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Asklepios and St. Artemios: comparative perspectives on Hellenistic, late ancient, and early Byzantine narratives of incubation

Michael Zellmann-Rohrer

University of Oxford

Around the end of the fourth century BCE, a series of stone stelai were set up to record narratives of healing by the god Asklepios at his sanctuary at Epidauros, effected through incubation (IG IV2.1.121-124). These accounts (ἰάματα) feature a diverse assortment of pathologies, cures, and patients from across the Greek world, and recount in vivid prose the dreams and other scenarios in which the god and his associates offer both healing and chastisement to visitors. Since their discovery in the late nineteenth century, the texts have received constant attention from philologists and historians of religion in the Classical world (Herzog 1931; Dodds 1951, 112-115; LiDonnici 1995; Chaniotis 1995, Naiden 2005, Wickkiser 2008, Prêtre and Charlier 2009, Martzavou 2012, Solin 2013), as the oldest and most substantial direct accounts of incubation. As is also well known, the practice of incubation continued in various forms throughout Graeco-Roman antiquity, and the Epidaurian texts have provided valuable comparanda (Edelstein and Edelstein 1945). Less attention has been paid to a further extension of incubation into Late Antiquity and Byzantium. There various saints and their places of cult take over as the focus of pilgrimage and means of healing; memory of earlier traditions about Asklepios and Epidauros also persists (e.g. a reference to records of the cures of Asklepios at Epidauros in the Life and Miracles of Thekla, preface, 23-28, ed. Dagron 1978.). Dreams remain crucial to the process, and are indeed preserved in lively narrative accounts within hagiographical texts, namely collections of miracles attributed to the saints in question.

The comparative study of the Epidauros material alongside the late ancient and Byzantine, however, has advanced little since 1900, when Ludwig Deubner devoted a doctoral dissertation to the subject, identifying certain broad formal similarities (Deubner 1900, an expansion of his 1899 dissertation).Deubner drew on four collections of hagiographical texts dating between the fifth and ninth centuries CE. Further hagiographical texts have come to light since then, from which I have collected over 200 accounts of healing. The most significant new comparanda come from the seventh-century Miracles of Saint Artemios, set at the saint’s shrine in Constantinople, by far the closest, in terms of style, register, content, and thematics, to the Epidaurian texts (Ed. Papadopoulos-Kerameus 1909, 1-75; Crisafulli and Nesbitt 1997). In addition I draw on hagiographical narratives concerning Demetrios of Thessalonike (ed. Lemerle 1979), the prophet Isaiah (ed. Delehaye 1924), and Menas of Egypt (ed. Pomialovskii 1900).

In this paper I first introduce the Epidaurian inscriptions and the later hagiographical narratives, with particular attention to stylistic features. Indeed the prose style of the ἰάματα has been surprisingly neglected (The treatment of Nehrbass 1935, which, despite its title, is almost exclusively concerned with linguistic features, has yet to be replaced), and offers interest on its own as a rare witness to Doric narrative prose. By means of the augmented collection of comparanda, I then make two arguments. First, that a crucial component of incubation in the Graeco-Roman tradition is a community of pilgrims, mediated both by priestly personnel and a larger discourse on the processes of pilgrimage, dreaming, and healing. Second, that this discourse is reflected in a literary genre of narratives about dreams, healing, and communal relations at sites of incubation, reflected in both the Epidaurian and the later texts. These narratives maintain certain generic and stylistic conventions with respect to the personality of the healing divinities, a taste for paradox, vivid and often gruesome detail, and humor centered on puns and wordplay. The material ultimately depends on an oral literature surrounding the practice of incubation, which can already be detected in the Epidaurian texts (One of the narratives is independently attested in a fragment of the historian Hippys of Rhegium: Wilamowitz-Möllendorff 1884). I close by considering the possible application of this oral-literature model to other known centers of incubation from which textual records are less extensive or lacking.

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Epigraphy and Religion Revisited

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