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EPIDAURUS, THE MOTHER OF ALL HEALING SPAS

by David Osborn, MH, L.Ac
Thursday, April 27, 2017

I just got back to Romania from another trip to Greece, to visit a friend there who was a fan of my website, and interested in Greek Medicine. I had always wanted to visit the Asclepion at Epidaurus, but I had always found one excuse or another for putting it off. But finally, becoming tired of excuses, I decided to make the Epidaurus trip and experience for myself what makes this one of the most famous and talked about tourist and archeological sites in all of Greece. You’d think that, with my interest in Greek Medicine, I would have seen Epidaurus on my first trip to Greece, and frankly, I can’t tell you why I ever managed to put it off for so long. I suppose that the same thing applies to those who live in California or Arizona, or some other state of the great American Southwest – they always mean to visit the Grand Canyon, but keep on putting it off. Now, having finally visited Epidaurus, I’m glad I finally got around to doing it.

On the bus trip down to Nafplio, which is the jumping off place for all who visit Epidaurus by bus, in the seat next to me sat a young Greek lady named Maria, who was my companion and conversationalist on the trip down. As soon as we crossed over from the isthmus of Corinth into the Peloponnesus, one of the first things to assault my senses from the roadside were the bright scarlet red poppy flowers, like the bleeding heart of Mother Nature crying out, “I love you!” to all of her children. “What do you call those flowers?” I asked, after I had finally succeeded in pointing them out to her. “Paparuna”, she said. “We call them Poppies in English,” I declared, noticing the obvious similarity between the Greek word and our own name for the flower. From my studies of Romanian herbalism, I knew these particular poppies to be Papaver rhoeas, a non-narcotic botanical relative of the opium poppy, but one that had marked sedative and nervine properties nonetheless. Take a tea of the flowers for insomnia, said the Romanian herbals.

Funny how the red poppy flowers managed to catch my attention, I mused, trying to figure out exactly what Mother Nature’s message or purpose had been in bringing them to my attention. And the best thing I could figure out from it all was that, perhaps the old physician – priests at the Asclepion at Epidaurus, which I would soon be visiting, used the flowers to lull restless pilgrim / patients to sleep, and to brighten their dreams in anticipation of a visit by the god Asclepius, to facilitate a dream healing by him. It definitely seemed that Mother Nature was using this plant to try to get my attention, and that it had something to do with my approaching visit to the Asclepion. Maria got off and into the arms of her boyfriend at Argos, a nearby village to Nafplio, and as we rolled into town, I was struck by the commanding presence of a large Acropolis-type mountain fortress, which was presided over by the statue of a medieval Greek prince, its reigning lord. I had a lot of problems finding the bus to Epidaurus at Nafplio, and my nerves got quite frazzled. I definitely needed something to calm me down.

The bus let us off right at the entrance to the Sanctuary of Asclepius at Epidaurus; the entrance fee was 12 Euros. I had gotten an early start from Athens, and had not had anything to eat at all that day as I strolled into the sanctuary; that, and my frazzled nerves combined to make me rather light headed, giving me difficulty in focusing or concentrating on the descriptive plaques that were written about the various parts of the site. The ancient amphitheater, perhaps the best preserved one in all of Greece, is what usually gets the lion’s share of the tourists’ attention. I whipped out my trusty pan flute to test its acoustics, which is one of the best ways I know of for doing this, but was promptly silenced by a security officer – I hate when that happens! I then moved on to check out the other parts of the Asclepion site, taking in the wealth of information about them that was written on the plaques. This Asclepion, I noted, definitely warrants careful investigation and study, not just from the therapeutic standpoint of ancient healing practices, but also from a religious perspective as well, for the mystery religions that were practiced there.

And when I finally arrived at the portal of the Temple of the Egyptian Gods, which was dedicated to Imhotep, the Egyptian god of medicine, who was Asclepius’ predecessor, growing amidst the ruins, as if waiting especially for my arrival, was a stand of red poppy flowers. I picked a couple of the flowers and started to munch on their petals. The Romanian herbals were right – they had a definite calming effect on my frazzled nerves, and I felt a lot better. I then strolled up to the site of the ancient Abaton, or incubation chamber in which the pilgrim / patients laid down to have their healing dream visitations from Asclepius, and was reminded again by this dream therapy approach to healing that the red poppy flowers I had just munched on could have been very serviceable in getting the pilgrim / patients to sleep deeply and soundly, so that their healing and restful rejuvenation would have been more complete. After exiting the Asclepion site, I was picked up by the bus and taken to what would be my hotel for the night – the Hotel Avaton (=Abaton), which was right outside the entrance driveway that took one to the site.

“We specialize in giving our guests the best dreams possible!” said Hotel Avaton’s owner and proprietor in greeting me at the reception desk, which was not only a great sales pitch for the hotel, but also an obvious double entendre and reference to the patron deity of the nearby Asclepion. After being shown my room and putting my baggage there, I promptly paid him for the night, which kind of surprised him. On hindsight, I probably should have waited until my departure to pay him because, after our initial conversation he split and made himself totally unavailable, which was quite upsetting to me, since I am definitely the type of person who likes to ply people with all kinds of questions. But as it was, I did manage to ask him about a few things, like about a good place to eat an early dinner – the taverna across the street – and about the all-important poppy flowers.

“Where are the Paparuna flowers?” I asked, after a cursory glance at the surrounding fields failed to reveal their presence. “The Paparune were blooming profusely all over just a couple of weeks ago, but now they’re on their way out,” he replied. It was around the twentieth of April, so please keep this in mind if you plan to avail yourself of the poppy flowers while visiting the Asclepion. Nevertheless, the hotel’s owner did manage to tell me in a general sense where I might be able to find some; and part of where he pointed lay in the direction of the Asclepion. I had only picked a couple of poppy flowers at the Temple of the Egyptian Gods, and I had now almost run out of petals. Where was I going to replenish my stash of what I had decided was to be my Eucharistic sacrament and offering to Asclepius before I retired to have my healing dream in the Avaton that evening? I quickly formulated a battle plan: I would walk the entry road towards the Asclepion, paying the 12 Euro admission fee if I hadn’t found enough of the flowers by then, going right to their divine source. But if I managed to collect enough of the blossoms before reaching the gate of the Asclepion, I could save myself the money.

So, I set off walking towards the Asclepion, admiring the view and the incredibly majestic natural setting of Epidaurus as I went. I imagined that I was a pilgrim to the site in Roman times, or in some bygone era, fervently offering my prayers for healing to the god Asclepios as I went; perhaps I had to be taken there in a horse and wagon, or some other ancient form of conveyance if I was unable to take myself on foot. What stood out the most of the local flora were undoubtedly the incredible variety and profusion of thistles – until the Paparuna flowers appeared, calling me passionately with their bright red and deep scarlet hues. And I managed to pick quite a few of them, more than sufficient to meet my needs, before I got to the Asclepion gate. It seemed like the Asclepion had pretty much closed for the day by mid-afternoon, when I got there, but thankfully, the refreshment stand was still open. I had availed myself of a Spanakopita or Greek spinach pie earlier; now it was time to slake my thirst with a glass of their freshly squeezed orange juice.

After passing the time in a rather vexing argument about the pros and cons of astrology with a local taxi driver while enjoying my orange juice, I started walking back towards the Hotel Avaton. About midway through my walk back, a light drizzle started, which got my jacket a bit wet. I consoled myself with the anticipation of finally being able to sit down to eat a fitting and proper meal at the taverna across the street from the hotel. I finally arrived there, and none too soon, as the initial drizzle had by then turned into a rainfall that was considerably heavier. The sheltering trellises welcomed me as my refuge, and I went into the restaurant and taverna of the Hotel Alkion. I was greeted warmly by the restaurant’s host, Mr. Iannis (John) Gavriilidis. He gave me a menu and I took my seat in the back, by the window, gazing out on the highway and the magnificent local countryside. When visiting Greece, the Peloponnesus is about as “country” as you can get, and the nature here grows in such wild profusion that you wouldn’t be surprised to see the god Pan and his fellow satyrs prancing through the glen with their cloven hoofs.

I started out with a large bottle of the local sparkling mineral water and a plate of tzatziki (Greek yogurt – cucumber dip), supplemented by bread and olive oil, as well as some local olives. I inquired about the distinctive olives and their oil; the olives were rather dry and shriveled, but they had an exquisite flavor, with a subtly sweet and woodsy aftertaste, and the olive oil that was pressed from them, which was equally distinctive. The olives, Iannis told me, were Manaki olives, which were local to the area; the Manaki olive oil, which was pressed from them, was one of the top olive oils that Greece produced, and carefully inspected and protected for its quality and purity by the Greek government. Not only was the olive oil distinctively yellow in color, having virtually no greenish tint to it; it was also incredibly sweet and free of any harsh or bitter aftertaste, reminding me of the Sabine olive oil that Galen wrote about in his treatise on Hygiene, which he said was the only variety he used for making his massage oils.

The surprising thing about the tzatziki was that it was literally loaded to the gills with raw garlic. When I remarked about this to him, he promptly pointed out to me how good garlic was for the heart, circulation and blood pressure. On this I could not disagree, and also pointed out that the heating nature of the garlic counterbalanced the cold, wet nature of the yogurt; he responded by saying, “Balance is good, right?” But out of politeness, I merely nodded, refraining from telling him that it was a case of over-balance, or overkill, with the garlic. I hoped that the excessive heat of the garlic would not keep me up that night and disturb what I hoped would be a healing dream. I kind of wondered if Iannis had not been tipped off by the owner of the Hotel Avaton that there was a “health nut” in town and Iannis had not responded accordingly, by loading the tzatziki to the gills with garlic, especially for me. After all, it was the off season touristically speaking, and I can understand an eagerness to curry favor at such times.

Next came the lamb chops and the bitter greens, which were steamed. By this time in my stay in Greece, I had grown a bit tired of the obligatory Greek salad, and wanted to have something different. I doused the bitter greens with the customary lemon juice and olive oil; Iannis told me that he himself had collected the greens in the mountains, and that they were called Razikiya. Subsequent research and inquiry showed me that these Razikiya greens were none other than Dandelion greens, which are also called Taraxako in Greek herb stores in Athens; this is probably why the botanical name for Dandelion is Taraxacum officinale. Dandelion greens seem to be the generic, all-time favorite bitter greens of health enthusiasts in Greece, and it’s an excellent choice where healthy vegetables are concerned; Dandelion cleanses the liver, detoxifies the blood, strengthens the stomach and digestion, and has a mild diuretic effect, improving fluid metabolism throughout the body. I heartily recommend them.

I took another look at the menu at the taverna, but decided not to order anything more. I then retreated back to the Hotel Avaton to start the incubation process, to get right with the god of medicine and prepare for my healing dream. Fully sated from my early dinner, I took a brief nap under the covers. Then I read a bit. It was late April, but it was unseasonably cold still – alas, anomalies like this are an all too frequent casualty of climate change. Feeling the chill, I tried to turn on the radiator to get some heat, but to no avail – the whole heating system had been turned off. After all, it was no longer winter – and besides, it was also the off season for tourism, and I was only a tourist traveling on a budget. Sometimes I think that Greece is so incredibly blessed with great tourist sites that the Greeks kind of take it all for granted with a “this is it – take it or leave it” attitude. But still, the sun was going down and it was getting colder by the minute. I had to start getting more resourceful if I was going to beat the cold.

As the evening twilight darkened, I decided to leave my room and see if the proprietor had returned to man the front desk – no luck there; the lights were on, the front door was open, but there was no one there. I saw that there was one other room besides my own in which the lights were on – so, I was not the only guest, as I had presumed. I knocked on the front door and there to greet me was a tall, slender middle aged European man, probably German. I asked him if he had discovered the secret to the radiators and turning the heat on, but no luck – he hadn’t. I saw his partner there on one of the beds, wrapped up from head to toe in a bunch of towels as if she were a caterpillar wrapped up in her cocoon. She was in her chrysalis, waiting to emerge into the light of the rising sun the following morning as a beautiful butterfly. I felt like waving my hands over her in some magical gestures, intoning over her the words: “Now incubate!” I knew that I too had to return to my own room and follow suit.

On the way back to my room, I hit on a bright idea: Since the other rooms all had their keys in them, and were open, I could go into a neighboring room to raid it for extra quilts and blankets to keep me warm that night, which I promptly did. Turning the lights down low, I wrapped myself up in blankets and sat in meditation, trying to get centered, trying to enter my own personal healing space and vibe. After getting thoroughly immersed in this meditative state, I then reached out to the night table beside my bed, where I had placed the poppy flowers I had gathered that afternoon. Eating and chewing them petal by petal, I stopped at about six petals or so, feeling their calming effects, but not wanting to overdose or get too groggy. My aura was brightened, and so would be my dreams, I hoped, especially by the arrival of the god Asclepius. I then lay down in my bed, wrapped in multiple blankets, and drifted off into dreamland; the poppy flowers had made it easy to relax and sink ever more deeply into sleep. Sure, there was the noise of the occasional car speeding down the highway outside our hotel – a minor annoyance that ancient visitors to the Asclepion never had to deal with, I am sure – but it did not touch me or disturb my peaceful composure.

My dreams had been brightened, and my aura jazzed a bit in a subtle way by ingesting the poppy petals, but alas – no visit from Asclepius came that night. Or at least none that I was aware of; maybe the dude works behind the scenes with more subtle healing ways than we are aware of. Or maybe the poppy petals are a sedative that also has a dulling effect on the mind and consciousness, something like Valerian root, which made me oblivious to any visit by Asclepius, even if it had happened. Maybe what could be said about those poppy petals was that they “robbed you of the vision”, which is what Chief Sitting Bull said about the pernicious fire water. At any rate, whatever had happened that night, there was apparently no miraculous healing vision of Asclepius. I woke up kind of disappointed, but nevertheless grateful that I had finally visited Epidaurus and its Asclepion. Many tourist guidebooks comment on the remarkable natural grandeur of the site, but I feel that it is much more than that; I believe that the Asclepion at Epidaurus is actually a vortex site for spiritual energy, much like Sedona or Mount Shasta in the USA. I got an early start walking back towards Nafplio in the early morning twilight, until I was given a lift into town by a friendly Greek farmer in his pickup truck. I caught the first bus back to Athens.

As the Greeks say, Geia Sou! (Health to you!)

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