Introductory notes on Ancient Epidauros

aeroThe city of Epidauros was an important local centre in the Argolid during antiquity, due to the dispersed tracts of fertile land surrounding it, to its harbour on the Saronic Gulf and to the fame its therapeutic sanctuary of Asklepios acquired over time. Epidauros was attacked many times, before the Dorians under Deiphontes finally prevailed. The first regime of kingship was succeeded later by tyranny and the city was an ally of oligarchic Sparta. The land was dedicated to deities with therapeutic powers already in prehistoric times. On the hill of Kynortion, some eight kilometers inland, to the southwest of the ancient city, a sanctuary existed already in the Mycenaean period. Unusually large for its day, this sanctuary was created in the sixteenth century BC next to the ruins of an Early Bronze Age settlement (2800-2000 BC), and remained in use until the eleventh century BC. Around 800 BC, a sanctuary dedicated to Apollo, a god with healing powers, was founded on the same site, where he was worshipped with the epithet Maleatas. The cult of the paramount healing god, Asklepios, whom mythical tradition presents as autochthonous son of Apollo and Koronis, granddaughter of the King of Epidauros, Malos, was established during the seventh century BC. Asklepios became the par excellence divine physician of antiquity.

The god Asklepios through the interpretation of mythology

temple of asklepiosAccording to the myth Asklepios cured so many mortals and even restored dead to life, so that he menaced the natural order and the balance in the numbers of human population. So Zeus buried him at the request of Hades with his thunderbolt in the earth. Apollon, father of Asklepios, complained and Zeus arranged for Asklepios to continue to live underground and cure people from there. The myth shows that the basic formative idea of the god’s character is that the power of life, and therefore health too, dwells in the source of everything, the Earth, from which it issues. That is why one of Asklepios’ attributes, perhaps the most representative, was the snake, which to this day is the characteristic symbol of the disciplines of Medicine and Pharmaceutics. Asklepios was said to have come from Epidauros to many places of his worship metamorphosed as a snake. Specifically, Pausanias relates in his book on Corinth (II, 10. 3), with regard to the Asklepieion of Sicyon, that: “When you have entered you see the god, a beardless figure of gold and ivory made by Calamis. He holds a staff in one hand, and a cone of the cultivated pine in the other. The Sicyonians say that the god was carried to them from Epidaurus on a carriage drawn by two mules that he was in the likeness of a serpent …”. The god Asklepios is encountered in the form of a snake also in the following case of a cure at Epidauros. We read in a cure inscription that a patient with a malignant ulcer on the toe, was taken into the Abaton (dormitory hall), where, while he was asleep, a snake appeared from the abaton and slithered towards the ulcerated toe, licked it and then withdrew again into the abaton. After this the lesion healed and the patient was cured.

The Worship of the god who protected human health and personal happiness became renowned and rapidly spread far and wide.