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The Temples Of Esculapius

Sources: 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 ca
efully 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

nervous disorders.

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

Chiron's foot.

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.