June 9, Epidaurus

HOLISTIC HEALING IN ANCIENT GREECE

I’m in the Peloponnese for three days, the mountainous southern mainland containing legendary cities like Sparta, Corinth, Olympia, and Argos.

We drove up and around on steep, winding roads, finally arriving at Epidaurus. I was there to see the gorgeous, almost completely preserved 4th-century BCE theatre. But the site offers so much more.

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The theatre was part of an enormous, internationally-known healing complex, complete with dormitories, athletic arena, clinics, hotel, and spiritual centers. Patients were expected to participate in their own healing in a number of ways: exposure to art, music, and theatre; playing sports, especially track & field; and (after plenty of preparation) sleeping in one of the holy places, and then reporting the advice of Asklepios, god of healing, which was revealed in dreams or images.

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The psychological impact of all this must have been profound. Imagine a sick person making an arduous journey by foot or donkey for days or weeks, to an isolated mountain-top. Once there, you see grand, decorated buildings, all designed to focus the healing energy of the universe. The gods are on duty, attended by priest-physicians. You receive the wisdom of all, fully expecting a positive outcome.

Just as it was 2500 years ago, the hilltop air today was breezy and sweet, a great relief from the oppressive heat down below. The views are still extraordinary: thousands of trees, the sea visible off on the horizon, the sounds of nature in the air and underfoot.

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After 90 minutes of slowly walking and interpreting the site, we finally came to the theatre. Set gently into a small hill, it sat 13,000, to give you an idea of how big this site is. Perfect acoustics, of course. Seats, stairs, entrances, stage–virtually the entire thing is original. As my guide said, “The most famous theatre in ancient Greece is the only one that has survived intact. Almost by Providence.” It’s easy to link fact and symbolism like that when you’re here.

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Remember, the performances weren’t mere entertainment: they were part of a process designed to heal mind and body. That whole “catharsis” thing Aristotle described about classical theatre? This was its highest implementation.

Of course, you’d want the best playwrights for such important work. They had Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. These were The Who, Beatles, and Rolling Stones of the era. Or the Tom Stoppard, David Mamet, and George Bernard Shaw of the era. If any of these six had invented music or theatre.

After some time absorbing the theatre’s grandeur, we left and drove some 15 minutes west to a lesser-known site called Tiryns. This hilltop palace had been inhabited by Mycenaens, about 1,000 years before Epidaurus was built. Along with the foundation stones of the internal rooms, the external walls were neatly in place—made of stone blocks each as large as I am.

My guide and I surveyed the Argolid plain, more or less unchanged since ancient times: Argos to the left, Mycenae straight ahead, Epidaurus behind us, the sea off to the west. Legends—or history—describe how this triangle of politics and culture had been blessed and cursed by the gods for at least 5,000 years. Schoolchildren around the world still learn the stories of those gods, as did I.

Walking among them today I felt quite small and part of something quite large.

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