Come with me as I revisit the serene valley of ancient Epidauros. Since I’ll be traveling in a few months to the Greek island of Kos, where Hippocrates established his code to “do no harm,” I’m enjoying the memories of my introduction to Aesculapios, the god of healing (top photo). I will return next week on April 7 to my blog series on my recent Greek travels. Unfortunately, the photos from this part of my first trip were lost, so these below are borrowed.
“At Epidauros, in the stillness, in the great peace that came over me, I heard the heart of the world beat. I know what the cure is: it is to give up, to relinquish, to surrender, so that our little hearts may beat in unison with the great heart of the world.” – Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi
When I woke in the dark to walk the ancient pilgrim’s road to the healing sanctuary of Epidauros, I experienced the feelings Henry Miller describes. My heart opened to dawn’s light spilling over the gently rolling hills and illuminating the beautiful stone theater cupped in the valley. What I was walking into was the resonance of all those human hearts, for thousands of years, beating in attunement to this sacred place.
This site, in a fertile valley of the mainland Peloponnese with natural springs, has been inhabited since Neolithic times, and apparently developed as a sacred place of healing during the Mycenaean period. Early signs of an outdoor theater and tholos tombs have been dated to the 15th century BC, when a regional deity Maleatas was worshipped. By the 5th century BC, the Hellenic god of healing, Apollo, had taken over, and it was his son Asklepios who became the patron deity of healing and prophecy at the sanctuary constructed in the 4th century BC, the remains of which we can visit today.
The legends hold that Asklepios was the son of Apollo and a mortal woman, born in a cave on the mountainside overlooking Epidauros and raised by the wise centaur Chiron, who taught him the healing arts. Asklepios thus blended the detached logic of Apollo with the animal powers of nature, including the use of the sacred serpents of the earth goddess, in his healing gifts. He understood the needs of humans for this balance, which was one of the goals of Classical Greek philosophy: the spiritual and the physical working together in harmony, honoring the sacred order to live a healthy life.
The healing cult of Asklepios established Epidauros as the major healing center of the region, and the Greek Hippokrates (born around 460 BC and died in 377 BC and considered the father of modern medicine) was a famous physician in the movement. His famous oath, “Do no harm,” and the caduceus symbol of two healing serpents twining around a winged staff, are still used in the medical professions today.
Interestingly, the dual god/man nature of Asklepios and his healing powers may have contributed to the worship of Christ, which took over the site in the Roman era. The image of this 4th century BC bust of Asklepios, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, was often used in statutes of Jesus during Christian times.
The sanctuary welcomed those seeking spiritual and physical healing, and after purifying rituals, the pilgrims would spend a night in the enkoimeteria, a long sleeping hall. Their dreams would bring advice or healing from the god, and sometimes the sacred serpents (possibly housed in an underground labyrinth beneath the round tholos temple) would touch or lick the patients to help with cures. Again, we see the importance of labyrinths and sacred serpents, aligned with the ancient Minoan practices. (See my BookViewCafe Greek blog post #7 on Jan. 21, “Labyrinths of Crete.”)
In the pursuit of integrated well-being, the sanctuary included the famous theater, where dramatic performances helped balance the spirit. There was also a stadium where athletic and musical contests every four years contributed to the celebration of human achievements.
The amazingly well-preserved outdoor theater is the jewel of the site today. Designed by famous Greek architect Polykleitos the Younger in the 4th century BC, it embodied the concepts of sacred geometry. As Plato said, “God is always doing geometry.” Its amazing acoustics allow even those sitting in the upper level of 55 rows of marble seats to hear a whisper on the stage below. Here is a link to site with video clip of travel guru Rick Steves showing the site and demonstrating the acoustics:
My own quest for a personal connection to the ancient sources of healing had brought me from the fabled Minoan labyrinths of Crete to this hushed valley in a solo dawn hike, so I could experience the quiet of the place before it was opened to the arrival of the tourist crowds. As I made my way clockwise around the fenced perimeter of the site, I breathed in the glowing sun backlighting green and gold grasses to a luminous cloud as a white dove rode up above the hazy hills. Passing among tumbled marble blocks and chunks of fallen columns, I paused to sit on the warming stones and listen to the breeze whisper. Around a bend, I crossed a muddy swamp with tall grasses where snakes slithered away from my footsteps. (I wasn’t ready to be licked by healing serpents.) Around another bend into the brightening sunlight, I passed the ancient stone portals of the original entrance and into swelling bird song. Along a dirt road with taller trees nodding over the fence line, a peasant with his loaded donkey greeted me, “Chairete!” Rejoice! Around a final curve, climbing through scrubby bushes among olive trees, I followed a faint trail among more fallen worked stones, these ones reddish and black blocks. High above the theater now, I sat and listened to the silence, feeling the stones draw me down into the cool depths of the labyrinth underlying it all.
Years later, when I finally wrote my novel about a new healer in The Ariadne Connection, my Ariadne would draw on these ancient powers in a healing trance in which she must undergo symbolic death to be reborn into her powers:
Ariadne remembered her crystal pendant then—the serpentine pattern of the double helix she had etched on it. She searched for the sun and summoned its light through the interwoven carved channels. Fire blossomed on her breast, the white and the black winged serpents of her nightmare springing out from the blazing crystal, coiling around her. They writhed like the tormented auroras, twisting, spitting sparks, sharp fangs piercing her in a tangle of white coils fighting black.
“Stop!” She grasped at the burning pendant. Her palms scorched as she damped the flow of light, blocked the etched channel of the black serpent and hurled its negative energy back into darkness. She freed the luminous positive power of the white serpent, and it swelled before her, uncoiling, soaking up the light as it grew.
Just as Ariadne was catching a breath in relief, the white serpent turned on her, still swelling and swelling as it sucked up the light, until it dwarfed her, opening its immense jaws. The cavernous mouth swallowed her whole. Inside, the filigreed birds dipped and plunged. Ariadne staggered, and they were on her—swarming, ripping her flesh with their sharp beaks. They flayed the skin of her arms and legs, clawed her face into bloody shreds.
“Stop! Please….” Their merciless beaks tore open her breast and sliced away at her, tore loose her connections of flesh and bone. Her awareness scrambled in shock to escape, but she was flung down onto the earth, slamming into mud dense with the stink of her own rotted corpse.
Ariadne flailed through scattered leg and rib bones. She came up short, gasping and retching, before her own empty skull.
Curling out of the eye sockets, wraiths of smoke. A sapling sprang up between the grinning jaws, then swelled into a leafy young olive tree as the smoke solidified into the twin winged serpents coiling about it. The tree withered into the crone’s wood staff carved with an ancient healing caduceus. It burst into fire, and within the tempering flames a crystal glowed like an ember, fiery etched lines spiraled around its lattice. The double helix.
Ariadne blinked. She was inside the crimson lattice.
Light danced in the facets, and the designs of twining serpents, flying fish, and bull horns came to life. Music shimmered crystal-bright all around her, inside her. No, she was inside the music. Shifting mirrors of lights and tones, looking out through glittering angles, looking out through the magic. And the music telling her how, where. Something sprang open in a rich outpouring flood and she was tracing the secret geometry of dazzling light-gem-music deep inside the crystal, tracing its tilting dazzling paths, fearless, into the hidden ways of the maze.
“The road to Epidaurus is like the road to creation. One stops searching. One grows silent, stilled by the hush of mysterious beginnings. If one could speak one would become melodious. There is nothing to be seized or reassured or cornered off here: there is only a breaking down of the walls which lock the spirit in.” – Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi
Especially now, in the tumult of these troubled times, may we all find our place of healing and serenity. Chairete! Rejoice!
What special place or practice brings you peace?
You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection. It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?” The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at www.sarastamey.com