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Ritual and Identity at the Restored Epidauran Asklepieion

Stephen Ahearne-Kroll

At the height of popularity of the Epidauran Asklepieion in the 4th century BCE, a suppliant would expect to participate and perform a varied set of rituals as part of the incubation process.  There was a period of decline in the Epidauran sanctuary between the middle of the 2nd c. BCE and the renovation of the sanctuary by Hadrian and then Antoninus in the 2nd c. CE.  The negative political relationship between Epidauros and Rome could account for much of the decline (Melfi, 2010b, 329-30), but the experiences of healing in the early decades of the sanctuary might have ceased in this period, given the lack of dedicatory evidence for healing.  Ancients might have perceived the decline of the sanctuary as Asklepios ceasing to heal at this particular sanctuary. (Melfi, 2010b, 331)  Hadrian’s renovation of the sanctuary included some reconstruction of the sanctuary’s buildings, but it also included the importation of many of the gods present at the Asklepieion at Pergamon.  Following Hadrian, Senator Antoninus continued the renovation with, among other things, the rededication of the altars outside the temple and a reconstruction of the sanctuary of Apollo Meleatos on the hill above the Asklepieion. (Hoffman, 1998; Melfi, 2010a and 2010b)  Milena Melfi’s recent treatment of the ritual life of the Epidaurian Asklepieion contextualizes the Roman-era rebuilding of the sanctuary within the political dynamics of the culturally elite and the intellectual dynamics of the Second Sophistic.  “These intellectuals promoted…a systematic restoration and preservation of myths and cults from the Classical past, as a fundamental means of maintaining a collective memory in front of the historical disruptions.” (Melfi, 2010b, 338) In the midst of her treatment, she discusses the restoration and expansion of the preliminary rituals that would lead to the incubation process at the sanctuary within the abaton in the same vein, namely the effort of Hadrian and Senator Antoninus to recapture the glory that the Hellenistic era sanctuary once had.  Melfi’s argument is persuasive, but the initial rituals receive too little treatment, thus subordinating these rituals to the overall focus on Asklepios.  “In the specific case of sanctuaries, the performance of traditional rituals, in their traditional spaces, allowed for the maintenance of a strong association of the god with his cult places.” (Melfi, 2010b, 338).  This paper argues that the other rituals performed in honor of the other gods present at the sanctuary were not subordinate to the process of receiving healing from Asklepios but were constituent of what it meant for the sanctuary to function properly as an Asklepieion.  In other words, the complex ritual life of the sanctuary in the post-reconstruction Roman era was designed not only to recapture something of the past, but also to express the nature and identity of the sanctuary and the healing processes thought to have occurred within. In their desire to restore the Epidauran Asklepieion to prominence, neither Hadrian nor Antoninus focused on exclusive worship of Asklepios.  They saw the complex ritual life of the sanctuary as integral to its rejuvenation—Hadrian by modeling it after the Pergamon sanctuary’s inclusion of various gods not seen at Epidauros before, and Antoninus by a restoration of the traditional cultic activity found at the sanctuary during the Hellenistic period.  This paper fleshes out this ritual activity at Epidauros and offers some initial thoughts about how these rituals may have worked together to effect healing for the suppliant.  I argue that this complex web of rituals—termed prothumata (usually defined as ancillary or preliminary sacrifices)—created distinct and proper relations between humans and a defined community of divine figures, including Asklepios (expanding on Ahearne-Kroll, 2014a).  Although incubation received all the headlines, the prothumata provided the ritual matrix in which the encounter with Asklepios during incubation made sense mythically, socially, and historically.

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Architecture and Self-Definition

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