Aesculapius – The Roman God of Healing

Aesculapius The Roman form of the Greek god of healing, Asclepius. Aesculapius was probably a renowned healer who lived during the 11th century BC in Greece. Like many such ancient heroic figures he was later deified to become a god of healing. Such deification is much like the canonisation of saints in the Catholic Church. In the fifth century BC Sophocles built a shrine to Aesculapius in Athens. In the following years many other shrines were built, and over 300 such centres of healing still existed throughout Greece and the Roman Empire in the second century AD. These shrines were dedicated to healing, principally using dreams and the incubation of dreams.

After consultation and a night’s rest, the next day or so would be spent in prayer, fasting, and preparations for the hoped for healing, guidance, or dream answer. This would be followed by a long purification bath with pleasantly scented oils. The pilgrim, then ready, would don a clean, white robe and enter the temple. There would be a small sacrifice, followed by music, chanting, and an impressive ceremony led by the priests imploring Aesculapius to come to the aid of the supplicant. Last, there would be an elaborate dream incubation ritual succeeded by a well deserved night’s sleep in a specially prepared room in the Temple of Dreams.

In the Aesculapius dream temples, the dreams were said to be invoked by the god, whose symbol was also a serpent. Thus a childless woman, going to the temple to secure fertility, dreamt that the god approached her followed by a snake. The snake then entered her sexually. After the dream, and within the year, she had two sons. Sometimes the person would dream that they had been made well and would awake to find the dream accomplished. The rooms in which patients slept were occupied by snakes of a harmless variety also. This, along with the necessary rites and purifications, set the patient in the right frame of mind and emotion, to receive a healing dream.

One of the most beautiful of surviving shrines to Aesculapius is at Epidaurus. It was built in the fifth century BC. Such centres were often of great size, and the one at Epidaurus took about 150 years to complete. For instance the temple had an adjoining stadium large enough to hold 14,000 spectators, a temple to the god’s daughter Hygeia, a library, a sacred well, and a hotel with 160 rooms and several areas for people to sleep in to incubate sacred dreams. See: analysis of dreams; Asclepius; Greece (ancient) dream beliefs.

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