“What Dreams May Come”: Ancient holistic healing at the Asklepion, by Seraphim Winslow

cultivation of the integrity and soundness of body, mind, soul, and spirit in the ancient Mediterranean world

 The word “holistic” is rooted in the ancient Greek word ὅλος (holos), meaning “all, whole, entire.” It is cognate with the English adjective “whole,” a concept which, before modernity, had always been bound up with health and wellness. Tragically, humanity has strayed far from the essential wisdom inherent in the idea of holism. However, in the classical cultures of Greece and Rome, even in the absence of microscopes and MRI machines, the people of antiquity enjoyed relative success in treating, healing, and curing disease at what we might now call a “retreat center” for healing and wellness.

An Asklepion was a center for the cultivation of the integrity and soundness of body, mind, soul, and spirit in the ancient Mediterranean world. As the name suggests, these early wellness centers were dedicated to the god of healing, Asclepius, who not only restored the health of his devotees, but whom many claimed had become a god by virtue of his therapeutic prowess and deeds.

Testimony about the apotheosis of Asclepius, who was born of a mortal mother (Coronis) and a divine father (Apollo), can be found in documents throughout the classical world. For example, in Cynegeticus Xenophon writes, “Asclepius won yet greater preferment, to raise the dead and to heal the sick; and for these things being a god he has everlasting fame among men” (Edelstein, 112), and even Cicero in De Legibus declares, “”They shall worship as gods both those who have always been regarded as dwellers in heaven and also those whose merits have placed them in heaven, Heracles, Liber, Asclepius, Castor, Pollux, Quirinus … ” (Edelstein, 111).

The concept of holism served as the theoretical basis for the work of healers at the Asklpion, as well as for the venerable art, science, and philosophy of health and healing, both of which nouns are not surprisingly closely related to the etymology of the word ὅλος. Plato addresses the issue of healing directly in the Symposium, and in his discourse we see how love and affinity–the conceptual analogues of wholeness and wellness–play a central role in the doctor’s art. A physician “must be able to make the most hostile elements of the body friendly and loving to each other … It was by knowing how to create love and unanimity in these that … Asclepius established this science of ours” (Edelstein, 182). So states the doctor Eryximachus in Plato’s famous Socratic dialogue on the virtues of love, beauty, and truth. Apparently, wholeness of soul and health of body were both intimately connected with love, with affectionate care, a fact that many of today’s would-be healers appear to have forgotten in their overweening reliance on strictly allopathic medicine, drug therapy, and surgery. 

Indeed, the ancient Greeks knew that there was a whole aggregate of virtues and affections–love, piety, sobriety, and temperance–comprising the essentially personal and subjective components of ancient notions of wellness. The Asklepion was a dedicated center established for this holistic and comprehensive approach to healing in the ancient world. 

The asklepion at Kos. Heiko Gorski, Wikimedia commons.

The origins of the Asclepion are shrouded in the mists of humanity’s most ancient history. Current practitioners of holistic methods similar to those employed at these early wellness centers speculate that “the Greek inherited much of their wisdom about holistic healing from the ancient Egyptians, who also shared their techniques with the Essenes and the Therapeutae” (d’Arcy, 36). What is known is that the Asclepieia operated for hundreds of years, from as early as the golden age of Athens all the way through late antiquity and the institution of Christianity, as the state religion of Rome.

More than three hundred Asklepieia served the needs of the sick and the ill throughout the Mediterranean basin, including centers in Epidauros, Kos, Athens, and Pergamum.  To see the Asklepieia as an early version of the hospital would not do justice to the ample character of these centers for healing, which in fact combined elements of what we now call spas, worship venues, cultural forums, and retreat centers. The complex at Epiadauros, to take one of the most prominent examples, which has been partially excavated, consisted of a variety of venues for both worship and wellness. The theater was one of the largest in the ancient world outside of major classical cities like Rome and Athens. There were also dormitories for patients and guests; a small hippodrome; altars to Apollo and Athena; a major temple to Asclepius; an abaton, where patients would undergo cures like incubation and koimesis; curative baths, and a library. 

There is something divine about healing, a mystery that seems to defy even the most lapidary imperatives of the decay and entropy that characterize most of the natural world. Thus, it is no coincidence then that like other Greek public institutions, the Asklepion was eponymous with a god. Among many others places of worship, every Asklepion in the Greco-Roman world featured a temple to Asclepius, as well as other altars to deities associated with healing like Apollo and Hygeia, one of the curative daughters of Asclepius. 

The cult of Asclepius was no ordinary hero sect, since this particular son of Apollo became one of the few human beings to go on to become a deity in his own right. Sanctuaries to Asclepius, or “Aescuplapius” as the Romans called him, had been established in divers locations in the Greek and Latin-speaking world, but at the Asklepion he had the hegemony. 

Various documents throughout antiquity testify to the apotheosis of Asclepius. Plutarch admits, “we know that physicians have Asclepius for their leader” (Edelstein, 179). The healers or therapists of the Asclepion went by a variety of titles, depending on their function, including asclepiads, iatromantis, physikoi, and others.

Asclepius holding the staff with a snake wrapped around it that serves as the inspiration for the symbol of medicine. Project Gutenberg.

Among the many therapies offered at the various Asklepeieia found throughout Greece and Rome, first and foremost was the therapeutic location itself. People of the ancient world put a lot of stock in the belief that the Beautiful itself was salubrious, merely by virtue of its association with the Good and the True. That’s why nearly all the Asklepeieia were established at sites featuring exquisite views of the landscape, the sea, and the sky: a trifecta of natural features which corresponded harmoniously with the Pythagorean concept of the universe as a beautiful ornament, or “kosmos.” Mere exposure to the pulchritude of the natural environment already initiated a hopeful patient’s course of treatment even before embarking upon their journey of healing through the gauntlet of wellness on offer at the respective Asklepion. 

But just because the Greeks were convinced of the health benefits of aesthetic landscapes does not mean that they did not take as objective and (what we would recognize) as scientific an approach to healing as their knowledge allowed. Isidorus writes that, “First methodical medicine was invented by Apollo, which pursues remedies and incantations. Second, empiric medicine was invented by Asclepius, that is, the most tested medicine, which is founded not on indications and signs, but on experience alone. Third, logical, that is, rational, medicine was invented by Hippocrates” (186). Even while they may attribute this intellectual prowess to the gods and heroes, it was still the first time in the history of Western civilization when the idea of systematic healing began to be thinkable. 

Upon arrival in their pilgrimage to an Asklepion, a patient would immediately begin the stage of “katharis” or “purification,” which included baths, purging, diet, and prayer, all of which were prescribed according to a set of established rules and principles. A monetary offering was expected at this stage of the healing process, and this was also considered to be an essential component in the set of therapies that would contribute to the patient’s cure.  

Author Peter Kingsley notes that the Asklepieia, while their chief function was therapeutic, served a much more general purpose of cultural integration at all levels. Certainly, the physical soundness of the patient was the first item on the agenda, but this focus on the body may have just been part and parcel of the overarching Greek reverence for the human form above all. “And people didn’t do this just when they were sick. There used to be experts at incubation–masters at going into another state of consciousness or allowing themselves to go if they were drawn there” (Kingsley, 101). It seems that the emphasis on the physical body, always a priority, did not overshadow the recognition that the mind and soul as well were part of the whole, integrated human person. This surely explains the presence of other venues for betterment besides the somatic and mental therapies that occurred in the abaton. The baths and the race-course aided the ongoing outpatient treatment in delivering the body’s need for relaxation and exercise; the library extended and strengthened the robustness of the mind; the amphitheater fulfilled the soul’s needs for the cathartic effect of what Aristotle famously called the “pity and terror” of Greek tragedy and drama; and finally—consummately– the different altars and temples opened the spirit to the benevolent attention of the gods. 

The principle therapy offered in the abaton, which was a special building dedicated to sleep-healing, and which was proctored by hospital staff doctors, the asclepiads–or “sons of Asclepius” (Kingsley, 153)–at Epidauros, Kos, and other healing centers was the fascinating technique of incubation. In this altered state of consciousness the patients were encouraged to indulge in the pursuit of revelatory dreams, while snakes (holy to Asclepius) slithered on the floors–as well as on their bodies!–and dogs licked the sleepers’ wounds. “Sometimes the patient was healed during the dream experience. It was believed that they were visited by Asclepius or one of his daughters in their dream and were healed by them. In other cases, the dream guided the next phase of the patient’s treatment, including a preview of the progress of the health challenge and what could be done about it” (d’Arcy, 37). In De Mysterii, the fourth century CE Neoplatonist, Iamblichus, observed that, “in the Asclepion illnesses are healed by divine dreams. Through the ordinances of visions that occur at night the medical art was composed from divinely inspired dreams” (Edelstein, 209). 

The variety of illnesses and injuries that were subject to cure through incubation in the abaton were multiple and various. The classical textual sources cite sicknesses as diverse as gout, blindness, muteness, tapeworm, paralysis of the fingers, and difficult pregnancy. Even injuries that one would think beyond any hope–human or divine–could be healed by the gods for a patient under the influence of incubation in the abaton. “Euhippus had for six years the point of speak in his jaw. As he was sleeping in the Temple, the god extracted the spearhead and gave it to him into his hands” (Edelstein, 232).

Besides the various alterations of consciousness undergone by pilgrims in the abaton, there were diverse somatic therapies available at the Asklepion complex. Chief among these involved methodical approaches to food and nutrition, particularly herbal and comestible medicaments. “They say that this knowledge [sc., of dietetics] was at the beginning Apollo’s and Paeon’s, but later that of the associates of Asclepius,” (Edelstein, 187) states Iamblichus in De Vita Pythagorica. Various herbs and foods were deliberately applied to the pilgrims’ and patient’ treatments in order to achieve specific effects. Among these were, “… laurel berries … wild raisin, Alexandrian mustard, bastard-sponge, pepper, parched barley, raw cucumber root” (Edelstein, 192). Food and diet played so vital a role in the cure and care of visitors to the Asklepion that some of the recorded prescriptions sound more like recipes for gourmet meals than medical orders. “I should apply a plaster of barley meal mixed with old wine and of a pine cone ground down with olive oil, and at the same time a fig and goat’s fat, then milk with pepper” (Edelstein, 253), wrote one patient’s recollection of his doctor’s recommendation.

Some of the substances that patients ingested, along with their manner of application, at first glance might seem rather bizarre by today’s medical standards. “I had to sail across to the opposite side [of the harbor],” writes Aristides in his Oratio, “eating honey, and acorns from an oak tree, and vomit; then complete purification was achieved” (Edelstein, 206). Upon reflection, however, treatments such as that described by Aristides’ boat ride are perfectly reasonable when one considers the way that the combination of both physical exercise and purgation would work to kill two pathological birds with one therapeutic stone–a brilliant double solution in the absence of modern methods of physical therapy and chemical purgatives. 

As a psychological aid to the all-important positive attitude that any medical success story must have promoted, there were tablets declaring the victories over illness achieved at the Asklepion. In Descriptio Gracie, Pausanias observes that “On these tablets are engraved the names of men and women who are healed by Asclepius, together with the disease from which each suffered, and how he was cured. The inscriptions are in the Doric dialect” (Edelstein, 195). These posted signs were not the only displays of grateful testimonial. At the Asklepion at Epidauros, for example, Livius remarks in his celebrated Ab Urbe Condita that the splendid temple of Asclepius “is now rich in traces of broken votives … which the sick had dedicated to the god as an acknowledgement for the remedies which restored them to health” (Edelstein, 195).

Sadly, sicknesses could not always be cured. Arnobius remarks, “Asclepius presides over the duties and arts of medicine: why then cannot more kinds of disease and sickness be restored to health and soundness, why in fact do they become worse under the very hands of the physicians?” Lacking modern knowledge of medicine, of course, ancient doctors did the best they could, and it cannot be doubted that the placebo effect, as well as the few theoretical successes that the healer achieved, did contribute to the wellness of their patients and patrons. The most common explanation for the failure of treatment was not to blame the patron divinity, but to incriminate the physician, ” … for it is not right,” states Chorichius Gazaeus, “that those who employ unjustly the gifts of the gods should seek refuge in the patronage of the god” (Edelstein, 181). Gazaeus continues, “Neither if anyone, pretending medical skill, should supply the sick with whatever drugs, potions, and provisions have harmful effects, shall we say that the son of Apollo is please with him, nor would such a man rightly be called a servant of Asclepius, when transgressing the law of the god’s art” (182).

However, judging by the popularity and prevalence of this institution, the cure, or at least satisfactory treatment, of most ailments seems to have been more the rule than the exception. After receiving a fortunate outcome, the pilgrim would make a formal prayer of thanksgiving to the patron of the Asklepion. One such thank-offering, composed by one Aeschines the Rhetor, said, “Having despaired of the skill of mortals, but with every hope in the divine, forsaking Athens, blessed with children, coming to your sacred grove Asclepius, I was healed in three months of a festering wound which I had on my head for a whole year” (Edelstein, 204). 

Practitioners of alternative medicine today are beginning to verify what Western civilization has ignored for thousands of years, but which the ancients Greeks and Romans understood to be an elementary principle of good health: environment matters. In spite of many wonderful advances in modern medicine, we seem to have forgotten that the medical arts do not have to be limited only to the very narrow spectrum of just surgery and drugs. Perhaps if we took a clue from the Asklepieia and included a wider array of approaches to the all aspects of the human being–body, soul, mind, and spirit–we would see more success in our hospitals and clinics. And even if the obligatory establishment of libraries, baths, juice bars, massage rooms, gyms, yoga studios, and a temple or two annexed to our wellness centers failed to yield objective results in terms of quantity of patients healed and diseases cured, imagine the improvement in quality of life that clients would enjoy. Perhaps there was more to those ancient centers of therapy and prayer than we now would care to admit.  ◆

Seraphim Winslow is the director of the Temenos for the Wisdom of the Rose, Wisdom School, in northern California. He and his fellow teachers and students benefit from the wisdom of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the Fourth Way, and the sagacity of Asia in their search for mindfulness and meaning.

Works Cited

D’Arcy, Christine, SRC. Asclepieia: Ancient Centers for Radiant Health. Rosicrucian
Digest, vol. 97, no. 2, 2019, pgs. 36 – 37. 

Edelstein, Emma J. and Ludwig Edelstein. Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of
the Testimonies. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1945.

Edelstein, Ludwig, et al. Ancient Medicine: Selected Papers of Ludwig Edelstein. The
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. 

Kingsley, Peter. In the Dark Places of Wisdom. Golden Sufi Center, 1999