A healing odyssey

In ancient Greece the quest for a cure was a central driver of pilgrimage activity. At the heart of this was Asklepios, the god of healing and son of Apollo. Both shared the epithet, ‘paean’ (the healer), a reference to a healing deity which can be traced back to the much earlier Mycenaean culture and which is referenced in Homer’s Iliad.

Sanctuaries dedicated to Asklepios, could be found in many towns and cities on the Greek mainland and as medicine developed, the number of asklepieia increased. One notable site was founded on the island of Kos in the southern Aegean. Although there is no evidence that medicine was practiced at the asklepieion itself, Kos came to notable for its association with the physician Hippocrates, whose name lives on through the eponymous oath, historically taken by physicians entering the profession. Asklepios had five daughters (including Hygenieia, goddess of health and cleanliness, and Panacea, goddess of universal remedy) and along with Apollo, these pagan deities were mentioned in the opening passage of the Hippocratic oath – “I swear by Apollo the Healer, by Asklepios, by Hygenieia, by Panacea, and by all the god and goddesses, making them witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgement, this oath and this indenture.”

The healing cult of Asklepios endured for almost a millennium, and the ‘Rod of Asklepios’, symbol, depicting a snake wound around a rod or staff, remains in use today, featuring at the centre of the World Health Organisation (WHO) logo. The miracle of healing which drew pilgrims to Epidavrus, Kos, and elsewhere gives us a clue one of the factors that still drives pilgrimage today. Namely the impulse to look beyond the boundaries of our immediate community in the hope of resolving some of the most fundamental questions that shape our existence.  

Travelling to pilgrimage sites often involved a journey by sea and the pilgrimage season coincided with the sailing season, which notably began when the Pleiades became visible on the horizon at dawn. As this 2019 sailing season begins, TECTONA – a charity based in Plymouth which uses sailing as a tool to help people recover their mental health, is hoping to raise the support it needs to continue its great work. With a fair west wind and some help they can raise the funds they need from the National Lottery – just click here to support their bid. (It costs nothing and it’s worth a lot.)

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