Calling on the Ancient God Modern Doctors Swear By
Doctors invoke Asklepios in the Hippocratic Oath. His serpents remain our symbol of medicine. Now can we recall his spirit?
The First Healing Tablets
Before descending into the labyrinth for the night, patients were asked to read testimonial tablets detailing successful healings. Contemporary research into the placebo effect (see story) suggests that by enhancing the patient’s confidence in the healer, these stories increased the likelihood of success. Many of these early inscriptions are preserved. Here are some typical examples: — Editors
Despairing of human skill but with all hope in the divine, leaving Athens, blessed in her sons, and coming to your grove, Asklepios, I was cured in three months of a wound in the head that had lasted for a whole year. (From the orator Aischines.)
Hagestratos, being oppressed by insomnia because of headache, when he was in the Abaton, slept and saw a dream. The god seemed, after curing the pain in his head and standing him up naked, to teach him the attack used in the pankration. When day came he went out well and not much later won the pankration at Nemea. (From the recorded testimonies of Epidaurus.)
He did not have hair on his head, but a great deal on his chin. Being ashamed, he was laughed at by others, and he slept in the shrine, and the god, anointing his head with a drug, made him grow hair.
Blind of one eye, she came as a supplicant to the god. Going around the shrine she mocked at some of the cures as incredible and impossible, if the lame and blind became whole by having a dream. But when she slept in the shrine the god, standing over her, seemed to say that he would cure her but that he would require her to give to the temple a silver pig as a memorial of her unbelief. Saying this, he cut open her diseased eye and poured in a drug. When day came she went away cured.
A Cretan woman who thanks Asklepios the savior, having got a severe ulceration on her little finger and being cured when the god ordered her to apply an oyster shell burnt and powdered with rose salve and to anoint it with mallow mixed with olive oil, and so he cured her.
Modern-Day Healing Sanctuaries
There is no question that America is among the best places in the world to suffer a heart attack or stroke or to crash your car. Saving lives is where modern medicine shines. But in our rush to create the best and most powerful medical interventions, we haven't supported the myriad ways our bodies heal themselves. While most of us are grateful that modern healing no longer involves spending the night in a room full of snakes, the ancients at Epidaurus have something to teach us.
Imagine that your own scheduled surgery were preceded by bathing in the ocean, a long, introspective walk to a beautiful hospital, and three days of healthy food, great theater, and meditation to make sure you were ready to meet the surgeon.
Far-fetched? Yes and no. When heart specialist Erminia "Mimi" Guarneri, M.D., and her partner, Rauni King, R.N., were remodeling the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, California (see "High Tech & Healing Touch," S&H March/April 2004), they had the Temple of Asklepios in mind. They remodeled the previously built buildings, which were sterile and institutional, to house their state-of-the-art PET scanner and also serve as a healing temple. They built walking trails, a labyrinth, and herb gardens. They offer classes in spirituality, and before surgery every patient is given Healing Touch, a form of energy healing that goes back centuries.
Another modern temple of healing is the Marsh Center for Balance in Minnetonka, Minnesota. Twenty years ago, when Ruth Stricker Dayton was diagnosed with lupus and given only a few years to live, she decided to use part of her considerable fortune to create a spa along a gorgeous stretch of wetlands. She imported fine art, and also brought in healers from all over Asia. Gradually, the spa has become more of a clinic, and a "center of altruism" where doctors donate their time to work with chronically ill patients as well as the people who are caring for them. Going strong at 69, Ruth says proudly, "We have built a really big placebo” — a place where mind and body come together to heal. There are other examples of modern healing that draw on ancient traditions, changing the face of medicine. If you have a suggestion for a future roundup, please write to us at [email protected] — Stephen Kiesling