Asclepius and Healing Sanctuaries

It was a common practice, when cured of an illness affecting a particular part of the body, to dedicate a picture or carving of that body-part to the deity deemed responsible for the cure. An inscription beneath a representation of two ears in the temple of Aesculapius at Epidaurus reads ‘Long ago, Cutius Gallus had vowed these ears to you, son of Apollo, and he placed them here when his ears were cured’ (Corpus of Latin Inscriptions 3.7266). Temples became so congested with such dedications that earlier offerings had to be removed to make room for fresh ones. This custom was not confined to the Romans and Greeks. The Old Testament gives evidence of a slightly different practice: after the Philistines had stolen the Ark of the Covenant, ‘the hand of the Lord was against the city with a very great destruction: and he smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had emerods in their secret parts’ … The priests and diviners of the Philistines determined that they would gain relief only if they returned the Ark with a trespass offering of ‘five golden emerods and five golden mice’ (First Samuel 5.9, 6.4). [The Philistines were suffering not only from haemorrhoids but also from a plague of mice.]

To the god Men, and to his power. Prepousa, freedwoman of the priestess, prayed on behalf of her son that, if he were restored to health without her having to pay doctors, she would set up an inscription in thanksgiving. Her prayer was answered, but she did not pay the tribute. Now the god has demanded payment, and has punished her father, Philemon. So she is paying for the answer to her prayer, and will praise the god from now on (Epigraphica Anatolica [1989] 42).

Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, thought fit to accompany his thefts from temples with witty remarks. … When he ordered the golden beard to be detached from the statue of Asclepius at Epidaurus, he declared that it was not appropriate for Asclepius to have a beard, given that his father, Apollo, was beardless (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings 1.1 ext. 3).

Snakes are sacred to Asclepius. … It is natural that Asclepius should have snakes as his attendants: since snakes slough off their old skin, they always look young, and likewise the god makes sick people look young when he casts away their illnesses like a snake-skin (Scholiast to Aristophanes, Wealth 773).

The tragedians and the lyric poet Pindar say that Asclepius was the son of Apollo, and also that he was killed by a thunderbolt because he was bribed with gold to cure a rich man who was already on the point of dying. But I cannot believe both these statements, for, if he was the son of a god, he was not money-grubbing, and if he was money-grubbing, he was not the son of a god (Plato, Republic 407e).

The tragedian Aristarchus of Tegea contracted a disease. Asclepius cured him, and ordered him to make a thank-offering in return for his health. So the poet granted Asclepius the drama that is named after him. But gods would never demand nor accept payment for granting health. How could that be? After all, with a kind and thoughtful love for humans, they provide us free of charge with the greatest blessings [… sunlight, water, fire, air …] (Aelian, frg. 101). Aristarchus was a celebrated poet, competing against Sophocles and Euripides, and possibly also Aeschylus, in the great Athenian drama festivals.

Because it was such a bother to provide their sick and worn out slaves with medical treatment, some people were in the habit of abandoning them on the island of Asculapius. Claudius decreed that all such slaves were free, and were not to be returned to their owner. Anyone who chose to kill his sick slaves rather than abandon them was liable to a charge of murder (Suetonius, Life of Claudius 25).

In the temple of Asclepius illnesses are cured by means of divinely inspired dreams. The art of medicine was established from these sacred dreams, through observation of the order of the nighttime epiphanies (Iamblichus, On The Mysteries 3.3).

Cleinatas from Thebes, who had lice. This man came with a vast quantity of lice on his body. He slept in the shrine and saw a vision. The god seemed to take his clothes off and make him stand up naked, and then to sweep the lice off his body with a broom. In the morning he left the inner shrine cured (Epidaurus Inscriptions, Stele B 8).

Anticrates of Cnidus, eyes. This man was stabbed by a spear through both eyes in a battle. He was blinded and went about with the spear point in his face. Sleeping here, he saw a vision. The god seemed to extract the missile and to fit the so-called “girls” [i.e., pupils] into his eyes again. In the morning he left the shrine cured (Epidaurus Inscriptions, Stele B 12).

The temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus was in ruins, It had originally been built by a private individual called Phalysius. When he had an eye disease and was almost blind, the god at Epidaurus sent the poetess Anyte to him with a sealed writing tablet. Anyte thought she had been dreaming, but it was immediately clear that it was a waking vision, for she found the sealed tablet in her hands. She sailed to Naupactus and told Phalysius to remove the seal and read what was written on the tablet. With his eyes suffering as they were, Phalysius did not think he could see the writing, but in the hope of deriving at least some benefit from Asclepius he removed the seal. When he looked at the wax, he was cured and he gave Anyte what was written on the tablet, two thousand staters of gold (Pausanias, Guide to Greece 10.38).

Apelles’s painting of Aphrodite Emerging from the Sea [now lost, but the original inspiration for Botticelli’s Birth of Venus] used to be in the temple of Asclepius on the island of Cos, but it is now in the temple of Divine Caesar in Rome, for Augustus dedicated to him the founding ancestress of his family. [The Julian clan claimed descent from Venus.] It is said that the people of Cos received a substantial remission on their taxes in return for the painting. It is also said that Hippocrates developed his system of dietetics mostly by reading accounts of cures recorded on tablets dedicated in that temple (Strabo, Geography 14.2.19).

Not far from the river at Samicum in Elis there is a cave, called the cave of the nymphs. It is the custom that any leper who enters the cave should first pray to the nymphs and promise them a sacrifice. Then he wipes the parts of his body that are affected by the disease and swims across the river. He leaves his unsightly affliction in the water, and emerges healthy and with his skin all the same color (Pausanias, Guide to Greece 5.5).

Aristophanes makes fun of the incubation-cure at Wealth 667ff., where a slave reports events in Asclepius’s temple when the blind god Wealth is brought there to have his sight restored: “There were many people in the temple, with all sorts of afflictions. The god’s attendant extinguished the lamps and told us to go to sleep. He said that, if anyone heard a noise, he was to keep quiet. We all lay down nicely, but I couldn’t sleep, for I was being tortured by the thought of a pot of porridge that was lying very close to the little old woman’s head. I was awfully keen to creep over and get it. So I looked up, and saw the priest snatching the cookies and dried figs from the holy table. Then he went round all the altars, to check whether any cakes were left, and any he found he sanctified into a sack. I thought this was a fine and holy way to act, so I stood up and headed for the pot of porridge.”

The Scythians believe that sexual dysfunction is imposed on them by the gods. It is an affliction suffered by the rich, not by the poor. The upper classes are affected because of their horseriding, but the poor suffer less because they do not ride. But, if impotence really is more heavensent than other illnesses, it should not fall on the noblest and richest Scythians, but on everyone indiscriminately; or rather, on the poor and obscure, if indeed the gods take pleasure in mankind’s adoration of them and repay it with kindnesses. After all, the rich presumably make frequent sacrifice to the gods, and dedicate votive offerings to them, and worship them. The poor, lacking resources, do this less often, and indeed criticize the gods for not giving them money (Hippocrates, Airs, Waters, and Places 22).

Frail, suffering mankind, only too aware of its weakness, … has distinguished so many gods – in our anxiety to placate them, even diseases and various types of plague have been deified. That is why there is actually a shrine to Fever on the Palatine, dedicated at public expense (Pliny, Natural History 2.15).

We who are bald have more than our fair share of health. The statues of Asclepius seem to hint at this, since they are without hair in the Egyptian manner. Perhaps there is a lesson here for us all, the most beneficial medical advice we could hope for, for it seems almost to say that anyone who wants to be healthy should imitate the founder and champion of medicine [by having his head shaved] (Synesius, In Praise of Baldness 12).