Saturday, 18 March 2023

The Mystery of Greek Theatre's Use in Ancient Medicine


The Ancient Theatre of Epidauros

One of the reasons I’m so thrilled to be leading a retreat, with an initiative called Travelgems, in the north-eastern Greek Peloponnese in July,[i] is that I can revisit the ancient health centre at Epidauros, the most important ancient cult centre of the healing god Asclepius. All his sanctuaries were built in the most healthful locations, where trees, fresh water springs, medicinal herbs and restful views promoted the wellbeing of all who visited them, whether their malady was bodily or psychic.

Reconstruction of Asclepius' Temple at Epidauros

Available treatments included dream interpretation, a precursor of modern psychotherapy.  Rituals, bathing and daily prayer and meditation promoted optimism and positivity. But a great mystery surrounds one aspect of most sites where the arts of the therapeutic doctor-god were practised: Epidauros and others have beautiful ancient theatres, and performance arts seem to have been cultivated at many of his other sanctuaries.

We just do not know exactly what form these performative cures actually took. But the Greek philosopher Aristotle, the son of a distinguished medical physician, who claimed descent from a doctor given his medicine chest by the doctor-centaur Cheiron, speaks of the role of music, as experienced in certain religious rites, in the treatment of emotional distress. There were special ‘sacred melodies’, both ecstatic and calming, which could help groups of people suffering from the same psychological problem find relief. 

This is probably related to Aristotle’s theory that tragic theatre helps people deal with painful emotions through ‘catharsis’ by watching tragedy—which was a musical medium similar to opera—in a form of emotional homeopathy.

There are other links between tragic theatre and medicine. Sophocles was said to have introduced the cult of the healing hero Asclepius into his own household.

The retreat I am leading, with stunning guest lecturer Natalie Haynes,  will culminate in a performance of tragedy at the great Epidauros theatre itself. The experience will allow participants to undergo the healing power of the medical god himself as well as discuss the therapeutic psychological aspects of tragedy.

[i] A few places still available.

Sunday, 22 January 2023

Good Times A-coming: Join me in Greece?


Last time I blogged I was entering an unpleasant period of medical treatment, but I’m thrilled to say that I’m nearly through and have been given the all-clear. So I’m getting back down to business and am in search of Helios' sunshine!

I’ve got something wonderful to look forward to, as well, and some of you may even be interested in joining in. An enterprising company called Travelgems run by some inspiring Greek ladies has invited me to lead a retreat on the psychological relevance of Greek tragedy to today’s problems at an excellent hotel in the old seaside town of Naflplio between 11th and 16th July 2023.

The culmination will be a group outing to a live performance of an ancient drama at the stunning ancient theatre of Epidaurus. It will be unforgettable.

I’ll lead all the sessions where we will explore these timeless plays; there'll also be a guest lecture by the incomparable Nat Haynes and expeditions to the marvellous concentration of museums and sites in Greece.

I’ve just finished a book coming out next year with Yale University Press called Facing down the Furies on how Greek tragedy and ethics can help us address even the most intractable emotional problems, and this retreat will give me a chance to offer participants a private preview of the book’s contents.

We will ask how Aeschylus’ Oresteia  can teach us resilience, Sophocles’ Antigone the importance of patience in decision-making,  Philoctetes how to maintain hope even in our darkest hours, and Euripides’ Heracles on how to move on even after disaster and depression. We will ask why the Greek tragedians returned time and again to the stories of strong women facing up to the emotional problems of a society which oppressed them.

We’ll  laugh, cry, swim, eat, explore, and get inspired by some of the most beautiful art, poetry and archaeology in the world. I really can’t wait! To prepare myself, I’m going to start blogging on different myths connected with the area, starting next week with the healing sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidauros. The Greeks understood a great deal about minds and emotions. I’d love you to come with me on this retreat for a journey through their ideas.