Temple Cures


EXCERPTS FROM CURE AND CULT IN ANCIENT CORINTH: A GUIDE TO THE ASKLEPIEION, AMERICAN SCHOOL OF CLASSICAL STUDIES AT ATHENS, PRINCETON, 1977


[MASK OF ASKLEPIOS]

Asklepios, like other immortals, regarded death as contamination, so that no one was permitted to die in a sacred place. If the god of medicine avoided association with death, so in their way did human practitioners, as may be seen from Hippokrates' summary definition of the art of medicine (De arte iii): "the deliverance of the sick from pain, the reduction of diseases' violence, and the refusal to treat those overpowered by their diseases, with the knowledge that medical art is unavailing in these cases."

Indeed perhaps it was often the case that where human skill had been of no avail the patient turned to the god. The orator Aischines testifies to something such in these verses (Palatine Anthology vi.330):

     Despairing of human skill but with all hope in the divine,
     Leaving Athens, blessed in her sons, and coming to your grove,
     Asklepios, I was cured in three months of a wound
     In the head that had lasted for a whole year.

Corinth's Asklepieion is only one of a great many temples to the Divine Physician. Although Corinth has anatomical dedications not found in equal numbers elsewhere and a clear ground plan of both shrine and neighboring fountain the fullest picture of Asklepios' activities requires the importation of literary and epigraphical material from Athens, of inscribed testimonials to the god's power from Asklepieia in Epidauros and Lebena, Crete, and of reliefs from Athens and Piraeus.


[PLAN  OF LERNA AND ASKLEPIEION]

For an ailing worshipper in pursuit of a cure, a bath in the sea served as the outward symbol of the inner state prescribed at Epidauros (Porphyrius, De abstinentia ii.19): "Going into the fragrant temple, one must be pure; purity is thinking holy thoughts." Then came the offering of honey cakes at the altar. At Corinth the arrangements suggest that in addition to a sea bath the patient made token ablutions at the eastern water basin, proceeded to both altar and temple and then to the lustral area for proper cleansing before entering the main hall of the abaton or inner sanctum. There the patient lay down on a pallet on the floor, and presently an attendant put out the lights and urged sleep and silence. Then in the patient's dream the god came with an attendant carrying mortar, pestle and medicine chest, mixing a potion, applying a plaster, using the knife or summoning a sacred serpent to lick the afflicted part. If the dream was suggested by an actual priest making his rounds, the cure to which the patient attested on waking was still a thing worthy of wonder and thankfulness.  It is from such expressions of thankfulness that there has come down to us the most vivid evidence of the treatment undergone and the cures effected. Corinthian terracotta models of...anatomical bits and pieces that were healed...illustrate the "case histories" recorded at Epidauros and elsewhere. The accumulated mass of life size votive limbs and organs found in the Asklepieion precinct amounted to some ten cubic meters and included examples of almost all parts of the
body: legs, feet, arms, hands, ears and eyes, torsos, heads, female breasts and reproductive organs, and male genitalia.




[TWO FEMALE HEADS]

Votives were found of two complete heads of women and four fragmentary
heads of men. As with most other pieces, there is no indication of the particular ailment, since it is likely that shops sold them ready made, but
headaches would in any case have been difficult to depict. One such sufferer was treated at Epidauros (I.G., IV2, 1.122):

Even more raculous is the case of Heraieus of Mytilene:

Only three eyes were found in this large collection of votives. This scarcity
is surprising in view of  the Epidauros cure records, where blindness or
other eye disease is most often attested. These are typical examples.


In a virtually machineless society both hands and feet had to suffer the wear
and tear of production and locomotion, so that it is not perhaps surprising
that these are among the most numerous dedications. And here for the first
time we have a terracotta model with a particular abnormality plainly depicted: one hand with a kind of growth or abscess. It may be that this satisfied patient went to the expense of giving the coroplast a special order, or this kind of growth may have been a sufficiently common complaint for the shops to have such models already made up.  Perhaps comparable is a certain Cretan woman who "thanks Asklepios the Savior, having got a severe ulceration on her little finger and being cured when the god ordered her to apply an oyster shell burnt and powdered with rose salve and to anoint it with mallow mixed with olive. oil. And so he cured her" (Insc. Cret., I,  xvii.19).

Foot trouble was obviously of various kinds. One visitor to the Asklepieion at Athens concluded his prayer of thanks thus:


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