Fifty years after the destruction of the kingdom of Priam, there was elevated at Titanus, a city of the Peleponnesus, the first temple in honor of Esculapius. Very soon the worship of this god was spread throughout Greece, whence it passed into Asia, Africa, and Italy. Among a multitude of temples which were consecrated to him, those at
Epidaurus. in the Peleponnesus, at Pergamus, in Asia, on the island of Cos, and at Cyrene, a city of Lybia, are particularly remarkable.
In the temple at Epidaurus, there was a statue of colossal size, representing the god of Medicine under the figure of an old man seated on a throne, holding in one hand a scepter, and resting the other on the head of an enormous serpent. A dog, an emblem of vigilance, reposed at his feet. This statue, made of gold and ivory, was the work of Trasymedus. Socrates, in his last discourse with his friends, recpiested them to offer a cock, as a sacrifice for him, to Esculapius ; whence we infer that this bird was sacred to the god of Medicine.(Dialogues of Plato, the Phedon)
The priests attached to his worship were named Asclepiadae, a word which signifies descendants of Esculapias. They formed a particular caste, governed by sacred laws, like the priests of Egypt. One of their ancient laws said, " that it is not permitted to reveal sacred things, except to the elect, and strangers must be admitted to this knowledge only after having submitted to the tests of initiation."
The temples of the god of Medicine were generally very salubriously situated; sometimes on the summit of a hill, or the declivity of a mountain ; sometimes on the shore, somewhat distant from the sea, and near to a thermal spring, or fountain of living water. Groves of trees refreshed the sight of the sick, and afforded to them cool and solitarv retreats in their beautiful and spacious avenues.
The people came from all quarters on pilgrimages to these places, sacred to the god of Medicine. The sick and the convalescent found there, both agreeable and healthful diversions. The wholesome regimen to which they were subjected ; the pure and temperate air they breathed ; the faith and hope by which some of them were animated ; the miraculous cures that were testified to, all united to affect their minds agreeably, and exercise a happy influence on their constitution.
Beside these hygienic means, the Asclepiadse employed special remedies appropriate to each disease, according to the notions they then had of it. They prescribed according to circumstances, venesection, purgation, vomits, friction, sea-bathing and mineral waters ; in a word they neglected none of the therapeutical means they possessed in those times.
Knowing the great influence of the morale on the physique, these priest-doctors employed every means to control the imagination of their patients. These were not permitted to interrogate the oracle, until they were purified by abstinence, fasting, prayers and sacrifices. When all these purifications were accomplished, the consultants were introduced to receive the response of the oracle. Sometimes they were obliged to lie in the temple for one or more nights. Sometimes the god spoke in a mysterious manner, without showing himself to the eyes of the faithful ; sometimes he appeared to them under the form of a serpent, devouring the cakes on the altar ; again, he manifested his will in dreams, which were interpreted by the priests.
The patients who recovered, went to their homes blessing the divine author of their recovery, and leaving behind them testimonials of their gratitude. Those who received no beneficial nor favorable response, believing that their offerings were rejected, because insufficient, redoubled their zeal and their liberality. So that bad as well as good results added equally to the glory of the god, and the profit of his ministers.
There existed in the country about Epidaurus, and in various other localities, serpents of a yellowish-brown color, whose bite was not venomous, and which were easily tamed. The priests employed them in those supernatural performances which filled the people with astonishment and superstition. Aurelius Victor relates, "that during the year 350 of the foundation of Home, the city was ravaged by a terrible pestilence ; the Senate sent six deputies to consult the oracle of Epidaurus. After they had arrived at the temple, and were admiring the colossal statue of the god, suddenly, an enmorous serpent issued from beneath the pedestal. The sight of it impressed every mind more with veneration than terror. He moved tranquilly through the astonished crowd and entered the vase of the Romans, in the chamber of Ogulnius, the chief of the embassadors.
« The sacred reptile was piously borne away, and when the vessel of the embassadors was approaching the city of Romulus, he sprang into the waves and swam to an island in the Tiber. A temple was immediately erected to Esculapius, on that spot, and the pestilence ceased."
Many other grave historians of antiquity, report the prodigies effected by the intervention of the god of Medicine. Nevertheless, every one did not credit them, as witness the testimony of the valet to whom Aristophanes in one of his comedies, attributes the following language: " The Priests of the temple of Esculapius, after having extinguished all the lights, told us to go to sleep, adding, that if any one should hear a hissing, which indicated the arrival of the god, he should not move in the slightest manner. So we all laid down without making any noise ; but [ could not sleep, because the odor of an excellent broth, that an old woman held near me, agreeably excited my olfactories. Desiring most ardently to slide along to it, I raised my head very quietly, and saw the sacristan, who took away the cakes and figs from off the sacred tables, going the round of the altars, putting into his sack everything 'he could find. I believed that I had a right to follow his example, so I raised to go to the old woman's pot."
From History of Medicine by P.V. Renouard M.D.