Saturday Art: Temples and Tradition
At the Temple of Asclepius located near Pergamon, in Turkey, a central column which is pictured here has the symbol of medicine, the snake, entwined with other decorations. We know the symbol called the caduceus as a common reference of medicine. The snake goes back even further.
The serpent and the staff appear to have been separate symbols that were combined at some point in the development of the Asclepian cult. The significance of the serpent has been interpreted in many ways; sometimes the shedding of skin and renewal is emphasized as symbolizing rejuvenation, while other assessments center on the serpent as a symbol that unites and expresses the dual nature of the work of the physician, who deals with life and death, sickness and health. The ambiguity of the serpent as a symbol, and the contradictions it is thought to represent, reflect the ambiguity of the use of drugs, which can help or harm, as reflected in the meaning of the term pharmakon, which meant “drug”, “medicine” and “poison” in ancient Greek; we know that today antidotes and vaccines are often compounded from precisely the thing that caused the poisoning or illness. Products deriving from the bodies of snakes were known to have medicinal properties in ancient times, and in ancient Greece, at least some were aware that snake venom that might be fatal if it entered the bloodstream could often be imbibed. Snake venom appears to have been ‘prescribed’ in some cases as a form of therapy.
There is also a wheel here, interestingly not part of the literature of healing in the ancient world. It is associated with healing in the ‘new world’ – the Americas. As we heard during this visit, many associations are found between the Mongolian heritage aspects of the Turkish people and traditions/symbols of the native Americans, also possibly of a Mongolian descent. Another is the Turkish evil eye charm that occurs often there, and the tribal ‘ojo de Dios’ of native American associations. . . .
The temple has several rooms that incorporate local springs, the healing rooms. It was suggested by our guide that if the person was past saving they probably wouldn’t be admitted in the first place, as the temple kept a reputation of a high rate of recoveries.
There are several temples of healing called Temple of Asclepius. They are decorated with the ancient carvings, and were dedicated to the god of healing. They were centers of all the practices of medicine of their times. Usually there are gardens, that have paths to stroll and various herbs that were used for medicinal purposes. In addition, there is usually a teaching facility, the theatre.
While they may not have cured the patient, they at least gave a source of enjoyment in their decor and in offering a retreat into somewhat pastoral views. From this temple to Asclepius, the hills offer a setting of peace and views off into history.