Epidaurus was among the first sites of the Asclepiad healing cults of Ancient Rome and Greece and was said to be built in a place sacred to the healing God. These sites were the forerunners of what we now call hospitals, but they involved much more than healing. The Gods worshiped were, of course, Asclepius and his father Apollo, though other gods and goddesses who had healing powers were also mentioned in connection with the site including Aphrodite, Hygeia and Artemis, as well as Epidaurus for whom the site is named.
The site would contain a temple, a school, a hospital, a theater and many other smaller structures. The architecture is among some of the best surviving examples of Ancient Greek buildings demonstrating a high level of skill, knowledge and precision. They are mostly built from stone, quarried from the nearby mountains. Life was complex here. In the beginning students who wished to learn to heal must be descendants of other physicians, as it was believed that all the healers or high priests of the healing cult were descended from the gods that had given them the gift of healing. Later, other students were accepted as well. They would have attended the school and worked as assistants and apprentices to acting Asclepiades, Fully qualified high priest healers.
Patients of all social classes took pilgrimages to the sanctuary to seek cures. Though many of the patients seeking cures at the sanctuary would have been women, I can find no evidence that any of the healers would have been.
Rituals of healing would involve a variety of steps. Practices like bathing in sacred hot springs, hygiene practices, and restricted diets were often used. It is believed that substance induced sleep and dream work were used for both patient and physician in order to determine the best course of action in healing the patients. Contemplation and prayer were also prescribed along with healing herbs and other remedies.
Because the sanctuary was not structured as a city-state in the typical ancient Greek way, the only permanent residents were the members of the healing cult, and so social structure was also very different than it might have been in a typical Greek city-state. It was considered independent. The highest ranking would have likely been the high priest healers, who had worked to gain their rank through study and apprentice, but also carried rank through birth.
As excavation of this amazing site has been ongoing for many centuries, we have found a great deal of material artefacts to give us insight to the activities that might have taken place here.
The ancient Greek diet was extremely important in the role of healing, and would have been carefully modulated at the Asclepios. The Greek people had complex agricultural practices and ate a wide variety of cultivated plants and domesticated animals. The Greek healers championed the ideas of moderation, avoidance of harmful substances and regular exercise for the prevention of illness, called hygiene, named for Hygeia Asclepius’ daughter.
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