Ancient Epidaurus – The Complete Health Sanctuary With Entertainment!

Epidaurus, was a small city in ancient Greece, known for two major monuments – Sanctuary or Temple of Asclepius and The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus. The highlight for me is the theatre. Beautiful!

The Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus

We spent most of the time here at the theatre. It is one of the best well-preserved monuments – and it’s actually still being used for concerts etc. It was originally built in 330-20 BC and was dedicated to ancient Greek dramas.

The excavations of the theatre site started in 1881. In 1938, Sophocles’ ‘Electra’, a Greek tragedy, was performed here – first one since ancient times. In 1954, the Athens and Epidaurus Festival started and since then, every summer, the ancient theatre is used to host plays and other performances. Famous actors and plays performed here in the past include Kevin Spacey in Richard III, Ethan Hawke in The Winter’s Tale, and Dame Helen Mirren in Phèdre.  

Engineering Marvel

The theatre has an exceptional acoustics setting – at specific spots at the open-air stage below, whatever whisper or sound you make will be perfectly audible to all sitting on the 55 rows of seats. We tried it! If you want to test that theory – suggest to go in the quiet months and probably towards the end of the day – there is less tourist crowd. The stone steps, the distance between the rows of seats, the good quality marble, the overall design – all create the ‘virtual pitch’ – enhancing the clarity and quality of sound and eliminating the background noises even murmurs from the audience.

Attend a Show!

A good way to enjoy the theatre is to attend a performance during the annual summer Festival of Epidaurus (between June and August).  The theatre can seat 14,000 people.

You can check out the 2020 programme, (once announced) via this link.

I am standing where they used to perform Greek tragedies and comedies etc in the ancient Greek times... And there are still performances conducted here in the summer months. It's like a dream to be here....

Sanctuary of Asclepius

As per the ancient Greek mythology, Asclepius (or Asklepios was the God of Medicine and the son of Apollo. Read more about Apollo in my post on Temple of Apollo in Ancient Corinth here.

Tragic Beginning

Asclepius’s mother was a mortal – Koronis. There were many different versions of what happened to Koronis and Asclepius. One version was that Koronis abandoned Asclepius near Epidaurus because she was ashamed of his illegitimacy, another said that Koronis was killed by Apollo. That one version was very tragic, it was said that Koronis was pregnant with Asclepius at the time, when she fell in love and married a mortal man. Apollo got really mad and killed Koronis and her husband, and he removed Asclepius from his mother’s womb (some refer to this as the first caesarean – so gory). Anyway – yeah don’t particularly like any of the versions. Anyway, the name Asclepius (Asklepios) means “to cut open”, or so they say. Although it doesn’t make sense to name your son based on a very traumatic event, that you are responsible for – but that’s what they say… 

My very own version of the Rod of Asclepius

Doctor Who?

Anyway, Apollo got Asclepius raised by Chiron, an old centaur (half man, half horse), who was famous for his skills in medicine. Chiron taught Asclepius the art of healing and the secrets of the medicinal properties of plants and herbs. Asclepius became a great physician and surgeon. He was later known as the God of Medicine. It was said that the goddess Athena gave Asclepius the gift of Medusa’s blood. It was said that the blood from the veins on the right side can be used for healing and raising the dead (left side will ‘kill ya’ – ‘yin and yang’ that kind of thing). Asclepius descendants followed his footsteps and continued the art of medicine and healing; they were known as the Asclepiads.

House of Slytherin

Legend says that when Asclepius a boy, he went out walking when he came across a snake (or serpent). For whatever reason, the snake taught him some secret healing knowledge. Snakes symbolised wisdom, education and medicine in ancient Greece – so not always the scary venomous creature that everyone fears today. Anyway – Asclepius then decided to adopt a snake wrapped around a rod for his symbol. So you will often see in Greek art, Asclepius depicted with a chest bared robe carrying a staff with a snake wrapped around it – ‘the Rod of Asclepius’. Today – you can see many organisations using the staff and serpent (or snake) as their logo. 

P.S. There is a Mediterranean snake known as the Aesculapian snake – for real. 

Checkout the World Health Organisation (WHO) logo below (source: WHO website)

Tragic End

Zeus felt threatened by Asclepius – as mortals started to turn to the ‘doctor’ to understand what is making them sick and get treatment. He saw Asclepius’s medical skills as a threat that will divide humans and the gods. Even Hades, Zeus’s brother who was God of the Underworld started complaining that he is getting lesser numbers than usual in his realm. Zeus also had concerns that Asclepius is causing a bit of imbalance as there were too many people living – so the population balance is disrupted. Yes – lots of politics and drama…

So Zeus killed Asclepius with one of his thunderbolts to ensure that the ‘power of healing’ is not misused if it falls into the wrong hands. Yeah, right! 

Asclepions/Healing Sanctuaries

It didn’t matter that he died, Asclepis became a living god. People started dedicating sanctuaries or Asclepions to him at various sites in Ancient Greece. These were basically the first hospitals of the ancient world, with facilities like library, baths, sports, accommodation, hospital and theatre. Sounds like a health spa retreat, doesn’t it? But of course, it wasn’t – people here come for everything from headaches and insomnia, to kidney stones, gout, tumours, blindness, and physical injuries.

The sanctuary of Asclepius in Epidaurus, was the main base that started a network of other sanctuaries around major cities in Ancient Greece. The priests or physicians attending the sanctuaries were part of the first organised priesthood (medical Brotherhood) – they travelled far to serve kings when called upon.

The priests practised spiritual healing – which also included cleansing the body inside and outside, putting patients through a few days cleansing diet even. (Today we would call that ‘detoxing’ – and I am so bad at it.. and people have been doing this since forever!).

Just like hospitals today, these ‘sanctuaries’ charge for their medical services. Patients get charged healing fees that then got deposited with the temple priests. The medical knowledge and teaching are kept private within the institutions, creating a demand for these first and only trained physicians.

Cool fact – Hippocrates’s father was a physician priest in one of the Asclepions – and that was also where Hippocrates got his first practical experience in curing sick people. Hippocrates was the Father of Medicine.

Archaeological Museum of Epidaurus

There is a small museum close to the theatre which housed the statue of Asclepius, ancient medical equipment, and parts of the Asclepius and Artemis temple. 

Beautiful and Quiet

It does feel like a sanctuary – not many people when we there, so it was fairly quiet. And the weather around end January/early February is nice and pleasant. I can imagine though, in Ancient times, this area is busy with patients etc – so probably not all that quiet back then. Epidaurus is a lovely place and is a do-able day trip combined with Mycenae and Ancient Corinth.

Check out my other posts on our Greek adventure

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.