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Ancient Medicine - The Asklepios - Greek Medicine 400BC

Updated: Dec 5, 2022

Imagine yourself in Athens around 400BC. You over hear two physician discussing their patients in a language that is not unfamiliar to us; arthritis, crisis, asthma, hypochondria. Every one of these words from ancient Greek healing is essential in today's medical jargon.

Unfortunately, many of the books prior to 400 BC have not survived! Xonophone reported that the medical treatises of his master Socrates made a large collection. They have never been found. And what is left are fragments, quotations, pots and shards that give us a hint as to what these writings may have contained. And after the Hippocratic works (460 - 380 BC) there is another blank for four centuries.

But the Hippocratic works contain much for us to discover. The aspects of healing that I would like to address in this article are the temples of Asklepios, the patron god of physicians.

The word for nature in Greek is physis which is the root word for physician. Thus, there is a message in the word physician that maybe we as modern people have forgotten.

When a physician felt that a case was hopeless, they would send their patients to be healed by the gods at special temples where ritual and prayer would take place. The two approaches of healing, 1. the use of the physician with his medicine and 2. the use of prayer, integrated well in a society in which patient and physician alike firmly believed in the existence of the gods. In the Hippocratic book it is stated, " Prayer indeed is good but while calling on the gods one must oneself lend a hand." And in another book it states, " the Gods are the real physician, though people do not think so."

Those who flocked to the temples of Asklepios knew that there would be no knife or cauterization to fear. The ritual would be simple. Just relax on the holy ground, take in the beauty of the surroundings, listen to the hymns and wait for the night. Each patient would be required to lie down in the sacred hall called the abaton, " place of no walking," and wait for the god to appear and give advice in a dream. The priests would assist by receiving gifts for the gods from the patients; some cheese cake or votive tablet; but no medical gestures were given.

The god appeared in person, but many times appeared in the various disguises of his sacred animals such as the snakes and the dogs, which lived and were tended to in the temple.

In Epidauros, in the ruins of the most celebrated Asklepieion, a large marble stele was found. It preserves the case histories of seventy patients who came to the temple with problems and were cured there. Here are some examples of what is to be found in this writing:

" Timon wounded by a spear under his eye. While sleeping in the temple he saw a dream. It seemed to him that the god rubbed down an herb and poured it into his eye and he became well. "

A dream time drug was given to this patient and cured him. In the next example, a dream time surgery was performed.

"Anticrates on Cnidos. In a battle had been hit by a spear in both eyes and had become blind and the spear point he carried with him sticking in his face. While sleeping, he saw a vision. It seemed to him that the god pulled out the missile and then fitted into his eyelid again the so called pupils. When day came he walked out sound. "

The snake (the drakon), when it appeared in a healing dream, was considered very auspicious. The actual snake, Europe's only constrictor, can be five feet long but is quite harmless to humans. Its reputation as a healer was tremendous. In fact, the Romans imported the snake from Greece in 291 BC even before they imported a regular Greek physician!

Another part of the healing aspect of the Asklepios at Epidauros is the giant amphitheater where plays were offered as part of the healing therapies which I am sure were considered as valuable as psychotherapy is considered today.

The Greek physician, known as the "iatros," tended all wounds and illnesses as best he could but in the back of his mind, he knew that he was not alone. In the Hippocratic writing two thoughts are recorded; " Nature, without instruction or knowledge, does what is necessary."

And " Nature is the physician of diseases."

The word for nature in Greek is physis which is the root word for physician. Thus, there is a message in the word physician that maybe we as modern people have forgotten.

Nature, in her infinite wisdom can show us the way to be healed in body, mind, and spirit. If we can see how she moves and functions then we as humans might try to duplicate that in order to live, heal and if necessary die with grace and gratitude.

The idea also of invoking the invisible realm to come to our healing needs is also something contemporary people might seek more consciously and readily. Sometimes it is difficult for us to have faith in that realm since there is not a wide spread agreement of that reality as there was in ancient times. So often, people only say prayers in times of dire needs, but if we set up a communication with our guides on a regular basis then that relationship is strengthened.

I hope the readers are enjoying the series on Ancient Medicine. It certainly has been a tremendous study for me in many ways. I feel a deep connection to the lineage of healers from the past. I feel their love, care and humanity reaching to our times. Also, knowing the past can help us not to feel so alone or floundering in the present as we reach for alternative ways to heal ourselves.

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