Baring the Aegis: Hellenismos
Hellenismos, otherwise known as Greek Reconstructionist Paganism, is the traditional, polytheistic religion of ancient Greece, reconstructed in and adapted to the modern world. It's a vibrant religion which can draw on a surprising amount of ancient sources. Baring the Aegis blogger Elani Temperance blogs about her experiences within this Tradition.
On health and healing
Recently, I received a message about health and healing. The questions centered on healing from physical injury, support during surgery, and common practices in ancient Hellas in these types of situations both of the injured and their families. Seeing as most of us will most likely wat to request the healing aid of the Gods at one point in our lives, I though I would make a blog post out of it.
In ancient Hellas, people got sick just like we get sick now. With the poorer hygiene conditions and often heavy physical labor that was undertaken, epidemics one one illness or another must have been quite common, and accidents were prone to happen. As such, there were quite a number of deities who were especially prone to help humanity recover from diseases and injuries.
When we discuss health and healing, we must first look at the worship of Asklēpiós. Asklēpiós was, and is, a much beloved Theos. He started out being honored as a hero--the son of Apollon and Koronis--but became a God in His own right because of his healing skill. It seems Asklēpiós was such a fine healer, He could even bring the dead back to life, even though He is no longer permitted to do that. Apollon presides over the healing proccess as well--in general with the Hellenic deities, younger generations preside over the building blocks of the previous generation, so while Apollon has 'healing' in His portfolio, much of the actual healing is done by his younger son, and specific subsets of healing are distributed amongst Asklēpiós' daughters.
Worship places of Asklēpiós were called 'asklepieia' (Ἀσκληπίεια). An asklepieion (Ἀσκληπιεῖον) served as a temple, a hospital, and as a training-institute of the healing arts. In ancient Hellas, the sick would come to an asklepieion and offer a sacrifice to Asklēpiós--amongst the recorded sacrifices are black goats or sheep, gold, silver, or marble sculptures of the body part that required healing, and coins--in hopes of healing. They would then settle into the abaton (άβατον) or enkoimeterion (εγκοιμητήριοn), a restricted sleeping hall, which was occupied by the sick alone, or sometimes by a group of them, as well as a good few snakes, which are considered sacred animals of Asklēpiós.
The sick would spend the night at the abaton, and would receive counsel from Asklēpiós Himself in his or her dreams, during an induced sleep known as 'incubation', or 'enkoimesis' (ενκοίμησις), where the patient drifts between waking and sleeping, and is said to be susceptible to messages of the Gods. If the God did not visit the patient the first night, incubation was continued on following nights. Asklēpiós would either heal the supplicant directly in the dream state, or tell him what to do to cure his illness or affliction. The priests listened to the dream, as described by the patient, and would divine the meaning of the Theos from it. As such, all healers were also master dream interpreters who would divine the treatment to be followed from the patient's account of the dream. Treatment often consisted of supplication, fasting, a special diet, meditation or prayer. There are accounts of surgeries having taken place at the asklepieia as well.
Asklēpiós has five daughters, and anyone with an illness or injury would do well to keep Them in mind, because worshipping Them and adhering to Their lessons will heal your injuries a lot quicker than they would without it. Along with Asklēpiós, the most important Gods to guard the health of mankind are: Hygeia, Iaso, Akeso, Aiglê, and Panakeia.
Hygeia is the Theia of health, cleanliness, and sanitation, and a companion of the Goddess Aphrodite. She is perhaps the best known of Asklēpiós' daughters, and has been so since ancient times. She is mentioned alongside her father, grandfather, and sister Panakeia in the original Hippocratic oath. the ancient Hellenes regarded Her as one of the most revered of all Theoi, because without her blessings (good health), nothing could be accomplished in life, and life itself would cease. In fact, She has her own Orphic hymn , and in it, She is solely responsible for averting all disease. She is depicted with a snake, usually curled around Her arm.
Iasô is the Theia of cures, remedies and modes of healing. In the temple of Amphiaraus at Oropus a part of the altar was dedicated to Her, along with many of Her sisters and other Theoi petitioned for healing. Recovery is Her domain, and as such, She is one of Asklēpiós' most valued attendants. She is depicted with a mirror.
Akeso is the Theia who oversees the healing of wounds and the curing of illness. She does not bring the cure itself, but oversees the process of healing. Not much is known about Her, but She is a faithful attendant of Her father.
Aiglê is the Theia of the beauty, splendor, glory, magnificence, and adornment that comes with good health. She represents radiance, and Her blessings are very much sought after, because they allow a person to live up to their full potential.
Panakeia is the Theia of cures and panaceas--healing aids in the form of medicines, salves and other curatives. After Hygeia, She is perhaps the best known of Her sisters. Her gifts of medicine are of great value, and she is mentioned in the original Hippocratic oath along with Apollon, Asklēpiós, and Hygeia.
One of the most fascinating aspects about these healing cults is the offerings they got, either in thanks, or in prayer. As said before, a special type of votives were pinakes (πίνακες, singular: πίναξ). Most pinakes were gifted to the temple as votive offerings, and depicted scenes of libations, mythological scenes, scenes from daily life (like farming or household duties). Another type of scene was the depiction of body parts. These pinakes were gifted as a call for healing aid, and were most likely gifted before the actual healing took place, something unique to pinakes. Lokris (Λοκρίς), a region in ancient Hellas, is known for a remarkable archeological find of thousands of pinakes, most of them from sanctuaries of Persephone and Aphrodite, indicating They were approached for some form of healing as well. Large numbers of clay replicas of hands and feet, arms and legs, breasts and genitals, eyes and ears, and heads have been found in the ruins of temples of Asklēpiós, as depicted above.
To step away from the Gods for a moment, Hippokrátēs of Kos (Ἱπποκράτης) is seen by many as the founding father of medicine, and in his lifetime, he set about to advancing the systematic study of clinical medicine, summing up the medical knowledge of previous schools, and prescribing practices for physicians through the Hippocratic Corpus and other works (although he Corpus itself was most likely not written by him, but assembled in and slightly after his time). Hippokrátēs separated the discipline of medicine from religion, believing and arguing that disease was not a punishment inflicted by the Theoi but rather the product of environmental factors, diet, and living habits. Much of his theories came from his very basic understanding of the human body: in Hippokrátēs' time, it was forbidden to cut into a corpse, even for research.
Two of Hippokrátēs' most famous ideas about illness were humoralism and the concept of crisis. Humoralism is a now discredited theory of the makeup and workings of the human body, positing that an excess or deficiency of any of four distinct bodily fluids in a person directly influences their temperament and health. The four humors of Hippocratic medicine are black bile (melan chole), yellow bile (chole), phlegm (phlegma), and blood (haima). A crisis is a point in the progression of disease at which either the illness would begin to triumph and the patient would most likely die, or the opposite would occur and natural processes would make the patient recover. A crisis was said to occur on critical days, which were set days from the point of contraction. Relapses would come with a crisis day of their own, and could be predicted when a crisis did not fall on the predicted crisis day.
Hippokrátēs understood healing as the restoration of balance within the body. That is also the foundation of humoralism: restoring balance to the four humors, so the patient is healed. Hippokrátēs realized that everything in the human body was connected, that an imbalance could--and would--affect the whole of the body. His theories may have been discredited, but the basic foundation of balance still hold true to this day. Inside of all of us is a voice that talks to us when we are sick. Hippokrátēs named it the 'inner physician'. It is a voice we often ignore: usually it tells us to rest, to drink plenty of water, to get either warm or cold; the inner physician manifests in desires of the body when ill. If we listen to these desires, we are healed swiftly from the more common illnesses. A good physician listens to the patient's inner physician and helps it in its work. This is at the core of humoralism as well: a diagnosis was made by descriptions given by the patient and a basic understanding of humors, and the physician attempted to provide what the inner body desired.
It's impossible to prevent illness. Unlike Hippokrátēs, we know that viruses and bacteria get transferred from person to person, and once an illness is introduced to you living environment or your circle of close contacts, the chances of getting in increase greatly. When you become ill, the body's inner physician can help you heal quickly and with the least amount of discomfort. Trusting in your inner physician is something we are rarely trained to do by our parents, but it can prevent much suffering over the years. Especially when we are healing from an injury or recovering from surgery, listening to our inner physician is critical.
For anyone who has fallen ill, or who is facing a medical situation they could use the aid of the Gods with, I would suggest holding a ritual with sacrifices to the Gods in advance where possible, or during the recovery period. Do not forget to hold another ceremony of thanks giving once you are healed! Needless to say, the Gods I would recommend sacrificing to are the ones listed here, along with Hestia as guardian of the household, and Zeus as King of the Gods. Make use of the Homeric or Orphic hymns; Apollon (I, II, III), Asklēpiós (I, II), Zeus (I), Hestia (I), and the daughters of Asklēpiós (I), and make use of pinakes if you can. You can make them out of clay or wood, but wax is another good option, and it allows you to burn it in the sacrificial fire. The latter is my preferred method. Add these Gods to you daily prayers, and libate to them with your request for healing and to watch over you during procedures. In the Hellenic religion, building kharis is everything. Because it bears repeating: do not forget to listen to your inner physician; it can help you avoid a lot of pain and suffering.
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