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Vicarious religious healing in the Greco-Roman world

Steven Muir

This paper examines an unexplored angle relating to religious healing and pilgrimage to healing shrines.  I consider cases of vicarious or proxy healing, where a relative or friend of a sick person travels to a sacred site and receives a religious benefit for their associate.  I argue that cases of this phenomenon strongly suggest that individual religiosity in the ancient world was tightly woven into the social fabric.  People existed in networks, people were used to having mediators and go-betweens interact with powerful people, and for those reasons the actions of one person could have significant effect on others.

In considering the social dimension of existence, I draw upon analysis of the patronage system in the ancient world (Saller 1982; Blok 1969; Eisenstadt and Roniger 1984; Moxnes 1991), and the ‘nested identity’ theory as developed in the CONTEXT group, particularly Bruce Malina (1979, 1993, 1996).  For primary evidence, I look at the practice of incubation and the leaving of ex-voto offerings at healing centres, inscriptions from the healing centre of Asclepius at Epidaurus (Edelsteins 1945), the Hellenistic writer Strabo, and the Sacred Tales account of Aelius Aristides (Behr 1968).  In secondary literature, there is very little discussion of the particular angle I am taking, namely vicarious healing.  Edelstein mentions the phenomenon once, in a footnote.  Otto Weinrich (1909) likewise only mentions the issue in a footnote.  I estimate that the phenomenon deserves sustained examination, and that there are enough examples to yield significant information.  Aristides has not been considered from this angle, and he provides an abundance of information.

In ancient Greece and Rome, one person could acquire a favour of healing which could be transferred or applied to someone else.  Sometimes, the family and friends of a sick person acted as mediators to obtain religious healing for that person.  The typical pattern of religious healing involved a person going on a pilgrimage to a temple or healing site; and through prayers, offerings or incubation (sleeping in the sacred precinct) obtaining a cure for themselves.  However, in some cases a healing resulted not for the voyager but for someone else (who usually had been left sick at home).  The healing was interpreted as approval from the deity who had recognized the piety or honour signals of the petitioner, and who had responded by granting a benefit which could be carried back to the sick person.  

Two issues from the anthropology of the Mediterranean world shed light on this practice.  First is the social system of patronage.  Through actions which signal honour, a client enters and maintains a relationship of goodwill with the patron.  In return, the patron grants material favours.  Second, identity was nested within a family or circle of friends.  Since an individual’s identity was largely entailed in social groups, the actions of one person had repercussions on another.  One person could represent another in a very full way, since their identities were intertwined.  When we consider the social world in which religious healings took place and the conceptual world which helped people rationalize these acts, then vicarious healing or healing by proxy becomes understandable and offers a new dimension to issues of personal religiosity and experience.

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Practice and Personal Experience

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