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The Cult of Asklepios

by January 15, 2022

By Kevin Blood
It was a widespread cult of enormous importance in the ancient world. Socrates’ last words referenced its central figure. Their symbol is still recognizable today, worldwide – even if you don’t know what it is, you’ve likely seen it. But what exactly was the cult of Asklepios?
Established towards the end of the sixth century B.C. in the ancient Greek city of Epidauros, the cult worshipped the ancient Greek god of healing and medicine, Asklepios. The Temple of Asklepios at Epidauros flourished as a healing centre thanks to the careful management of its priests, and the cult’s temples and sanctuaries spread and went on to provide health services for the people of the Graeco-Roman world.
According to myth, Asklepios was the son of the god Apollo, and a mortal woman, Koronis. Apollo loved Koronis, yet her father, King Phlegyas, arranged her marriage to a mortal man. Jealous, Apollo killed the groom with an arrow. In turn, the goddess Artemis killed the pregnant Koronis in the same manner. Apollo saved Asklepios from his mother’s womb, and he was then fostered and tutored by the centaur Kheiron, who taught him the healing arts of medicine.
Asklepios became such a skilled healer that he could raise the dead. At the request of Artemis, he restored her favourite, Hippolytus, to life. For his interference in matters of life and death, Zeus, the king of the gods, killed him with a thunderbolt crafted by the Cyclopes. Angered by this, Apollo killed the Cyclopes in revenge. After his death, Asklepios was worshipped as a god.  
This mythical history was first set in Thessaly. The priests of Epidauros, however, localised it and established Asklepios’ connection with their city. From there, other cult centres dedicated to Asklepios spread. One was established in Athens in 420/19, with the support of the playwright Sophocles.
His sanctuary at Epidauros came to be the site of quadrennial games, the Asklepieia, similar to other Panhellenic festivals, such as the Olympics. To accommodate these games, the sanctuary at Epidauros grew to include an amphitheater, a stadium, a gymnasium, and dormitories. However, the primary reason the sanctuary gained acclaim was for the healing rituals carried out by the priests of Asklepios. 
The amphitheater at Epidauros
One such ritual carried out at Epidauros involved the sacred snakes of Asklepios. The snakes were a symbol of rejuvenescence (for the snake shedding its skin was believed to renew its youth) and blessed serpents were housed in the temples of the god; the snakes were thought to heal the sick by licking them. The symbol of the staff of Asklepios entwined with a snake is still today associated with medical organisations. 
Those who wished to be healed would be purified in the holy waters that flowed from the sanctuary’s sacred fountains; they partook in cleansing rituals involving sacrifices and ablutions. Only those free from blemish, both moral and physical, could enter the holy shrine. To prevent pollution, pilgrims abstained from sexual intercourse, and it was forbidden to die or give birth within the sanctuary. Once in the temple proper, they were taken to the ‘incubation place’, which was forbidden to the impure. Divination also took place there. This involved the god’s visiting sleepers in dreams, whereupon he revealed the right remedies.  
The Rod of Asklepios
Alternatively, cure took the form of a consultation with the priests who would interpret advice given by the god.  This melding of cures with smart propaganda saw the sanctuary at Epidauros remain popular right up to A.D. fourth century.The renown of the sanctuary helped it morph from an oracular shrine dedicated to the practise of incubation, to a sizable complex of baths.  
Some scholars attribute the rise in popularity of the cult in democratic Athens as a response to the plague that devastated Athens (430-426 B.C.). It could be that these cult sanctuaries in Athens provided some with healing and respite from the ravages of the plague. We do know that Asklepion sites were chosen for their natural beauty, spacious with clean air and pure, flowing, waters.
Written sources suggest the regime of cleansing, bathing and other ritual purifications were legitimately beneficial. The taking of the open air was said to be restorative. That’s not to mention the powerful spiritual and religious benefits they believed they gained through ritual sacrifice and worship of a powerful health-giving deity.
The Hellenistic era saw shrines dedicated to Asklepios increase.  The Askelpion of Kos gained a status comparable to the centre at Epidauros. The popularity of the cult spread to Rome and throughout the Roman empire, providing important health services.
Even today, milennia after the fall of the Roman empire, the symbol of Asklepios can be seen emblazoned across ambulances and hospitals. It’s good to know the legacy of the god is in good health.

Morality and Religion in Ancient Rome

by January 11, 2022

by Brendan Heard, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Roman world was a pagan society with a very strong moral code – but what can be hard for people to understand is that, while moral, that code was very different from our own. Religion was everywhere and part of everything Romans did. Religion’s role was to protect the state, the social order, and to maintain the reciprocal power-play between mortals and the gods. It was not necessarily a dualistic good/evil moral framework of absolutes. Or at least, the absolute rules for good and evil they had were not the same as ours today.
It takes imagination to achieve a distanced and appreciative understanding of life in ancient Rome. Religion in their age, in many ways, had very little to do with morality, in the sense that its purpose was not to ensure you were good or bad. Rather, it was more of a functional backdrop of the casual relations of daily life.
This is evident in the gods the Romans worshipped. In Rome, the gods were everywhere and present in all actions. The Roman gods, in particular, often had a very direct, practical ‘function’. For example: Terminus was the god of landmarks and boundaries, Cloacina was the goddess of the sewer system, and Forculus was the god of the integrity of doors, along with Cardea (goddess of hinges).
Their religion expanded through conquest, and so did its pantheon. In time, the majority of the most prominent gods in the Roman pantheon were equivalents to Greek counterpart deities. Jupiter was an equivalent of Zeus, Minerva was an equivalent of Athena, and Neptune was a counterpart of Poseidon, amongst many others. Despite this, certain gods were distinct and unique to the Romans, such as Janus (although these gods often had antecedent figures).
If you wanted success in whatever you were doing, the proper god had to be respected, as a practical matter of action. Magic and divining, respectful rituals, veneration for ancestral blood-lines, sacrifice, were all essential components of what was a richly structured and deeply strict sense of civic duty. Candles lit the faces of ancestors, continually, as they also burned for individual household gods. A Roman god wanted recognition and respect: a small part of each meal was shared with the gods, with a direct fear that negligence would lead to negative consequences in the real world.
Pompeii fresco depicting a family making religious sacrifices
Pompeii fresco depicting a family making religious sacrifices
Because Roman religion was not dualistic, there was not exactly a strict categorizing of ‘good and evil’, with one leading towards heaven and the other to hell. Despite this, they did, however, hold broadly similar conceptions of the afterlife, in the form of Tartarus, a primordial prison which held the defeated Titans, and Elysium, a blessed island that allowed a happy afterlife for heroes. Tartarus and Elysium are, however, outliers; there was little emphasis on moral duality. The flip-side to this was a more unabashedly adroit attitude towards violence, revenge, and conquest.
In fact, in many ways Roman cult activities were designed to keep blood and death at the forefront of public awareness, as was the circus maximus and the violence of gladiator battles. They felt there was great wisdom in being reminded of death, constantly. There probably is.
The Romans believed in fate (fatum) – not in a world of random occurrence, but of the unfolding of the intelligible will and order of the gods. Their world was full of sacred mystery. They believed in family and blood-lines (patrician lineage) and personal sacrifice for honour, above concepts of personal good as manifest in individual personal mercies and pities. Though they had less strictness of ‘metaphysical law’, they knew religion as a force of action in reality. Oracles and soothsayers played an important part in private and public life, even affairs of state and vital military decisions. The divine law did not hinder their human freedom of choice, but it was important for them to feel connected with the hidden (religious world) in the sense that they were fulfilling the divine plan and honouring their ancestors in their choices and actions. In that sense they did not seek religious solace (or conviction) in prayer and forgiveness, but in ‘fateful action’.
As we can see, there are many fundamental and stark differences in their attitude to religion and morality. It can be hard for us to understand, to frame our thoughts from their moral point of view when trying to make sense of their world, yet their aims and desires are often familiar and relatable.

Regardless, many people do not realize the relative nature of moral concepts they take for granted as universal, that were very different in the past.

The Three Elektras

by January 7, 2022

by Sean Kelly, Managing Editor, Classical Wisdom
The myth of Elektra, daughter of Agamemnon, seems to have held a particular power on the minds of tragedians – all three of the great Greek playwrights wrote a version which survives to this day. While they are all working with the same core myth, the versions each have some significant differences from one another, which are revealing of the different worldviews of the playwrights, as well as changes in Greek society. By taking a deeper look at these plays we can come to a greater understanding of the respective playwrights, and also the multi-faceted figure of Elektra herself…
Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers
The earliest extant Greek tragedy on this subject matter is the version by Aeschylus. Entitled Libation Bearers (or Choephori in ancient Greek), it is the middle play of the Oresteia trilogy, which was first performed in 458 BC. This play takes place many years after the trilogy’s opener Agamemnon, in which the title character is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra upon his homecoming (or nostos) from the Siege of Troy. Now, his son Orestes and daughter Elektra have grown. Orestes was raised separate from the royal household, but his sister Elektra was brought up by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, cousin of Agamemnon.
Unlike the other versions of the play we will look at, the character of Elektra in Libation Bearers is more of a supporting role; the protagonist is undoubtedly Orestes. Nevertheless, she is central to the play’s action, particularly the graveside scene. At the beginning of the play, Orestes is returning to his birthplace. He is bound by his moral code to avenge the death of his father, yet he is also forbidden by that same moral code to kill his mother. Trapped by the contradiction, the play follows his journey to a deadly confrontation with his mother. Yet, an important stop on that journey is the graveside of his murdered father.
Elektra at the Tomb of Agamemnon by Frederic Leighton
Here Orestes unexpectedly encounters his sister. Reunited, the two then take part in ritual to call upon the ghost of their slain father. Agamemnon’s ghost doesn’t actually appear in the action of the play. Nevertheless, the ritual is impactful on both siblings: they commit to a plan to murder their mother. Although they conspire together, Orestes faces and kills both his mother and Aegisthus alone. The subject of his guilt and legal culpability is then the cornerstone for the trilogy’s third entry, the Eumenides.
Even though Elektra doesn’t appear again the Eumenides, it was far from the last time the character would appear on stage…
Sophocles’ Elektra
We can’t be certain when Sophocles’ version of Elektra was first performed. It almost certainly followed the Aeschylus version, but we cannot be sure whether the Sophocles or Euripides version came next. The play deals with the same subject matter as Libation Bearers, but while the broad stokes of the story are the same, there are some crucial differences.
Orestes and Elektra
Orestes and Elektra
Perhaps the most notable departure from Aeschylus is the presence of a third sibling, a sister, Chryosthemis. Whereas Sophocles’ Elektra lives away from the palace, due to her disdain for her mother’s actions, Chrysothemis is much more complacent. She is content to live in the palace, and is much less preturbed by her family’s violent history than their sister. Their dynamic is highly reminiscent of the relationship between Antigone and Ismene in Sophocles’ Antigone play, wherein one sister is driven to action, whereas the other is more passive. The addition of Chrysothemis, and the emphasis on the relationship between the two sisters, places greater focus on the role of Elektra in the violence that follows. Indeed, the play as a whole focuses much more on Elektra’s inner feelings and emotions. She mourns the devastation her family has been put through, but she is also a figure of strong resolve.
Euripides’ Elektra
The Euripides version of the play, also simply titled Elektra, likewise naturally places much more focus on Elektra herself than Libation Bearers. Here, however, her characterization is notably different, and significantly darker than other versions.
There is a suggestion that Elektra may be something of an ‘unreliable narrator’. We don’t actually see any of the cruelty this Elektra insists she experiences at the hands of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Wheneever they do appear on stage, it is surprising how unlike Elektra’s descriptions they are. Clytemnestra is concerned for her daughter’s well being, and the similarly considerate Aegisthus is far removed from the figure Elektra describes dancing on the grave of her father.
There is a suggestion that this Elektra is somewhat unbalanced. Furthermore, this version is a something of a zealot for the violence and brutalty of the Homeric code.
Like in Libation Bearers, Orestes arrives to avenge his father. This time, however, Elektra directly takes part in the violence herself, alongside her brother. Whereas previous versions showed a great deal of ambiguity over the potential justification of the murders, Euripides, however, places much greater emphasis on how horrific the violence of the act is. Much like Euripides’ Herakles or Medea, the play functions as a criticism of the Homeric code, by placing the brutality of its violence within a family.
Across the three versions we can see a trajectory, from the somewhat sidelined figure of Libation Bearers, to the more central figure of Sophocles, to the more frenzied interpretation of Euripides. So many Elektras, so little time. The only way to really understand the character is to read them all!

Wine and Roman Poets

by January 4, 2022

By Visnja Bojovic, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
When we think of wine in the ancient world, the first thing that comes to mind is the Romans and their luxurious banquets. We know that wine was an important part of the Roman culture; there were even precise rules for the way and quantity in which it was to be consumed. However, while we do know that wine played an enormous part in the life of the ancient Romans, we have to bear in mind that most of the information we have about wine and drunkenness in Roman society come from literary sources. As such, the information we get from these sources is entirely susceptible to the requirements of the genre.
If you wanted to find the most ardent fan of wine, look no further – you have found a man who not only resorts to wine for pleasure, but claims that his work itself entirely depends on it:

No poetry could ever live long or delight us

That water-drinkers pen. Since Bacchus enlisted

Poets, the barely sane, among his Fauns and Satyrs,

The sweet Muses usually have a dawn scent of wine.

The most important role that Horace attributes to wine is that of a source of inspiration, and he claims that he cannot write until directed to by Bacchus, the god of wine. He does not know where Bacchus will take him, but this direction also depends on Horace’s mood, as well as the type of wine that he is drinking.
We all know the famous line “seize the day”. What some of us may not know, however, is that Horace uses wine more than anything else to demonstrate the importance of this attitude. He says that there is no way to know what gods have in store for us, so the solution is:Be wise, strain the wine, and trim your long hope into a brief space … seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the next.” It is not useful to spend time thinking about bad things, and to get rid of these earthly cares, we should resort to wine.
Another important feature of wine, according to Horace, is its inability of being connected to the war in any way. He thinks that Bacchus brings only harmony, and that there is no place for war in the wine-drinking world. What is important to note, however, is the fact that Horace emphasizes the importance of moderation in drinking, and warns of the dangers if this moderation is not achieved.
As mentioned above, the exaggerated appraisal of wine that can be found in the works of these poets should not be taken literally. That is to say that, most probably, they were not such passionate wine-drinkers in their private lives. This is especially true when it comes to Propertius. We know almost for sure that Propertius the man would not allow himself to fall under the temptations caused by excessive intake of wine. Propertius the poet, on the other hand, continues the elegiac tradition in the best way possible.
He uses wine to emphasize the passion in his poems, and it is an almost inevitable feature of the lovers’ encounters. Similar to Horace, for Propertius, wine is the source of inspiration, his muse. However, Propertius is a bit more realistic, taking into account that wine does not only solve lovers’ problems, but it also creates them. In his prayer to Bacchus, Propertius says: Through you lovers are joined, through you they are broken up.
Propertius with his lover Cynthia
The poet’s ambivalent approach to wine can also be seen in the following verses:

Perish the man who discovered undiluted grapes and

first corrupted good water with nectar! … Beauty dies by wine, youth is broken by wine,

often a mistress does not know her own man because of wine

The two greatest passions of Tibullus are his lover and the countryside. For him, wine is an instrument that he uses to emphasize the importance of both, as it is not only related to love affairs, but also to the celebration of nature. When it comes to love though, he is a bit more moderate than his two colleagues. He takes Horace’s stance that wine can dissolve earthly cares, but he also agrees with Propertius that it is not always the case.
Tibullus was in love with a married woman named Delia. You can imagine how much suffering this situation can cause, especially for an elegy poet. Therefore, only wine and sleep can provide him with a temporary relief:

Add merum, and restrain new grief with wine,

so that victorious sleep might occupy the eyes

of a tired man.

On the other hand, wine can also help him seduce Delia, or bring sleep to her husband, leaving some lovers’ time to them. This poet’s stance on wine was very ambivalent, which usually depended on the nature of the relationship in question. When he was suffering, not even the countryside could soothe his sadness. When things were going well, however, there was nothing better than enjoying wine outside:

Let the wines celebrate the day: There is no shame

in dripping with wine on a feast day, and clumsily moving

wobbly feet

Even though we know for sure that these poets were merely conforming to the requirements of the genre, we can still learn a lot of actual wine facts from them, and take great pleasure in reading about their struggles and passions.
After all, we have all been there, haven’t we?

Education in Ancient Egypt

by December 14, 2021

by Brendan Heard, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
We love to learn about ancient Egypt today…but what did the Egyptians learn about? Was their education system at all like the ancient Greek education system?
It is not possible for us today to know the complete details of Ancient Egyptian education, or to trace precisely its history. We do, however, know some things, and there is clear evidence of a state teaching system which existed throughout the many long-lived dynasties of the Pharaohs. It has been speculated that education began (along with recorded Egyptian history) with the Old Kingdom of 3000 BC. There are some remarkable similarities to our system today, and archaeological evidence has verified images of children seated at desks in classrooms, taking instruction from a teacher who is seated at a larger desk.
From what we know, their actual curriculum was not unfamiliar, consisting of common subjects with particular attention paid to: mathematics, astronomy, geometry, reading, writing, geography, music, sports, manners, medicine, and moral instruction. Education was held in high regard, and typically anyone who had the means sent their children to school when they reached a certain age.
Due to the limited number of schools, lower class people often could not send their children, and they were educated to the best of their ability at home. Girls also were not permitted to go, as education in these things was not considered important for them. They were instructed at home by their mothers, with the expectation that they would become wives and mothers themselves, tutored in the arts of cooking, sewing, religion, and reading. While girls could not go to school, most could be given advanced instruction in what was considered suitable disciplines, such as dancing, weaving, and baking. Girls from noble families had the privilege to be taught politics, history, the arts, as well as reading, writing, and ciphering. Many were also given instruction on supervising household servants and slaves.
There was an education option for artisans and the working class, associated with craft guilds (an unbroken classical tradition which only ended in the 19th century). At the age of 14, middle- and lower-class boys left formal education to work as apprentice farmers, masons, carpenters, etc, to their fathers. For both poor and rich, education of some sort was necessary, and generally the course of that education (craft-school, home-school, elite-school) was ordained by your family’s occupation, which the children were expected to maintain. For the elite of Egyptian society, royal offices remained in the same families for generations, as did farmland to farming families. Thus, it was customary for children to be instructed in what was considered the family discipline. A son was commonly referred to as ‘the staff of his father’s old age’, meaning he assisted him in the performance of his duties.
Depiction of Egyptian scribes
Schooling generally began at the age of 7. The same as today, school started in the morning with a midday break before commencing for the rest of the afternoon. School supplies for younger students consisted of a wooden writing tablet which could be wiped clean, and educational books (called Kemty) were written vertically rather than horizontally. Older students were permitted papyrus. The schools were generally part of a larger religious or government complex, and were taught either by priests or by scribes. Priests oversaw religious lessons, and scribes the secular lessons.
There were village ‘elementary’ schools that instructed a preliminary education, and these were followed by specialized schools for ‘secondary’ education. Typically, specialization instructed the necessary disciplines for common ‘middle class’ roles, such as doctors, scribes, etc. One of the few careers with upward mobility was as a scribe.
Throughout the education system there was a strict hierarchy, with different schools for each class, and this hierarchy continued into professional life, with the Prince’s School at the top (where the nobles and Pharaoh’s sons were educated). They themselves were instructed by the Vizier, in specialized higher education which was focused on producing skilled individuals. In that sense expectations were the same throughout the hierarchy. Young boys who showed extreme promise were often allowed to attend The Prince’s school as well, and for them this was a great honor.
Archeological discoveries have shown how Egyptian classrooms resembled modern ones, with school rules written on the walls. Punishment could be severe, including beatings and spending time in stocks. Boys who failed to learn their trade well were often sent away and forced to set up their life in a new town.
In Ancient Egypt, religious education and philosophy were taught alongside secular subjects, impressing upon students a strong moral foundation. They believed you became wise by following moral principles, such as truth.
There is no doubt ancient Egyptians held education in high regard and saw it as a privilege. It is a testimony to their success.

Alcestis: The Least Tragic Tragedy

by December 5, 2021

by Sean Kelly, Managing Editor, Classical Wisdom
What do you think of when hear the words “Greek tragedy”?
I’ll bet that the images that spring to mind tend to be dark and dramatic. Yet not all tragedies fit this preconception. Not all tragedies are quite so…. Tragic.
For instance, there were the Satyr plays. In ancient Greece, tragedies were staged in trilogies, accompanied by an additional play in a separate genre, the Satyr play. These were much more comedic and farcical in nature than the sometimes austere world of tragedy. In honour of the god Dionysus, centaurs drank and caroused, causing mischief and chaos in irreverent settings. Only one of these plays has been handed down to us, the Cyclops, once more by Euripides, which is a playful retelling of Odysseus’ encounter with the one-eyed Polyphemus. It is from these plays such as these that we get the word satire.
There is, however, another play that is neither comedy, tragedy, nor satyr play. It is a unique blend of all these forms, and yet utterly unlike anything else handed down from the ancients. The story has more in common with a fairy-tale than many of its peers in the corpus of Greek tragedy. It is Alcestis.
Of the three Greek tragedians, Euripides is by far the most unconventional, frequently challenging the norms and conventions of the form. It is from these experiments that a play as unusual but ultimately moving as Alcestis emerges.
Unlike the more familiar stories of the Theban Oedipus cycle or the unhappy tales of the House of Atreus, Alcestis deals with a lesser known, more unusual branch of Greek mythology. Alcestis tells the story of the title character and her husband, Admetus. Due to a complicated mythical backstory, the god Apollo was forced to work as a labourer. During this humbling experience, Admetus, the human king of Thessaly, treated the diminished god with great kindness.
The god, eager to repay a human kindness, has arranged a special favour for Admetus. He is granted the chance to live a longer life than he had been allotted by the Fates, and in doing so, frustrate death. Yet, this gift comes with a cost.
The play begins with a conversation between Apollo and Death (or Thanatos in Greek). Thanatos is eager to the reclaim what Apollo has denied him: someone now has to die in Admetus’ place. Admetus’ father refuses to do so, and so Admetus’ wife, Alcestis, chooses to die in her husband’s place. Much of the early part of the play is dedicated to the household’s anticipation of Alcestis’ death. As is typical of Euripides, situations are inversed: someone still alive is being mourned.
Alcestis dies, and Admetus is wracked by grief and despair. Yet, despite this, hope may yet remain with the arrival of Heracles, Alcestis being one of a number of tragedies featuring the demigod. Here, he is characterised very differently to how he appears elsewhere in tragedy. In Alcestis, Heacles is as a dim-witted, yet kindly party boy.
Wood engraving of the death of Alcestis
Wood engraving of the death of Alcestis
Heracles is blissfully unaware that his friend Admetus is in mourning; he arrives eager to drink, party and have fun. Admetus decides to not burden his guest with the sad news. The world of the Satyr play and Tragedy now collide in a way that enhances each other. The starkness of Admetus’ grieving for his wife is set against the oblivious, fun-loving Heracles, to great effect.
Whenever Heracles does discover the truth, the demi-god realizes that he is, in fact, uniquely qualified to deal with the situation, being one of a very small group of Greek heroes who can travel to the Underworld. Eager to help his grieving friend, Heracles exits the scene to go and retrieve his friend’s wife from Hades.
What follows is one of the most moving scenes in Greek theatre. Herakles returns to the party with a veiled woman in tow. He offers her to Admetus as a new wife, but the grieving King finds this highly inappropriate. Eventually he is goaded, against his judgement in to seeing just who it is beneath the veil…
King Admetus recognises Alcestis, who has been led from the underworld by Hercules
King Admetus recognises Alcestis, who had been led from the underworld by Hercules
Considering that the play begins with a conversation between Apollo and Death, it ends on a very human emotion: the joy of reunion. For all the grandeur of the mythic backdrop and quarrelling divinities, the Alcestis is, at core, about the love between a married couple.
It is the earliest play we have by Euripides, having been staged in 438 BCE. Considering how much ancient literature is lost, it is a gift that this strange, tragi-comic fairy-tale can still resonate.