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Worship and Healing

The healing sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus was renowned as a centre for healthcare in antiquity. People flocked here seeking  cures for maladies ranging from blindness, paralysis, epilepsy, and infertility to baldness, body lice, and insomnia.


Dreaming Cures



Worshippers would sleep in the sanctuary and, if they were fortunate, dream that the god came to
 them and performed a 
medical procedure (such as surgery, cauterisation, or applying poultices)
 or prescribed a regimen to be carried out after they
 awoke.

 The cured dedicated gifts to Asclepius;  depending on the individual’s means, these might include
 marble plaques showing the worshipper in the company of the god or anatomical votives fashioned
 from metal, clay, wood, or marble that indicated the part of the body that had been healed.

Followers also came to the sanctuary to celebrate festivals in honour of Asclepius and his father
 Apollo. These festivals included
 contests in athletics and especially music. Plato writes about
 Socrates talking with a young aristocrat, Ion, who had just returned from a rhapsodic
 competition at Epidaurus.

Sound and music in the sanctuary

Music was integral to the daily worship of Asclepius and his father
 Apollo. Texts of hymns, some with musical notation, were inscribed on
marble stelai erected in the centre of the sanctuary.

One inscribed hymn includes rubrics prescribing the time of day  at which each
 hymn was to be performed, a text that classicist Jan Bremer describes as a “breviary on stone for daily  worship.” There is no doubt that this sanctuary resounded with music, whether of small performances  by and for intimate groups, or of large productions designed for a panhellenic festival audience.

Celebrating with song


The great theatre at Epidaurus, built by the architect Polykleitos and renowned for its acoustics,  provided one venue for musical performance at the sanctuary. But there must have been other places to accommodate a variety of music and performances, especially among smaller groups.

The Thymele in the very centre of the sanctuary was an ideal locus for music, not only because
 of its acoustic properties but also because it was situated just next to the temple of Asclepius 
and opened towards a large altar. Those who had been healed might thank the god with
 music here; indeed, we know from another sanctuary of Asclepius, at 
Erythrae, 
that worshippers sang paeans around the god’s altar after they were cured.

Listen, learn and perform



Just as importantly, those in need of healing might have taken therapeutic benefit from listening
 to and even participating in
 performances within the Thymele. We know that the Greeks employed
 musical therapies. One tradition about the philosopher Pythagoras, for instance, describes how he would position 
those with physical and emotional 
ailments in a circle, place a lyre player in their centre, and have them sing and dance 
to paeans 
to cure them.

 There are stories also of paeans healing those stricken by plague or madness.

Galen, who served as a 
physician to the Roman emperor Marcus 
Aurelius, remarks that Asclepius in particular was famous for prescribing 
the composition of music, as well as oratory and other forms of expression, as therapy. 

Another devotee of Asclepius, Aelius Aristides, mentions musical performance and composition among the prescriptions he received from the god.

Healing Harmonics of Worship


We can imagine, then, that within the walls of the Thymele, the other-worldly resonances of the music may have worked a very real effect on the bodies and minds of worshippers. These individuals, transformed by song and dance, were healed while  in the very act of praising the beneficence and power of Asclepius and his father Apollo.