The Ancient Beliefs and The Asclepieions


To be Healthy has always been regarded as being of the greatest importance and advantage when considering the quality of life. The ancient societies understood this and they placed great emphasis on achieving and maintaining ‘physical fitness’ as well as on promoting the ‘general well being’ of the whole person. They provided philosophies that viewed man in his ‘wholeness’ and their concepts and notions were often given weight by being surrounded in the myths and the legends of the time. Stories of ‘great physical feats’ and ‘worthy champions’ were provided to give ‘examples’ and ‘role models’ for the population to respect and to emulate. Healthcare itself however remained relatively primitive until the recent era of scientific discovery.

Before the philosophical enlightenment’s that occurred with Christianity and with the current evolutionary science, mankind also sought answers to life’s enigmas through the creation of ‘the pleuristic gods’ or through the Old Testament writings of the ‘One God’. They ascribed to these deities the ‘power’ and the ‘will’ to provide for human needs and to cause or to alleviate their sufferings. In this context the ‘faithful’ were encouraged to be ‘worshippers’ whilst their ‘god’ became their champion and their mentor who required ‘allegiance’ by providing a set of rules or actions for the faithful to follow.

The modern world’s ethos is not too dissimilar to these two ancient approaches although the philosophies concerning the origins of disease and the means whereby to satisfy man’s needs have changed. Scientific medicine has explained many ‘causes’ and provided many ‘cures’ whilst human institutions have taken up the roles of ‘authority’ and ‘persuaders’. International bodies, National, Regional and Local Governments, (with their Members of Parliaments, City Councillors and Mayors), as well as the Health and Education Authorities are now the one’s who provide for the well being of those who elected or appointed them. Their policies determine the shape and the quality of all our lives. Laws are passed to safeguard our health and the environment. Healthcare and social systems are established to deliver services. The individual is ‘encouraged’ to take up health maintenance, life-long learning and socio-cultural pursuits whilst sports and other personalities still provide ‘examples’ and ‘role models’.

The Ancient Asclepieion’s Health and Culture Movement

In the 5th century BC the ancients of the Greek world created a ‘myth’ that declared allegiance to the god Asclepios and through him they began a new ‘health and culture movement’, which provided an holistic view of man in the context of his total environment. These ancients made Asclepios their ‘champion’ and described him as the offspring of the god Apollo and the mortal Koronis. This was a combination that provided the necessary ‘divine power’ for healing and the ‘human empathy’ that was appropriate to their time and to their view of man and his ‘health’ including his ‘frailties’, ‘illnesses’ and ‘death’. They also elevated Asclepios to the status of a full deity (in spite of his part human parentage) and the myth depicts him as rising from the inferno to be a true ‘healing god’ for all mankind.

The Asclepieion movement reached its height in the 4th century BC and never lost its human appeal until the end of the ancient world and the rise of Christianity in the 1st. and the 2nd centuries AD. Practically no Greek city was without its own Asclepios temple and ‘the faithful’ built their ‘worshipping’ and ‘healing’ centres as well as their ‘sanctuaries’ throughout the ancient world. The most renowned of these were at Trikki, Epidaure, Titani, Athens, Kos island, Lissos, Levin, Kyrene and others. The temples of Asclepios were located in ‘parklands’ or ‘groves’ so that a clean and tranquil environment could be ensured for those pursuing their health needs. These Asclepieion centres, provided the ‘healthcare sites’ of their day, where ‘cures’ were achieved in two ways:

  1. by psychologically strengthening the patient and his faith in the healing capabilities of Asclepios (reassurance, relaxation, suggestion, miracle), and
  2. by application of the then known pharmaceutical treatments and the pursuit of a healthy way of living (herbal remedies, exercise, diet and other holistic treatments).

Usually both of these methods were practised in a combined form to be mutually complementary. The miraculous epiphany (appearance) of Asclepios was another way of achieving healing and this took place during the patients' sleep, inside the "sacra-sanctum" space of the temple. This latter form of healing much resembles the modern use of ‘hypnosis’ and ‘faith healing’.

The faithful ‘worshipped’ in the temples of Asclepios and in other surrounding ‘sacred premises’. These included certain buildings used for medical assistance and for specific treatments, similar to the ‘infirmaries’ of today. Specially constructed ‘hospitality’ or ‘guest houses’ were also provided for the use and the sanctuary of itinerant pilgrims. There are still similar ‘monastic houses’ used for respite in Greece and other countries today.

Apart from the healing ministries, other elements of ‘worship’ (appreciation) and ‘cultural pursuits’ were included in the overall system that was developed to care for man’s health. These included the ‘holy’ water for ritual cleanings as well as for bodily bathing. There were also athletic contests as well as musical and theatrical performances, which were held in honour of Asclepios and were staged in stadiums and in theatres respectively. In this way the benefits of athleticism and the performing arts were brought to bear on the well being of the participants.

Trust or ‘faith’ in this overall system of ‘healthcare’ and ‘wellness’ was generated by repeated narration about the ‘miracles’ that had been performed by Asclepios. Evidences and reminders of these ‘benefits’, (and the expressions of the gratitude of those who were ‘healed’), have been found as ‘inscribed art’ on the walls of the sacred buildings. They have also been found in the form of ‘man-made offerings’, which often depicted the part of the body that had been healed. These ‘offerings’ were mostly sculptured or were made in some other material art form and were then used to decorate the Asclepieion parks or groves. Art in its many forms was part of the ethos that was used to promote health.

The ‘worship’ of Asclepios was the last of the ‘old-world systems’ to regress following the prevalence of Christianity which brought about the replacement of ‘the many gods’ in favour of the ‘One God’. The ‘promise’ of the new Christian philosophy provided something better for mankind in terms of ‘a new socio-political order’ and ‘a new and better future’ in which there would be a permanent release from his sufferings,

"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more….

…he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away"

Thus, the era of the Asclepieions was overtaken by a new philosophy that offered more help than they could, namely a new world and an end to sorrow, pain and death. Palaeo-christian basilicas gradually replaced the sacred buildings that were built in the name of Asclepios and these new ‘temples’ provided a different environment in which the faithful could worship whilst the ‘one God’ could provide for their ‘healing’.