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Cool Thesis of the Week: Healing Cults in Ancient Greece

Each week, The Quest profiles the thesis of one senior whose work is worth sharing with the Reed community. The purpose of this column is to increase awareness among Reedies of the work being done in various academic fields and to make disparate forms of scholarship accessible and understandable to all.

Lindsay Myers

Lindsay Myers '12 can cure what ails you—or at least refer you to a god who can.

All too often, a distinction is drawn between science and religion, with science’s empiricism frequently seen as standing in opposition to faith and religious belief. However, it wasn’t always this way.

In the medicine of the ancient Greeks, the domains of science and religion were not as separate as a modern thinker would suppose. Lindsay Myers, a Classics major from St. Helena, California, is spending her senior year examining the relationship between the two. Her thesis, which she is working on with Professor Walter Englert, investigates the ancient Greeks’ religious healing cults alongside their scientific and philosophical views of medicine.

Asclepius, the god of medicine, was the center of a number of Greek healing cults.  According to legend, Apollo slept with the mortal Coronis, who then, pregnant with Asclepius, cheated on him. Apollo, true to ancient Greek form, burned her alive in revenge, then rescued the infant Asclepius from the fire. He then sent Asclepius to study medicine with the centaur Chiron, which Lindsay says helped him to develop his roots as a secular healer before he ascended to godly status. Asclepius “progressed in skill and reputation,” Lindsays says, until he brought a dead man back to life. This, says Lindsay wryly, “made Zeus really mad.” Zeus initially banished Ascelpius to the underworld, but, realizing his power, brought him back to rule over the mortals’ practice of medicine.

Around Asclepius arose healing cults, which worshipped Asclepius in exchange for his gifts of divine medical assistance. Greeks with maladies “would go to his temples and undergo this experience they called the ‘incubation,’ ” in which priests would help patients into a trance-like dream. Patients would be visited by Asclepius, who Lindsay says would “actually physically treat them.” Lindsay is working with a number of primary-source accounts of such experiences written by the priests. In one of her favorites, she says, a patient comes to a healing cult with a disease called “dropsy.” In the patient’s dream, Asclepius cuts off his head, hangs him upside-down, and drains out all the evil fluid causing the illness. However, Lindsay points out, Asclepius did not just treat medical issues. He would also “make prescriptions about their lives,” she says, and teach them “how to be healthier.”

However, Lindsay says, the claims of the healing cults were not always accepted as truth, and “some people did doubt it.” Some of the testimonies that she is reading describe skeptics coming to see if the incubation would actually work. They would be visited by Asclepius, who would demand a payment from them for their disbelief, then heal them. However, Lindsay notes, the priests were the ones writing the accounts, so “there might be some slight bias there.”

The Greeks also practiced a more “empirical, technical” medicine, which purported to treat illnesses based on a more scientific approach. However, Lindsay says, this was never viewed as a challenge to religious forms of healing, but rather something that worked in conjunction with it. Lindsay explains that in many cases, healing by incubation “was often a last resort” when secular medicine failed. In other cases, mortal doctors would not treat conditions like gout or epilepsy, but instead refer patients “straight to the gods.”

Lindsay emphasizes that ancient Greece’s faith healing was not entirely the “quack science” it might seem to be today. The Hippocratic philosophers had an understanding of the “relationship between mental circumstances and illness,” Lindsay says, and this gave faith healers “a really good handle on the mental aspect” of physical health. “You want to be able to say it’s all in their head,” Lindsay says, but the Greeks’ understanding of science was not so crude. Studying Greek medicine, Lindsay says, “is making me think really differently about how I deal with this stuff.” As she points out, “Medicine is something that everyone at some point will have some interaction with,” and “some of that you can’t take totally for granted.”

Do you have or know of a thesis that compels attention? Just want to see your face in the Quest? Email with “Cool Thesis” in the subject line.

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