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The Temples Of Esculapius
Source: Primitive Psycho-therapy And Quackery
It has been truly said that temples were the first hospitals, and
priests the earliest physicians. In the temples of Esculapius, in
Greece, a main object of the various mystic rites was to exert a
powerful influence on the patient's imagination. This was supplemented
by practical therapeutic and hygienic treatment, such as baths, friction
of the skin, and a strict diet. These primitive sanatoria were built in
places carefully chosen for their salubrity of climate and healthful
environment. Doubtless their founders were actuated by a belief that
Esculapius was ever ready to help those who first helped themselves. In
view, therefore, of the superior hygienic conditions, together with
intelligent medical care, it is not surprising that seemingly marvellous
cures should result, especially of impressionable persons affected with
The walls of those temples were adorned with bas-reliefs, of which
specimens have been preserved. One of these represents a recumbent
patient, and a physician seated by the bedside. Near by stands a tall,
erect personage, supposed to be the god of health, while the figures of
two suppliants may be seen approaching him. When a patient arrived
at the gate of the temple, he was not allowed to enter at once; for
strict cleanliness was deemed a prerequisite for admission to the god's
presence. And in order to place him in this desirable condition with the
greatest possible despatch, he was plunged into cold water, after which
he was permitted to enter the sacred precincts. According to a poetic
fancy of the Grecian pilgrim in search of health, the proper cure for
his ailment would be revealed by the god of healing to his worshipper in
the latter's dreams. The interpretation of these dreams and the
revelation to the patient of their alleged meaning was entrusted to a
priest, who served as an intermediary between Esculapius and the
patient. Several of these oracular prescriptions, inscribed upon a
marble slab, were found on the site of an Esculapian temple near Rome.
Translations of two of them may serve as examples:
"Lucius, having a pleurisy, and being given over by everybody, received
from the god this oracle, that he should come and take the ashes off his
altar, and mixing them with wine, apply them to his side. Which done, he
was cured, and returned thanks to the god, and the people congratulated
him upon his happy recovery."
"The god gave this oracle to a blind soldier, named Valerius Aper, that
he should mingle the blood of a white cock with honey, and make a
collyrium, which he should put upon his eyes three days together. After
which he saw, and came publicly to return thanks."
Although usually regarded as a purely mythological being, Esculapius is
believed by some writers to have been an historic personage. According
to tradition, he transmitted his professional knowledge to his
descendants, the Asclepiadae, a priestly caste, versed in medical lore.
For centuries the most famous Grecian physicians were members of this
order; and the great Hippocrates, styled "the Father of Medicine," is
said to have claimed to be the seventeenth in direct descent from
Esculapius. Although the god of healing may be said to have been
also the first practising physician, his distinguished teacher Chiron,
the wise Centaur, was without doubt the first medical professor whose
name has been handed down. To Chiron is usually ascribed the honor of
having introduced among the Grecians the art of Medicine, in the
thirteenth century B. C. He was reputed to have been a learned chief or
prince of Thessaly, who was also a pioneer among equestrians, one who
preferred horseback as a means of locomotion, rather than the chariot,
or other prototype of the chaise, buggy, automobile, or bicycle. Hence
the superstition of that rude age gave him a place among the Centaurs.
He is reported moreover to have imparted instruction to the Argonauts,
and to the warriors who participated in the siege of Troy. From this
hero is derived the name of the plant centaury, owing to a legend of its
having been used with success as a healing application to a wound in
The worship of Esculapius, as the god of healing, was widespread among
the Greeks, and lasted even into Christian times. Patients repaired to
the temples, just as relief is sought to-day by a devotional pilgrimage,
or by a resort to a sacred spring. The records of cures were inscribed
upon the columns or walls of the temple, and thus is believed to have
originated the custom of recording medical and surgical cases.
The priests exerted a powerful influence upon the minds of applicants by
reciting wonderful tales, as they led them through the sacred precincts,
explaining in mystical language the miraculous cures which had been
performed there, and calling attention to the numerous votive offerings
and inscriptions upon the temple walls. It may readily be conceived,
wrote Richard J. Dunglison, M.D., that these procedures made a
deep impression upon the patients' minds, and the more so, because the
priests were wont to dwell especially upon the cures which had been
effected in analogous cases.
Moreover hydro-therapy was supplemented by massage, which often had
beneficial results in nervous affections; and fumigation of the
patients, before they received advice from the oracle, lent an air of
mystery. Those who were cured returned to express their gratitude and to
offer presents to the god, as well as to the priests. They usually also
brought some ornament for the adornment of the temple.
The act of sleeping in a sanctuary, in order to obtain medical relief,
either through revelations by dreams, or through a divine visitation,
was termed incubation.
According to the philosophy of oneiromancy, or the art of taking omens
from dreams, during sleep the soul was released from the body, and thus
enabled to soar into spiritual regions and commune with celestial
beings. Therefore memories of ideas suggested in dreams were cherished
as divine revelations.
The opinion has been advanced that the methods employed to procure
"temple sleep" were similar to those in use at the present time for the
production of the hypnotic state. A cure was effected by awakening a
healing instinct in the patient's subconscious mind.
So far as we are aware, no authentic rational explanation has been
given of the phenomenal appearance of a god in the patient's presence.
It seems plausible that Asklepios, the Grecian Esculapius, was
personated by some priest of majestic mien, who gave oracular medical
advice, which serves as a powerful therapeutic suggestion. Various
attendant circumstances doubtless contributed to impress the patient's
highly wrought imagination, such as the dim light, the sense of mystery,
and, it may be, certain tricks of ventriloquism.
In the earliest days of temple-sleep, that is, probably about the
seventh century B. C., this mode of treatment was practised without a
tinge of superstition, the applicants' faith being deep and sincere. For
in that era the belief was general that human art was powerless to cure
disease, and the gods alone could furnish aid. Temple-sleep, wrote Dr.
Hugo Magnus, was not degraded into superstition until the physicians had
come to the conclusion that the phenomena of disease were not evidence
of divine displeasure, but that they were due to natural causes. When
therefore this new belief became established, temple-sleep degenerated
into a superstitious rite. As early as the fifth century B. C., the
celebrated poet, Aristophanes, in his comedy, "Plutus," severely
criticized this ceremony, as practised in his time. And, although the
more enlightened among the Greeks came to regard it with disfavor, the
custom was never entirely abandoned by the ancient world.
Having bathed Plutus in the sea, says the servant Cario, we
went to the temple of Esculapius; and when our wafers and
preparatory sacrifices were offered on the altar, and our
cakes on the flame of Vulcan, we laid him on a couch, as was
proper, and made ready our own mattresses. When the priest had
extinguished the lights, he told us to go to sleep, adding
that if any of us heard the hissing we should by no means
stir. We therefore all remained in bed, and made no noise. As
for myself, I could not sleep, on account of the odor of a
basin of savory porridge which an old woman had at the side of
her bed, and which I longed for amazingly. Being, therefore,
anxious to creep near it, I raised my head and saw the
sacristan take the cakes and dried figs from the sacred table,
and going the round of the altars, put all that he could find
into a bag. It occurred to me that it would be meritorious in
me to follow his example, so I arose to secure the basin of
porridge, fearing only that the priest might get at it before
me, with his garlands on. . . . The old woman, on hearing me,
stretched forth her hand. But I hissed, and seized her fingers
with my teeth, as if I were an Esculapian snake; then, drawing
back her hand again, she lay down and wrapped herself up
quickly, while I swallowed the porridge, and, when full,
retired to rest.
The surprising cures frequently effected were inexplicable, even to the
scientific minds of antiquity.
Victor Duruy, in his "History of Rome," relates the following
instance, on the authority of the Greek writer AElian. A man named
Euphronios, who had been an ardent follower of Epicurus, suffered from
some obstinate affection which his physicians failed to cure. His
relatives therefore carried him into a neighboring Esculapian temple,
where in the night, during sleep, he heard the voice of an oracle,
saying, "In the case of this man, there is only one means of
restoration, namely, to burn the hooks of Epicurus, to knead these
sacrilegious ashes with wax, and to cover the stomach and chest with the
compound." These directions were carried out, and Euphronios was
promptly cured and converted.
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