HHH column: Divine healing by Mark Beumer

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts on research, current affairs, or anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by a different member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contribution. This month, the floor is for Mark Beumer, PhD candidate at Charles University Prague, First Faculty of Medicine. In this column, Mark gives us an insight into his PhD research on the practice of “temple sleep”, and the ways in which ancient and present-day people sought out healing from the divine.

Mark Beumer

Divine healing

During the pandemic, most of the Dutch population decided to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. A minority chose not to. One reason why people turned down the vaccine is that some prefer to rely on God and his protection, a prevalent motivation in religious areas such as the so-called Dutch “Bible belt”. As COVID-19 spread through the country, believers lit candles and called upon Jesus, Mary and the saints to protect or heal them from the Coronavirus.

This phenomenon is not new. In ancient times, there were several gods who could heal and protect people from diseases. The most popular and beloved god was Asklepios, the Greek god of medicine. Together with one of his daughters, Hygieia, goddess of health, he came to the aid of many patients. During a severe epidemic of smallpox in Athens in 430 BC, more than a third of the Athenians died. The existing Olympian gods were no longer trusted. An Athenian citizen, Telemachos of Acharnai, transported effigies of Asklepios and Hygieia from Peiraios to Athens to heal the population. From then on, the Asklepios cult quickly spread across the Greco-Roman world. Even Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and patron goddess of Athens, was given the nickname of Hygieia to protect the health of the Athenians.

Relief (400 BC). Unknown man (left), Asklepios (middle) and the wife of Asklepios, Epioné (right). Photo by Mark Beumer, Akropolis Museum 2011.

The core of the Asklepios cult was the practice of “temple sleep”. The sick visited the temples of Asklepios, seeking healing. After several days of preparation rites, including fasting, praying and personal cleansing, the patient was taken to a secret inner room in the evening. There, the patient slept on a bed or on an animal skin. The god appeared to the patient in their dreams and healed them through his touch, by practicing surgery on them in the dream, or by prescribing remedies for the patient. Upon awakening, the patient found they had been healed and offered a votive relief to the god. The ritual ended with a communal meal consumed in the temple.

With the rise of Christianity in the first centuries after the birth of Christ, the new religion had to relate to the polytheistic world in which it came to maturity. After some resistance to dreams as a medium to communicate with God, Christians adopted the ritual of “temple sleep” in form, but with different content. Martyrs and saints took over the functions of gods. The twin brothers Kosmas and Damianos (c.a. 3rd century AD) replaced Asklepios. They were Arab doctors working in Kyrrhos (Syria), and early Christian martyrs. Ancient temples were transformed into churches. Hence the new term, “church sleep”.

In the new epoch of church sleep, people slept as close to the altar as possible, because the relics of the saints were kept beneath it. They also tried to sleep next to the tombs of martyrs. During the night, a saint, angel or apostle would appear to the sick person and often heal them in the same way as the ancient gods did. Both Greeks and Christians had access to a broad medical market, in which, in addition to rituals, magic was practiced in the form of amulets, spells and incantations. People also visited regular doctors called therapeutai, who healed or treated people in a spiritual way, although this practice was met with much more resistance within Christianity, as it was believed that only God and the saints could truly heal people.

Today, the belief in the healing properties of a divine power persists. Think, for example, of the pilgrims visiting the site of Lourdes, where Mary is asked for healing. Church sleep also continues, especially in Eastern Europe. Regular medicine may have cured many diseases, but there is still room and need for the divine when today’s standard medicine is found to be insufficient.

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