The Theater at Epidauros
Yesterday was our anniversary and our last full day in Nafplio. Today we are off to Athens for two days, where we hope to see Aristotle’s Lyceum, which has only recently opened, and the National Archaeological Museum. On Saturday, we took our last excursion in the Peloponnese, this time to Epidauros which has the largest and best preserved Greek theater. Apparently, it is so well-preserved because it was covered over by dirt and debris and so no one knew it was there to dismantle it and use the stones for fortresses and the like.
Plays are still performed at this theater, but alas, the first one of this season isn’t until next week, so we just had to imagine it. This theater is known for its acoustics — you can stand in the middle of the orchestra (the circle in front of the stage, which I think was where the chorus stood and whose name is awfully close to the muse of dance–Orchesis, so perhaps it was a place for dancers, too? You can tell it’s the end of the trip because my blogging has reached the level of speculation. No — I couldn’t help myself, I looked it up. Indeed, it does come from the Greek word to dance), and speak at a normal level and you can be heard up in the cheap seats. One guy stood down there and snapped his fingers and you could hear him clear as day.
The cult of Apollo was there originally, but Epidauros is more associated with Asclepius today, probably because most of the remains are around the healing arts that Epidauros was famous for. There are a couple buildings that seem to have been places where patients stayed, were treated, and could be separated to quarantine infections. It seems that this healing tradition that centers around the cult of Asclepius came around the Archaic period. Like many Greek myths, there are conflicting stories around Asclepius. Homer considers him fully mortal and a skilled physician. He and his sons fight with the Greeks against the Trojans. But later, in the 6th c. BCE, perhaps during the time that his cult gained ascendancy at Epidauros, he is considered the son of Apollo (Apollo is also associated with healing–his knowledge of how to bring a plague to the Greeks during the Trojan war reminds us of Aristotle’s claim that the doctor knows how to heal and to bring disease, interestingly, against the conclusion of Republic I, where Socrates and Thrasymachus seem to conclude that the doctor fails to be a doctor when she fails to heal, which further suggests, as you can imagine Plato would, that the healing arts, like all other arts, still need the knowledge of the good in order to be good for human beings) and of Coronis. Coronis had an affair with a mortal while pregnant with Asclepius and Artemis, Apollo’s sister, took revenge for (or against? who knows) Apollo, by killing the lovers. Apollo rescues Asclepius from his mother’s womb and gives him to the one Centaur who seems to have overcome his beast-like nature, Chiron (incidentally, also the tutor of Achilles who is sought to help heal the plague Apollo sent on the Greeks). Chiron teaches Aeschylus the art of medicine.
The figures of Asclepius and Chiron, the true knowers of the healing arts, both seem to occupy these liminal spaces between mortal and immortal, beast and god, which makes their relationship to health and life particularly interesting, as if they have some insight because because they are in the in-between. At the end of Plato’s Phaedo, in the death scene of Socrates, Socrates tells Crito that they owe a cock to Asclepius, the traditional votive offering that is given when one is healed. Many people over the centuries have taken this to mean that philosophy is preparing for death and the disease that is cured is mortal life. But if Asclepius occupies this border between mortality and immortality, and healing occurs at the border between life and death, is it possible that the Phaedo is suggesting something else? Another version of this story causes us to wonder even more: in it, Coronis survives but leaves Asclepius at Epidauros on the mountain where it is raised by a she-goat and protected by a dog (as in this sculpture depicting this scene). In this version, Asclepius comes to learn to heal from animals! In both versions, Asclepius becomes capable of raising the dead! Asclepius thus seems to call us to question what mortality and immortality, health and disease, human and animal are. I’d like to think more about what the implications of this liminal position of Asclepius might be for understanding Socrates’ final words. See what’s left of the Temple of Asclepius in the last picture above.
Epidauros became a place for those seeking health just as Delphi had become a place for those seeking wisdom about what to do. Both sites drew international visitors. Both sites also had the expectation of the offering for the cure or the knowledge that the plaintiff sought. At Epidauros, there were warnings of what curse might come to you if you did not bring the offering. Also as at Delphi and other sacred sites, there is a place for athletic contests (see pic of stadium – second to last one above) as well as for Dionysius with the theater. Is there perhaps an answer to Nietzsche’s concern that Socrates was too focused on wisdom, on self-knowledge, on knowledge that eventually leads him to embrace and accept death, in finding the Dionysian associated with Asclepius? Is there in fact something precisely ecstatic in the Dionysian that might bring health?
Once again, visiting the archaeological site here in Greece led to more and better questions for thinking about the ancient philosophical texts I love and think about. We spent the rest of Saturday at the beach in Tolo. It was the busiest beach we’ve visited thus far. Then we came back and went to a concert on the Palamidi with our new Greek friends. The concert was of a Danish choral group singing Bach. It was a perfect place for such music. Indeed, goes to show how the Greeks seem to know how to match their muses to the geographical and architectural spaces.
I have really enjoyed following your journey through Greece. Thank you!