Avaton dream healing took place.

The temple of Asclepius and the altars show the role of faith. A puzzling building is the Tholos built above an underground maze. The comparative study of the buildings at the Asclepieia of the ancient world and the synthetic study of the archaeological and written evidence indicate that Epidauros offers a unique applied example of a healing concept that treats the body, the soul and the mind as an indivisible unity. Medication, diet, work outs and surgery, probably the hypnosis and dream healing, the music and the theater, experiences in the nature and the faith could have played a role in the healing of the patients’ ailments.

It seems that this healing approach was justified by its good results. Asclepius became the most significant opponent of Christ and the Asclepieion of Epidauros kept its role during the Christian Byzantine era, till the 5th century AD.
Regarding the medical history research, though there is a body of literature on Ancient Greek herbal and trauma healing, and on the Hippocratic texts, only recently appeared a few studies that either examine the incubation as dream healing, or try to reveal the holistic healing concept in the Hippocratic texts. The 2014-15 Iasis (“Healing”) exhibition and the Congress on Medical Tourism at Athens show an increased interest in the field.

Therefore, an initiative undertaken recently by Professor Vasileios Lamprinoudakis and the Diazoma Association does worth not only to be mentioned but supported as well. The Asclepius Sanctuary Museum and park is envisioned to be constructed at Epidauros. Diazoma implements this vision step by step (diazoma.gr/en/ Archaeological- Park_Epidaurus.asp.)

Diazoma is a Greek nonprofit and nongovernmental association that aims to enhance the cultural heritage of Greece and particularly the ancient theatres. Though recently founded (2009) it has shown a tremendous potential in inspiring sponsors and volunteers, which has resulted in implementing studies, restoration and enhancement works at more than half of Greece’s ancient theaters. The efficacy in accomplishing difficult tasks, the transparent fund management, the openness to creative ideas have attracted prestigious archaeologists, scholars and artists in its ever expanding membership circle. (www.diazoma.gr). Next month, on April 22, Mr. Vasileios Lamprinoudakis will present “The Archaeological Park at Epidauros: A thrilling trip through the history of healthcare” at Georgetown University and on April 20 Stavros Benos, invited by the World Bank, will present in Washington, DC the “Diazoma” initiatives “At Washington: The monuments in the center of sustainable development.”

Dimitra Kamarinou, PhD, has studied philology and archaeology at the University of Ioannina, Würzburg and Bochum in
Germany. She has been honored with the Academy of Athens Award in Archaeology and Homeric Philology.