Incubation and Temple Healing

There are many characteristics that are unique to or first began through Asklepios’ cult: daily devotions and sacrifices, sacrificial hymns, daily epiphanies of the God, his latecoming, a clear late evolution… But the one that is more striking and interesting is temple healing: daily healing miracles performed by the God himself in his temple. This consisted of either healing over the night or instruction directed towards doctors or the patients themselves of how to perform in order to relief illness.

The God was, of course, also honoured by the healthy, in hopes of avoiding disease or, at least, please the God so that he would help them when they needed. This happened through attending the daily cult made at his temple (when the sun rose and when it setted), prayer and festivals. The physicians also had a cult of their own where Asklepios was regarded as their Hero and woshirped accordingly. But lets just focus on incubations.

When someone got sick he would seek the physicians and they would help. In case they couldn’t do anything, or when the person didn’t have enough to pay for physicians help, he was sent to the nearest temple of Asklepios, although the fame of Epidauros, Kos, Tricca and, later, Pergamum, did attracted people from far off lands. In earlier periods the God even had a schedule and was on Epidauros certain days, on Kos in others, Tricca others, etc. Latter however he learn to be in several places at the same time and miracle healings occurred simultaneously in all his temples. There is even a recorded case (probably there were several more) that he sent the same dream to the sick person and the person who went to the temple to seek for help.

Before the incubation began, people had to sacrifice. The sacrifice varied from temple to temple and even from person to person: rich people might sacrifice a bull, common people would sacrifice a cock, which turned out to be the most common offer. In the earlier times this sacrifice as well as all of Asklepios cult happened at Apollo’s temples and later people had to sacrifice first to Apollo, or walk around the altar of Apollo thrice and sing a pean to him (Tricca), but eventually Asklepios gained autonomy and it became common to sacrifice only to him or to him and his daughter Hygeia (Health).

Although the daily worshiping of the God and purification of his temple was made by the priest dressed in white, the sacrifices of the diseased and the incubation was the work of the neokoros, or the neokoroi, as happened in the larger temples where just one neokoros was not enough. Before the healing happened this is all people would do: offer a small sacrifice and ask for help. Greater offerings were not costomary and were thought of as trying to bribe the God – there are even records of him refusing to heal someone because he made an offer way too great before the healing happened.

When the sun set, after the daily devotions, the people were directed by the neokoros to the abaton, or adyton, the inner chamber of the temple which, unlike what happened in the cult of all other Gods, was not restricted. In smaller temples when there were too many people to fit them in the abaton they slept in the temple instead. There people would sleep through the night, without any need of special purification procedures (“Purity is to think pure thoughts”), special clothing or jewellery, incense or offers.

It was usually in the state between sleep and wakefulness that the God would approach his patients and heal them. They reported seeing the God “working” on them or just instructing them of what to do (sometimes logical things, such as eating less of this or that, but most of the times irrational things). The God would also request something from the person in return; something he himself would specify or ask, in dreams, what was the person willing to give. He was not a greedy God, as can be seen in the following inscription, found in the temple of Epidauros:

Euphanes, a boy of Epidauros. Suffering from stone he slept in the temple. It seemed to him that the god stood by him and asked: “What will you give me if I cure you?” “Ten dice”, he answered. The god laughed and said to him that he would cure him. When day came he walked out sound. – Epidaurian Tablets

The God would ask for gifts according to the person’s wealth: to the young boy Euphanes 10 dice was enough, but to artists he would often request a tragedy, comedy, poem, statue, to rich people money or buildings or works of art sponsored by them, to common people an animal or just a rough statue made by themselves… Sometimes prayer and song was enough, others he would ask for festivals or lavish gifts.

People, however, were often so thankful that they contributed with more than asked: money for the temple, food for the priests, the neokoroi or the sacred animals, starting a daily devotional rite… The incubation was considered an epiphany of the God: the God actually came and talked to his devotees and he did this daily to many people. To illustrate the feeling of incubation through Asklepios, I leave you with this fragment from Aristides:

It [the remedy] was revealed in the clearest way possible, just as countless other things also made the presence of the god manifest. For I seemed almost to touch him and to perceive that he himself was coming, and to be halfway between sleep and waking and to want to get the power of vision and to be anxious lest he depart beforehand, and to have turned my hears to listen, sometimes in a dream, sometimes in waking vision, and my hair was standing on end and tears of joy came forth, and the weight of knowledge was no burden – what man could even set these things forth in words? – Aristides