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Friday, May 7, 2010

Snakes and Healers

On April the 7th I saw a snake in the Temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus, Greece. It sat on top of the temple floor as I met its gaze and then slithered beneath a rock. Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of healing and medicine, son of Apollo and father to Hygieia and Panacea, among others, was worshiped as a sacred healer in antiquity. From 300 BC onward his cult became very popular. During my recent trip to the Peloponnese, I visited Epidaurus, the site of the most famous sanctuary of Asclepius. At Epidaurus I visited its ancient theater, renowned as the best preserved of Greek antiquity, looking out at the same backdrop of mountains and cypress trees that theatergoers of 2400 years prior had appreciated. However it was the ruin of the Asclepieion that most fascinated me at Epidaurus.

I learned that the rod of Asclepius, entwined with a single snake, was a symbol of his healing powers thought to derive from the snake. As described in a paper in by Susan M Kellie in Lancet:

The Cult of Asclepius (Asklepios, Aesculapius), was one of the most enduring of classical antiquity. Hundreds of shrines dotted Italy, Greece, the eastern Mediterranean, and North Africa. The origin of the cult was thought to be at Epidaurus, from which it spread to new sites by the transport of one of the sacred serpents. The Asclepian snake is described as watchful, gentle, and endowed with perennial youth through the shedding of its skin, hence its association with healing."

The serpent, as symbol for medicine, is best recognized today in the form of a caduceus. However, the caduceus derives from the staff of the ancient messenger god, Hermes, patron god of trade. In form it is a single winged staff with two serpents entwined. The caduceus was symbolic of commerce and its initial use in medicine likely had to do with alchemy and pharmacy. Confusion of the caduceus with the staff of Asclepius likely led to its widespread application to symbolize medicine and healing.

In the healing ritual of the Cult of Asclepius the sick pilgrim would enter the Asclepieion (hospital), go through a procedure of bathing, fasting and sacrifice, and then go to sleep. While sleeping, the patient would be visited by the god, in the form of a snake, which licked or bit the patient. On waking the patient’s dream was interpreted by a priest and he or she was offered a cure.

Traveling through Greece this April I sought to understand the momentous force of Christianity, which would end Classical culture and propel European culture into the Dark Ages until the Age of Enlightenment. I visited Byzantine monasteries and churches, staring at gilded icons, Mary Theotokos, Mary Hodegetria and Mary Platytera. I lighted candles and listened to the somber music of Holy Week, church bells clanging, the austere Orthodox Easter sermon booming through my window while I lay in bed awake at midnight in Monemvasia.

But with the snake at Epidaurus I found personal meaning.


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