Although Hippocrates is the dominant ﬁgure in modern accounts of Greek medicine, in antiquity the good doctor shared the stage with the healer who began his career as the ‘‘blameless physician’’ in the Ilaid. It was during the age of Hippocrates, not the age of Homer, that Asclepius was elevated to the status of a god. This was a time of extraor- dinary tension between intellectual freedom and intolerance. Impiety and ‘‘godlessness’’ were crimes that could be punished by death or ban- ishment. Excessive interest in the nature of the universe could even be regarded as a sign of madness, as in the case of Democritus of Abdera, the founder of atomic theory. When Democritus began a series of dissections as a means of understanding structure and function in ani- mals, his neighbors interpreted these anatomies as signs of madness, outside the acceptable range of scholarly eccentricity. According to tra- dition, Hippocrates was called upon to cure the philosopher, but having spoken at length with Democritus, the physician told the people of Abdera that they were more likely to be mad than Democritus, who was both rational and wise.
As demonstrated in the history of other civilizations, what is now called modern scientiﬁc medicine has not totally displaced traditional, folk, or religious approaches to healing. Thus, it should not be surpris- ing that Hippocratic medicine did not totally displace religious medicine in the ancient world. For chronic, episodic, and unpredictable con- ditions, such as arthritis, gout, migraine headache, epilepsy, impotence, infertility, and malaria, when patients felt that the physician was ineffec- tive, magicians and priests could always offer hope and even the illusion of cure during the intervals between attacks. Some historians believe that the increase in magical and superstitious medicine during the age of Hippocrates may have been due, in part, to the growing burden of malaria. Still, despite the differences between Hippocratic medicine and religious medicine, Asclepius and Hippocrates shared certain basic assumptions about the best approach to healing. ‘‘First the word,’’ Asclepius taught, ‘‘then the herb, lastly the knife.’’ Over the course of several centuries, the cult of Asclepius spread throughout the Greek world, established itself in Rome, and only gradually gave ground to Christianity as arbiter of the meaning of dis- ease and healing. Legendary accounts of the life and times of Asclepius agree that he was the son of Apollo, but there were disagreements about the place and manner of his birth. His mother was either a nymph or a woman named Coronis who was killed by Apollo’s sister Artemis. With poor Coronis on her funeral pyre, Apollo decided to bring his son to the home of Chiron the centaur, who had tutored many great heroes. According to Homer, Chiron taught Achilles and Asclepius the secret of drugs that relieve pain and stop bleeding. Thanks to his mentor, Asclepius mastered the use of the knife and learned the secret virtues of herbs. When in addition to curing the sick, Asclepius took to restoring the dead to life, Pluto, god of the underworld, complained to Zeus. Afraid that mortals would ignore the gods if they felt that human healers could save them, Zeus struck down the son of Apollo. Eventually, Asclepius became the god of medicine and was worshipped in mag- niﬁcent temples, served by priests who called themselves Asclepiads (descendants of Asclepius).
Asclepian temples were built at Cos, Cnidus, Epidaurus, and other sites blessed with springs of pure water and magniﬁcent views. In temple illustrations, the god was often portrayed with his daughters, Hygeia and Panacea, and Telesphorus, the god of convalescence. Like Lourdes and other modern healing shrines, the temples of Asclepius became places for hopeful pilgrimages and miraculous cures. Information about temple medicine has come from studies of archaeological remains, votive tablets that record the stories of satisﬁed patients, models depict- ing the organs healed at the temple, and references to temple magic in literary sources. But even in ancient Greece there were skeptics who ridiculed the testimonies as deliberate forgeries or the ravings of hypochondriacs and insisted that there would have been many more tablets if those who were not cured had made declarations.
Among the ruins of the temple at Epidaurus is a shrine dedicated to Hygeia, who may have been the original Greek goddess of health. Like the Chinese sages who would not treat the sick, Hygeia taught people to achieve health and longevity by proper behavior. Her inde- pendent cult was eventually subsumed by that of Asclepius and her sta- tus was reduced from independent practitioner to physician’s assistant. Asclepius also enjoyed the help of holy dogs and sacred snakes. In con- trast to the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh, who lost the herb of healing to a snake, Asclepius received the precious herb from a sacred serpent. Thus, Asclepius was often portrayed with a snake coiled about his staff. The caduceus, the sign of the modern physician, which contains two snakes intertwined on a winged staff, seems to suggest increased snake- power, but it is actually closer to the magic wand of Mercury, the messenger of the gods and the patron of thieves and merchants.
The Asclepiads boasted that all who entered the temple sanctuary were cured. Presumably, they achieved a perfect record by carefully selecting their patients. Temporary remissions and spontaneous recov- ery from psychosomatic complaints and self-limited diseases provide all medical systems with a large measure of success. Nevertheless, in Plato’s Republic Socrates says that Asclepius did not attempt to cure bodies thoroughly wrecked by disease. Even the healing god would not lengthen lives that were plainly not worth saving, or allow weak fathers to beget even weaker sons.
The most important part of temple medicine was called ‘‘incu-bation,’’ or temple sleep. Incubation was part of the ancient practice of seeking divine dreams of guidance as the culmination of a series of preliminary rites which might include fasting, prolonged isolation, self-mutilation, and hallucinogenic potions. Sleeping on animal skins in front of an image of Asclepius was a rather mild form of this nearly universal ritual. Some patients reported instantaneous cures after being touched by the god, or licked by the sacred snakes and holy dogs that guarded the temple. Fortunate patients reported that Asclepius himself came to them during therapeutic dreams. Sometimes the god recom- mended simple remedies, such as vegetables for constipation, but Asclepius might also direct the patient to smear his eyes with blood or swim in icy rivers. For some conditions, cure or improvement might indeed result from the combination of rest, fresh air, good diet, hope, and suggestion encountered at the temples of Asclepius. Religious rituals and the release of tension and anxiety occasioned by following the com- mands of the god might have cured many psychosomatic complaints, and comforted many patients, even if a speciﬁc cure was impossible.
Women were not allowed to give birth within the grounds of the temple, but Asclepius accepted various gynecological and obstetric hallenges, especially infertility. Many barren women reported that they became pregnant after visiting the temples. However, as demonstrated by the testimonial of Ithmonice, who asked the god if she could become pregnant with a daughter, supplicants had to be very careful in framing their requests. Hinting at the complications that might occur, Asclepius asked Ithmonice whether she wanted anything else, but she could not imagine wanting more. After carrying the child in her womb for three years, Ithmonice sought another favor from the god. Asclepius reminded Ithmonice that she had only requested conception and had not mentioned delivery, but the god graciously granted her new request. As soon as Ithmonice left the sacred precincts her daughter was born.
According to the testimonies, grateful patients praised the god for curing headaches, paralysis, general debility, and blindness. A man who claimed to have swallowed leeches and a woman who thought she had a worm in her belly testiﬁed to being opened up by the god, who removed the infestation and stitched up the incision. Even relatively minor prob- lems might receive the god’s attention. One man came to the temple for help because his neighbors made fun of his bald head. During temple sleep, the god anointed his head with a drug that caused the growth of thick black hair.