Epidaurus: Ancient Healing at the Sanctuary of Asclepius

Patients seeking ancient healing streamed to the Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus (or Epidavros) to worship Asclepius at his Temple and to supplicate the god for a return to good health.

Asclepius (or Asklepios) in mythology was the son of Apollo and Coronis. He was subsequently instructed in ancient healing by the centaur, Chiron. Many towns, including Epidaurus, claimed to be the location of Asclepius’ birth. Asclepius was worshipped all over Greece and his sanctuaries of ancient healing, the Asclepieia, were sought in pursuit of divine cures. His life ended when Zeus struck Asclepius (or Asklepios) with a thunderbolt and banished him to Hades because Asclepius had developed a skill impermissible by the gods – the skill to resurrect.

A visit to the Sanctuary of Asclepius enables us to identify how the patients proceeded through the Asclepieion, to understand how their acceptance of practices based on mythology and mysticism was fundamental to their belief in ancient healing and cure, and to identify the transition from faith-based healing cemented in ritual to healing centred on rational observations.

Ancient Healing at the Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus

The Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus, or an Asclepieion, is located 10 kilometres west of Palaia Epidaurus and 40 kilometres east of Nafplion. The sanctuary was not located within the ancient city and so isn’t to be confused with Palaia Epidaurus which now occupies that site. Information relating to parking, opening times and admission fees can be found in our post describing the Theatre at Epidaurus.

View across the low-lying ruins of the Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus (alt: Sanctuary of Aslepios at Epidavros)
Archaeoligical Ruins of the Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus

Origins of Ancient Healing at the Asclepieion at Epidaurus

The ancient healing practices at the Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus had their origins in the mythologies of a previous pre-Dorian cult which dated back to the first millennium BC. The cult of the healing god Apollo Maleatas enjoyed its best period in the 7th Century BC. The Epidaureans progressively assumed the site and although it was 10km from the city of Palaia (Ancient) Epidaurus and very close to the territory claimed by Argos, it absorbed the traditions of Apollo Maleatas during the 6th Century BC into the mythology and mystic rituals of Asclepius. Pausanias explained the location of the site for ancient healing being outside the nearest city. He proposed three common elements in the original locations of the healing sanctuaries. The landscape had to suggest good health, the temples were always placed outside the precincts of the nearby cities, and wells had to be available because water was considered to be especially regenerative.

The Asclepieion at Epidaurus was situated within a landscape that suggested good health
The landscape of the Asclepieion promised health and regeneration

The Asclepieion of Epidaurus became the foremost ancient healing Sanctuary of Asclepius and was the medical focus of more than 200 or so Asclepieia scattered throughout the ancient world. Each of these sanctuaries was associated with temples built to venerate Asclepius. The Asclepieia were considered to be in their prime in the 3rd and 4th Centuries BC. It was during this period that many of the buildings and monuments important to ancient healing throughout the Asclepieion were erected, including the Temple, Tholos, Enkoimeterion (Katagogion), Hestiatorion (banquet hall), Stadium and Theatre.

Open conduits distribute restorative water throughout the Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus
Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus – open conduits distribute water, the regenerative element

Patients who visited the temples of Asclepius seeking divine healing had to observe specific rules determined by the priests as to the organisation and running of the Sanctuary. Patients also had to be prepared to remain for one or two days.

As was the case of many sites of Greek heritage, the Sanctuary of Asclepius was plundered by the Romans in the 1st Century AD but extensively rebuilt in the 2nd Century AD. Consequently, many of the edifices on display throughout the site are Roman in origin.

The Ancient Journey to the Sanctuary of Asclepius

The ancients seeking ancient healing at Epidaurus would have travelled overland across the Peloponnese as well as across the Saronic Gulf from eastern ports. The latter, if able, would have walked to the Asclepieion following their disembarkation at Ancient Epidaurus. Alternatively, very sick visitors would have travelled to the sanctuary by a rented donkey and cart.

Many patients would have already sought local medical assistance prior to making the journey. However, ancient doctors did not possess medical qualifications but drew their expertise from Ionian philosophers and refined their skills through apprenticeship and practice. They diagnosed patients based on what they could discern by reading faces and by an assessment of body functions. Should the predictable treatments based on herbs and charms have failed to provide relief, then an alternative was to seek ancient healing in the form of the faith-based mystic treatment at the Sanctuary of Asclepius. Medicine advanced through the 5th and 4th Centuries and there was a gradual fusion of mystic medicine with its more familiar scientific reasoning. Schools were establishd with bodies of knowledge in anatomy, physiology, gynaecology, pathology, epidemiology, and surgery.

Hosting Visitors for Ancient Healing at the Sanctuary of Asclepius

The site of ancient healing at Epidaurus, entirely dedicated to Asclepius, was quite large with many identifiable archaeological ruins. Some of the buildings, although belonging to cult, were not directly involved in healing but instead provided the necessary infrastructure to host those seeking cure.

Map of the Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus

Labelled ap of the Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus indicating the location of the major ruins
Map of the Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus

Accommodation in the Katagogion at the Sanctuary of Asclepius

Visitors to the Sanctuary of Asclepius were accommodated in the imposing 4th Century BC Katagogion. The complete quadrangular edifice of 5,800 square metres may have been double-storied with more than one hundred and fifty rooms. Some sectors were available to protect against contagion.

One image below shows only an internal section of the Katagogion’s archaeological ruins. The remainder of the rectangular Katagogion can be inferred from the background of the second image.

Always click on images to enlarge

Visitors who reclined on the floor or leaned against an internal wall of the Katagogion would have seen the range of illnesses and ailments that others had brought to the sanctuary. Observing the suffering of others would have led to a restless night, not to mention the occasional presence of the non-venomous sacred snakes that were permitted to slither through the dormitory. Adjustment to the changes would have been difficult, as would have the snoring, coughing, wheezing and moaning of some of the other guests.

Cult Banquets in the Hestiatorion and Propylon

Ritual meals related to the cult of Asclepius were a feature of the Sanctuary of Asclepius and these took place in a banquet facility comprising the Hestiatorion near its monumental Propylon. The celebrations included a communal meal with the god and the sacrifice of an animal. This was considered fundamental to ensure the health of the visitor and necessary for a successful cure. A portion of the sacrificial food was offered to the god while the rest was consumed by the worshipers.

The Hestiatorion (c 300 AD) was a sizeable facility (76m x 70m) with rectangular foundations and solid construction and there appeared to be columns or a colonnade running along the centre of the foundation area. An Odeum was added during the 3rd Century AD.

Views from the Hestiatorion to the Propylon at the Sanctuary of Asclepius
Looking Across from the Hestiatorion to the Propylon at the Sanctuary of Asclepius

Cult feasts at the Hestiatorion were well supplied because of the location of the Sanctuary on the Argolid Plain near the coast. The plain provided cultivatable land on which grains, olives, grapes, seasonal vegetables and fruits could be grown. Bread was made from wheat and barley, the latter being easier to grow in the poorer Greek soils. The wine was sourced from local vineyards and as the Asclepieion is near the coast it is expected that seafood would be a regular part of the diet, seasoned with a variety of herbs and spices.

View across the flat ruins of the Hestiatorion towards the Propylon at the Sanctuary of Asclepius
View of Hestiatorion at the Sanctuary of Asclepius and its Propylon

Ancient Greeks did not eat a lot of meat, but for the cult feasts, conventional meat such as lamb, pork and chicken was procurable as was additional meat in the form of wild deer and pheasant. The more familiar seafood and grain products were supplemented with a range of root and tuber vegetables, and the meal was often complemented with hand foods typical of Greece – fruit such as nuts, figs and pomegranates. There was certainly sufficient food to provide a feast needed to supplicate a god.

An annual procession from Epidaurus along the Sacred Way approached the Sanctuary through the Propylaia and entered the Hestiatorion through the Propylon.

The monumental Proylon served as the entry to the Hestiatorion at the Sanctuary of Asclepius
The Propylon with ramp at the Sanctuary of Asclepius

The design of the Propylon is not unfamiliar. Monumental entrances are a ubiquitous feature of Roman architecture and the Romans commonly decorated the entrances to buildings and fora. The shape of the Propylon is certainly a reminder of Greek temples of the past with their pediment facades and peripteral steps. This Propylon possessed a wide ramp that led into the Hestiatorion, perhaps to provide for the ambulatory and carriage needs of many of the visitors and to provide access for wheeled transportation of materials.

Those Seeking Ancient Healing Supplicated the Gods in Temples

Greek religion was polytheistic and so to avoid favouring any one god in particular, those seeking healing presented a votive offering to each of the gods in the Sanctuary. After all, their supplications to the gods complemented any terrestrial medical treatment they might receive. The temples in which visitors supplicated the gods were magnificent with column-decorated facades. Two of the temples were the Temple of Artemis and the Temple of the Egyptian Gods.

The Temple of Artemis

The small but elegantly decorated 4th Century BC limestone temple belongs to the cult of Artemis, sister of Apollo, which had a presence within the Sanctuary in the 5th Century BC. The Temple and the Altar are situated on a broad limestone pavement. Artemis was respected and her multiplicity of manifestations and her epithets included the goddess of the Hunt, Wilderness, Wild animals, the Moon, and Chastity was a feature at the sanctuary’s worship.

Ground level ruins of the limestone Temple of Artemis
The archaeological ruins of the Temple of Artemis at the Sanctuary of Asclepius

A Sanctuary of Aphrodite and an image of Epione was located near the Temple of Artemis.

The Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods

In the vicinity of the Temple of Artemis lies the ruins of a temple built by Antoninos, a Roman senator. It is another rectangular building consisting of three sections – a central hall with rooms of varying sizes to its left and right. It contains Temples of the Hygeia (Health), Apollo and Asclepius, the latter two being named the Egyptians. This facility served a religious cult which practised initiation and mystic ceremonies. Oriental deities were often venerated in religious colleges where initiation was required.

The Temples of the Hygeia (Health), Apollo and Asclepius at the Sanctuary of Asclepius - the Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods
The Sanctuary of the Egyptian Gods; Hygeia, Apollo and Asclepius at the Sanctuary of Asclepius

The Role of Cult in Ancient Healing at the Sanctuary of Asclepius

The cult centre of the Sanctuary of Ascepius is distinguished by the major buildings directly related to ancient healing – the Temple of Asclepius, the Stoa of Abaton and the 4th Century BC circular Tholos. The traditional components of ancient healing i.e. being in communion with the god and water, were complemented with the purifying bath and the enkoimeses (incubation), a sleep that imitates death and resurrection.

Supplications for Ancient Healing Were Offered at the Temple of Asclepius

Visitors to the Temple of Asclepius would supplicate Asclepius with prayers and a votive to encourage the god to provide divine healing and cure. Occasionally patients left a model of the part of the body that required attention so the god would not be confused as to what was required. Some offered sacrifices at the Altar of Asclepius.

It is apparent that pilgrims presented to the Temple with the same range of illnesses and ailments that have always been common to humans and that all were suffering and prayed to the gods for help. Some were on crutches due to lameness; some had some form of illness that caused them to cough and feel weak; some were blind, others appeared paralysed and could no longer speak and some suffered from venomous bites. There were those with running or inflamed wounds, and wounds that were described as being diseases of decay – perhaps a reference to leprosy.

The Temple of Asclepius is located amongst the archaeological ruins in the centre of the Sanctuary. The Sacred Way that led visitors from Epidaurus passed through the monumental Propylaia to the Temple and its Altar. The Temple of Asclepius, built in the 4th Century BC, was a beautiful limestone temple, possibly built from travertine which would explain its very white appearance. The temple’s peripteral, Doric construction identifies its historic Greek origins. The Temple was destroyed by fire and only the foundations are visible. There are three other Doric temples among our posts which can be viewed and the architecture explained; the Temple of Apollo in Delphi; the Temple of Apollo in Ancient Corinth; and the Temple of Athena on the Acropolis in Athens.

Ruins of the Temple of Asclepius adjacent to the Abaton
The Temple of Asclepius with the mysterious Abaton in the background

Sacrifices for Ancient Healing Were Offered at the Altar of Asclepius

The 15m long Altar of Asclepius was constructed in the 4th century B.C. Steps led to a broader step in front of that part of the altar table where the priest attended to the ceremony of the sacrifice.

Low set ruins of the Altar of Asclepius at the Sanctuary of Asclepius
Altar of Asclepius

Bathing Was Required Before Presenting to Asclepius for Ancient Healing

Patients sought ancient healing for sicknesses and ailments from Asclepius through dreams. They prepared to supplicate the god by washing with water from the Sacred Well in a bath that dates back to the early 4th Century BC. They were confident that cure would be successful for it was through water, the most important curative element in the sanctuary, that they would be purified and regenerated.

Visitors in Roman times had access to a larger Roman bath that was built over the older limestone bath by the Roman senator Antoninos. It continued to be called the ‘Bath of Asklepios’.

Bath of Asclepius to be taken in preparation for the encounter with Asclepius
The Vicinity of the Bath of Asclepius where visitors would be purified before presentation for healing

The Mystery of Sacred Healing in the Stoa of Abaton (the Enkoimeterion)

Preparations for cure were continued during the 4th Century BC within the Stoa of Abaton, or Enkoimeterion, a large building which is located immediately adjacent to the “Bath of Asclepius”. The Stoa is over 70 metres in length and constructed with two levels.

Patients prepared for their encounter with Asclepius by purifying their bodies and also their minds. Whereas bathing with water from the Sacred Well purified the bodies, visitors prepared their minds by reading narrations that adorned the stelai inside the Stoa of Abaton.

External view of Stoa of Abaton where patients prepared for their encounter with Asclepius
The Stoa of Abaton at the Sanctuary of Asclepius – the centre of healing

Patients would lie down on the earthen ground floor of the stoa. The god with his snake-entwined staff, the Asclepius Rod, would visit in their dreams and if the preparations of the visitors had been exemplary, Asclepius would reveal the remedies. This contact with the god Asclepius was the “enkoimesis” or incubation. If preparatory conditioning and suggestion had been successful then they convinced themselves on awakening of the miracle of the cure. Sleep represented the death of the ill self, and in the dreams Asclepius had either bestowed on some a new health and on others advice which the doctors could use to implement cures.

This kind of sacred healing was a mystery to all and it was accepted that those who were not cured had not prepared themselves sufficiently to receive Asclepius. It is for this reason that for some the stoa was an “abaton”, meaning impenetrable.

The Abaton at the Sanctuary of Asclepius viewed from the Temple of Artemis
The Abaton at the Sanctuary of Asclepius viewed from the Temple of Artemis

The earliest incubations have been placed in the middle of the 6th Century BC. These occurred in front of the well in smaller structures. A larger building was available in the 5th Century BC.

Visitors accepted the sacred snakes, so much a feature of the Sanctuary, as integral to their renewal of life and health. Serpents were of primary importance in the medicine of Asclepius. They abounded across the Sanctuary grounds and Asclepius was said to occasionally appear as one. Water, the wonderful restorative element, required guardians and that role was assigned to the serpents. Serpents were also symbolically associated with the quality of caution, and were also afforded the reputation of being able to identify herbs which were potent cures.

The treatments at the Sanctuary evolved over time. Originally ancient healing was based only on spiritual ritual and supplication of the gods. The treatment received in Roman times was more holistic. The practitioners recognised that that the terrestrial element of medicine was also important and that treating the body physically could affect the outcome; ailments could be identified by symptoms and therefore treated. They used a range of natural medicines and pain killers, including narcotics. Diet, exercise and bathing were given attention to improve the patient’s overall health.

The Role of the Tholos (Hades) in Divine Healing By Asclepius

The 4th Century BC Tholos (a term ascribed to Pausanias) is of particular interest in respect of sacred healing at the Sanctuary of Asclepius. The Tholos was a circular building (radius 10.75 m), constructed from limestone and marble. Its elaborate external decorations included limestone columns, relief rosettes, floral ornaments and marble tiles. But it is the internal detail of the Tholos that is more intriguing and relevant to ancient healing. A circular colonnade inside the Tholos consisted of Corinthian marble columns surrounded by walls that were decorated with painted panels. A removable circular slab in the centre of the floor gave access to a lower level. The Tholos and Abaton were bound in that the ceiling of the Tholos was at the same level as the ground floor of the Abaton where visitors slept anticipating a visit from Asclepius via their dreams.

The circular Tholos where it was thought Asclepius dwelt underground at the Sanctuary of Asclepius
The Tholos at the Sanctuary of Asclepius – a symbol of a descent to Hades

Scholars have used this information to infer the role of the Tholos in ancient healing. Burial memorials in Ancient Greece were commonly circular, and the existence of central access to an underground warren within the Tholos supports the inference that the Tholos was a representation of the underground domain of Asclepius. It was thought that Asclepius was able to continue divine healing from under the ground after having been banished to Hades by Zeus. Some thought that Asclepius took them into Hades for restoration and then returned them to the Abaton.

Those who were cured by Asclepius offered a votive and the temple at Epidaurus was full of hung tablets on which were recorded the names, diseases and means of cure of those who were sick.

The next morning patients would sit quietly near the Abaton reflecting on the previous night’s experience and on Asclepius himself.

Additional halos at the Sanctuary of Asclepius
Adjacent halos at the Sanctuary of Asclepius
Halos set near the Abaton at the Sanctuary of Asklepios
Halos set near the Abaton at the Sanctuary of Asklepios

Greek Baths and Stadium Were Used in Ancient Healing

During recovery patients made use of the rectangular Greek Baths (300 BC).

The Greek Baths at the Sanctuary of Asclepius
The Greek Baths at the Sanctuary of Asclepius

The Epidaurian Festival in honour of Asclepius comprised many rites and observances, including athletic contests and games. These contests took place in the Stadium which was referred to by Pindar, Plato and Pausanias.
The image below shows how the builders positioned the rectangular Stadium (1800m x22m) to conform to the natural fall of the landscape within the Sanctuary of Asclepius. The regular stone seating shown in the image dates from the end of the 4th Century, but it replaced what would have been in earliest times no more than narrow terraces cut into the surrounding limestone. The terraced seating was gradually replaced by rocks embedded in softer sediments.

The long rectangular Stadium constructed out of the original landscape at the Sanctuary of Asclepius
The Stadium at the Sanctuary of Asclepius

The Baths and Stadium were contemporaneous with the Hestiatorion and Katagogion.

Our Thoughts on Epidaurus: Sacred Healing in the Sanctuary of Asclepius

  • There is a large field on which to park very near the main entrance.
  • The site is laser flat so is suitable to visit for all age groups. Even so, the pathways through the site are natural ground so be careful of ankles because although flat, it is not always even.
  • The ruins sprawl across flat fields and you may find that this sizeable site will not have the immediate visual appeal as would Corinth or Delphi. Much of the archaeology hast little more than ground-level foundations and the lack of prominent vertical structure sometimes makes it difficult to readily discern how the sanctuary worked.
  • Our recommendation is to walk the entire site at first to get a thumbnail sketch of how the site is laid out. It should result in placing all the attractions within three distinct zones; Accommodation, Temples, and Ancient Healing. Once this has been achieved return to the start and make a more considered tour of the ruins.
  • Don’t forget the water and sunscreen!
Period relics at the Sanctuary of Asclepius
Period relic at the Sanctuary of Asclepius

The value of a visit to the Healing Centre at Epidaurus is that it continues the narrative of the role of mythology and mysticism in the lives of ancient Greeks and how they reconciled their beliefs to their lack of understanding of the world around them.