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Incubation & Individual Experience in Sanctuaries of Asklepios

Jessica Lamont

            The most important activity within the healing sanctuaries of Asklepios was the interaction of worshipper with divine. This is perhaps best exemplified in the writings of Aelius Aristides, who in the second century CE composed his Hieroi Logoi as a literary votive to Asklepios—known then as the φιλάνθρωπος θεός (Petsalis-Diomidis, 113.) The common thread connecting these logoi was the intimate and personal relationship that Aristides forged with Asklepios through dreams and the incubation process; Asklepios was constantly communicating with Aristides, instructing him to eat, bathe, bloodlet, diet, and travel, or sometimes, to abstain from these things. Almost always, Asklepios’ intervention resulted in the alleviation of suffering and a heightened sense of unity with the deity himself.

Underlying the Hieroi Logoi, and Asklepios’ miraculous cures in general, was the meeting of the worshipper with the divine. Centuries before Aristides visited the massive Pergamene Asklepieion—more a miniature city, by that time, than a simple sanctuary—worshippers were first encountering Asklepios in smaller temene in mainland Greece. In the earliest sanctuaries of Asklepios, a sense of divine intimacy was created and conveyed through the rite of incubation, which afforded the worshipper specialized attention from—and a sacred interaction with—the divine healer himself. The rite of incubation was specifically aimed at individuals, and most of the cultic activity involved a high degree of ‘personalized’ attention, through the interaction of deity, cult personnel, and worshipper (Ar. Plout. 654-695; 707-747; von Ehrenheim, 2011). This paper argues that it was the rite of incubation, which privileged the needs of the individual worshipper, that fueled the early popularity of the healing sanctuaries of Asklepios. Incubation afforded specialized attention to an individual’s health and well-being; it was this personal experience with the divine that allowed the cult to spread so rapidly throughout the ancient Greek world, with 290-351 sanctuaries in existence by the end of the Roman Era (Riethmüller, 55-90).

In order to show that the uniquely “personal” rite of incubation drove Asklepios’ popularity, this paper examines ritual incubation at three early cult sites, with foundations securely rooted in the 5th c. BCE. These early Asklepieia—located at Epidauros, Korinth, and the south slope of the Athenian Akropolis (the Athenian ‘astu’ sanctuary)— left behind an abundance of archaeological, epigraphic and, in one case, literary evidence. That the rite of incubation was a crucial part of healing cults can be seen architecturally, for example, as the enkoimeterion (incubation hall) underwent great expansion and embellishment over the years—not only within these three case studies, but across the Greek world. In almost all sanctuaries of Asklepios, the incubation hall greatly surpassed the temple in size, and often centrality. When combined with material from Leges Sacrae (IG II2 47, 4962; the Epidaurian Iamata: IG IV2 121-123), votive reliefs (especially those depicting supine worshippers in intimate proximity to Asklepios: Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek 1430; Athens NAM 1372 & 1426), and a contemporary account of temple medicine (Aristophanes’ Ploutos), the centrality of ritual incubation—and the personalized attention it afforded individuals—can be shown to lie at the very heart of the cult. The promise of individual health and well-being, and the delivery of these desiderata through incubation and temple healing, was what led to the unparalleled popularity of healing cults; it also made the establishment of these sanctuaries a concerted, connected trend, and a new phenomenon within the religious infrastructure of the Classical Greek world.

Session/Panel Title

Practice and Personal Experience

Session/Paper Number

8.4

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