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.

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