Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Epidauros: "Western" medicine, snakes and the psyche

Epidauros was the greatest healing center in the ancient Mediterranean. The doctors, followers of Asclepius, passed the tradition down, secretly, from father to son. People came with illnesses or wounds from battle from all around the Mediterranean (mainly aristocrats or the monied could make the trip). The Persian emperor had at his court a doctor from Epidauros. The healers were the followers of the god, participants in a sect…

These healers knew of aspirin. They invented the draining of the liquid from head wounds. They used plants, some of which like psillium, are famed (mentioned centrally in an account of the food on the menu at the charming Archaeon Gefsis – the Athenian restaurant that serves 4th century BC dishes and nectar. Psillium became rare,the final portion eaten and thus destroyed by some tyrant – perhaps a symbol of a now industrial/capitalist process that is ongoing, devouring the natural environment and the discoveries about it that keep humans alive…).

These early doctors passed their surgical instruments through boiling water. They did not know of germs (to be discovered 2200 years later), but they observed over time how diseases spread along with their treatments, established practices and asked the questions which were the springboard for later research. The roots of the great medical and surgical discoveries by the Arabs like Ibn-Rusd and Jews like Maimonides (doctors as well as philosophers or in Maimonides’ case, compiler/ creator of the Talmud) in Cordoba in the 13th century AD build on the keeping and translation of Greek texts as well as the medical wisdom of the practices and a few later writings, some in Latin, that had been handed down about the Asclepion.

Among the Latin texts from the early Christian era, a general, soldiers on the march, points out that one can drink a snake poison (take it orally) after being bitten and not die…

The Arabs and the Jews were denied – the Arab rule in Europe the manifestation of Eastern civilization, originally stemming from China, in the backward West - and despised in the reconquest of the Catholic Kings. “Western” medicine was thus international, semitic or “Oriental,” Greek and Christian in its conversational development (the imperial or colonial racism surrounding the history of medicine and “Western” rationality one can cut with a knife…).

The architectural remains or outlines survive of large buildings. Some were being reconstructed by Europe with the same marble as the originals, before the economic collapse and the bankers’ attempts to steal all the money from the young and poor and give it to the rich. See here. Culture, too, during economic crisis, may pass…

There is the first treatment center to which the patient came, a large structure, and further treatment centers. There is a brilliant theater, the prototype of the Odeon de Herodes Atticus at the Acropolis, rising in stone from a semi-circle, some of us traipsing up to listen as one drops a coin at the bottom, the ping on the rock as audible at the heights as in the depths. It is an uncanny theater in which the sound is as good in the “eaves” as on the stage. Sadly, the main performances are now in August.

There is a stadium for exercise. The cure was psychic, the tragedians leaders of the soul (psychagogia), combining with the doctors and the restoration of the physical body.

Asclepius is depicted with a staff around which a snake curls (the modern medical cadeucus with its twinned snakes wound round is a variant). If one were sick, one journeyed to Epidauros and walked into the Asclepion, a snake carved on the door, for a diagnosis. Non-venemous snakes lolled or slithered on the floor. A doctor or doctors looked at the person as she came in and later as she slept the night on one of the treatment beds, the snakes slithering all around. Did the snake, perhaps in the form of a god, or a human, come to you, the doctors asked? In a further treatment center, the Abadon, the patients again lay in beds (originally separated off by a partition). On one surviving sculpture, a snake slithered out of the wall of the Abadon and dripped liquid, perhaps poison, from its mouth, healing a sore toe. The snake appared as a god to the dreamer the brief remarks in marble about the treatment relate. In another, a woman who had trouble with giving birth dreamed that a beautiful boy lifted up her garment, a god touched her belly…

In the National Archaelogical Museum in Athens, there is a first century BC sculpture of a man with a hurt neck, a snake, fangs bared, striking down at it. And in Epidauros, a similar marble…For Athena as a snake goddess and Asclepios, see here.

Much of the mysteries were thus hushed, psychic, combined the subconscious in our terms with the conscious, serpentine. The serpents were deliverers of death and frightening, incarnations of eternity and cures (they shed their skins). Snakes were, along with plants, the source of antivenins. Poppies, too, grow brightly in the sparse soil of Epidauros (small, sunny red poppies as we walked through the sanctuary). In the post-women led Crete (just after 1460 BC), goddesses or priestesses are depicted as large clay figurines with snakes or alternately, poppies rising or flowering, out of their hair...Snake medicine, dreams, tragedy and opium, among other plant-derived items, were part of doctoring.

The use of snakes had some protection for the doctors. The great and powerful came for treatment, and being mortal, often died. The doctors needed to survive their deaths. They needed their isolation or sect-like character, the journeys or pilgrimages, the blessings of a God, the secret traditions, the fear of snakes, the soaring of poppies, to do some research on diseases, acquire some wisdom, and survive. Freedom of research in the era of kings, tyrants and the first democracies…

A god spoke to the dreamer about the cure. The Asclepion’s message: it was the god who did not cure or took the life, not the doctor or the inadequacies of medical knowledge or treatment. Of course, mortality being with each of us, the story told in the Asclepion was often true.* The spirituality is, and is also a veil...

Here is the corrupt political wisdom of the Athenian Stranger in the Laws (line 624a - the first line, 708-712), echoed later by Avicenna and Al-Farabi, by Machiavelli and Rousseau for great legislators, and today the center of William Kristol’s and other political Straussians’ idées fixes – spread evangelicism, strike down the courts, have Sarah Palin (once Bill’s favorite, whom he provided to the McCain campaign) or Mitt Romney (but will Mormonism sell among evangelicals?) or one of the other authoritarians put over the imperial policies (bombing Iran, destroying the Middle East and perhaps gradually the conditions for human life on the planet through ever widening war) of the completely secular – and foolish – imperial/pseudo-Platonic gurus. This old story, the dreams and auguries of divinity, was central to the success of treatments and to the survival of doctors when they failed…

But the cure was also psychic. Even the climate (surprisingly non-humid since the Asclepion is near the sea) has an effect in limiting some physical pain. The surprising and rather scary dream treatment has a further effect in shaking the patient out of the older configuration of energy, in recasting her in a new shape (one can see this especially in children after illness, but also, sometimes, in adults).. Dreaming, tragedy, exercise, prophecy (about healing) or divining – and careful observation and development of medical knowledge and instruments - were all part of cures.

Medicine was thus profoundly snake medicine, Athena the goddess of snakes (see here, here, here and shortly). Venom was discovered to be curative (and plants discovered as anti-venins – the natural environment observed and explored for its medicinal properties). Dream cures, unwinding in sleep, revealed in visions, were linked to the further psychic therapy of tragedy.

There is in Plato, for instance, in the Republic, an interesting psychological description of the soul, divided into psyche, spiritedness (thymos, a word on which Strussians and neocons often exercise themselves, for example, David Brooks in a New York Times op-ed piece waxing on Harvey Mansfield's Manliness in 2006 - see here, here and here) and appetites. The tyrant is a psychic civil war in Aristotle’s phrase (Nicomachean Ethics, book vii on why the capacity for friendship is lacking in a tyrant).

But the cure came from going to this center, and being introduced to snakes and dreaming and snake(anti-venin)medicine…

What Plato reveals of this as with many other matters in the dialogues are but clues or starting points on a journey. The labyrinths of the dialogues mirror the secrets of Epidauros…


*Here science progressed with spirituality. This is a truth alluded to in Leo Strauss, Persecution and the Art of Writing, although he has only sympathy for authoritarian, Wizard of Oz-like - pseudo-philosophical - uses of religion.

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