Peloponnesian Eyrie – The Temple of Apollo Epikourios

Once it a while, I come across a site that strikes me as so magnificent and mysterious that I wonder why I didn’t know about it before, why it’s not spoken of by everyone with an inclination to ancient history.

If you’ve been reading my blogs you’ll know that I love to travel and have done so quite a bit in Greece. A few years ago, I was touring some of the major sites with friends and family – Delphi, Mycenae, Olympia etc. The biggies.

After Olympia, we drove back into the mountains of the Peloponnese. It was hot and bright, and the cicadas were whirring louder than I had ever heard before. As I was navigating a particularly treacherous series of mountain switchbacks, my father-in-law said that we should go south to Bassae.

Temple of Bassae in 1966 (McGill University archive)

“Bassae?” I said. “What’s there?”

“Some ruins,” he answered. “There is a temple of Apollo Epikourios.”

“Apollo Epi-what?” I half-answered, too focussed on the road to pronounce this new, strange word.

Admittedly my first thought was of Apicius and food – no matter that the Roman gourmet was about a six hundred or so years off. I was also starving at that moment!

So we turned south, into the teeth of even larger mountains.

Apollo Epikourios means ‘Apollo the Succourer’ or ‘Apollo the Helper’.

Plan of Bassae temple (Wikimedia Commons)

The epithet refers to Apollo’s role as a god of healing.

In the mid-seventh century B.C., Spartan warriors and plague came to the people of Phigaleia who were living in these high mountains. Many offerings in the form of weapons were found on site indicating that originally, in this place, Apollo was worshipped as a martial god. However, after escaping Spartan aggression and the plague of later years, Apollo became a ‘succourer’ or helper to the Phigalians.

In gratitude, the Phigalians commissioned the architect Ictinus to build the temple at Bassae.

This was no small thing. In Classical Greece, Ictinus was an A-list architect – he was one of the architects of the Parthenon and the great Temple of Mysteries at Eleusis.

Apollo

In the second century A.D. Pausanias visited Bassae and the temple there:

Phigalia is surrounded by mountains, on the left by Mount Cotilius, while on the right it is sheltered by Mount Elaius. Mount Cotilius is distant about forty furlongs from the city: on it is a place called Bassae, and the temple of Apollo the Succourer, built of stone, roof and all. Of all the temples in the Peloponnese, next to the one at Tegea, this may be placed first for the beauty of the stone and the symmetry of its proportions. Apollo got the name of Succourer for the succour he gave in time of plague, just as at Athens he received the surname of Averter of Evil for delivering Athens also from the plague. It was at the time of the war between the Peloponnesians and the Athenians that he delivered the Phigalians also, and at no other time: This is proved by his two surnames, which mean much the same thing, as well by the fact that Ictinus, the architect of the temple at Phigalia, was a contemporary of Pericles, and built for the Athenians the Parthenon, as it is called.” (Pausanias)

When most tourists visit the Peloponnese today, they focus on sites like Mycenae, Epidaurus, ancient Corinth, and of course, Olympia. Why wouldn’t folks head for these places? They are magnificent sites that are all worth visiting – more than once.

However, if you are more adventurous and enjoy heading off the beaten path, the Peloponnese holds some hidden treasures that are not always prominently featured in guidebooks or on tour itineraries.

Bassae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of those special, unsung places. Academics know about it but few tourists make it there. In fact, due to its remote location, it lay mostly forgotten until the early nineteenth century.

Our car whined up the steep mountain, higher and higher, the sunlight blinding. I felt like Icarus for a moment, driving up and up.

We finally levelled out and our eyes were met by a giant, white…tent.

The ‘tent’ covering the temple at Bassae

“This is weird,” I remembered saying. I had no idea what lay beneath the white, sail barge structure.

We paid our minimal entry fee to the lady in the wooden site booth; she sat smoking and sipping an hours-old café frappé.

The mountain top was rocky and desolate, patched with hardy olive trees and shrubs. We made our way up the rocky path to the tent and stepped beneath the awning.

I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Doric columns in front of temple wall

Up there, at what felt like the top of the world, was a magnificent stone temple, one of the most complete temples I had ever seen. The stone was cracked in many places, pounded by the elements for centuries in its eyrie.

But it was intact, columns and walls, foundations. A few stray rays of sunlight made their way into the shaded sanctum to illuminate the cella. We were the only visitors on site, and the main sense that invaded my person was pure awe.

Steps leading up to temple platform

Bassae’s Temple of Apollo is a particularly important specimen, and not just because of the architect. It contained the earliest known example of a Corinthian capital which was displayed in the middle of the naos which was lined with Ionic columns. However, on the outside of the temple, the strength and support of the structure is provided by strong Doric columns, fifteen on each long side and six on the ends.

One of the things that make this temple unique is the incorporation of all three of the classical orders of columns. Also, the interior of the cella was ornamented with a series of beautifully detailed friezes of the Amazonomachy (Battle of the Amazons) and the Battle Centaurs and Lapiths.

Fanciful reconstruction of Bassae interior by Charles Cockerell (Wikimedia Commons)

You can see the Bassae Friezes at the British Museum where they are on display, far from their home at the top of that lonely mountain.

I think I was in such awed shock the first time that I didn’t quite realize what I was looking at.

Some places do that to you. The power of the place and setting can quite overwhelm the academic eye.

Amazonomachy – Bassae Frieze

After wandering around the temple for a time, we went back outside into the sun to look at the surrounding countryside. These were some of the highest mountains in the Peloponnese and they stretched out in all directions. It is a quiet, contemplative atmosphere.

Sunlight filtering into the cella of the temple

Outside the cicadas were louder than ever, but it is a sound I have come to associate with peace. The air was hot but dry and tinged with wild thyme that must once have been laid upon Apollo’s altar by the Phigalians.

We stood in the sun and looked to Mount Kotilon where the map indicated that there was a Temple to Aphrodite and another to Artemis Orthasia, the ‘Protector of Small Children’.

These mountains are a place for gods.

I hope, one day, to return to Bassae. I want to circle the Temple of Apollo Epikourios and to remember the Phigalians who thanked him for his aid by building him this magnificent sanctuary in the sky.

* A useful source on the temple of Apollo Epikourios is:

The Temple of Apollo Epikourios: A Journey Through Time and Space published by the Greek Ministry of Culture Committee for the Preservation of the Temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai

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Ancient Epidaurus – The Sanctuary of Asklepios

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When you enter the abode of the god

Which smells of incense, you must be pure

And thought is pure when you think with piety

This was the inscription that greeted pilgrims who passed through the propylaia, the main gate into the sanctuary of the god Asklepios at ancient Epidaurus.

Last week we looked at the world-famous ancient theatre of Epidaurus, and the marvel of artistic engineering that it was. This week, however, we will step into the quiet realm of the sanctuary of the God of Healing, a place that was famous around the ancient world for the miracles of health and healing that occurred there. DSC_0185 (1)

After our visit to the theatre, when the sun was at its most intense, we walked back down the steep stairs toward the back of the sanctuary where the small, but wonderful, site museum is located. It was time to get into the shade for a few minutes.

This museum is quite unassuming, but it has some amazing architectural and everyday artifacts.

The vestibule contains cabinets filled with oil lamps, containers and phials that were used for medicines and ointments within the sanctuary, as well as surgical implements and votive offerings.

Medical Instruments in the Epidaurus museum

Medical Instruments in the Epidaurus museum

Above the cabinets and into the main room of the museum, there are reliefs and cornices from the temple of Asklepios decorated with lion heads, acanthus, and meander designs, many of which still have the original paint on them.

However, in the first part of the museum are some plain-looking stele that are covered in inscriptions recording the remedies given at Epidaurus, and the miracles of healing at the sanctuary in ancient times. These inscriptions are where much of our knowledge of the sanctuary comes from.

Stele with accounts of healing at the sanctuary, as well as quotes of the Hymn to Apollo

Stele with accounts of healing at the sanctuary, as well as quotes of the Hymn to Apollo

We walked out of the vestibule into the slightly crowded main museum room where most of the tourists who were on site seemed to be cooling off.

But I didn’t notice the people. My eyes were drawn, once more, to the magnificent remains of the Tholos, and temple of Asklepios – ornate Corinthian capitals, cornices decorated with lion heads, and the elaborately-carved roof sections of the temple’s cella, the inner sanctum.

Remains of Temple of Asklepios

Remains of Temple of Asklepios

I stood before the statues of Athena and Asklepios that had adorned various parts of the sanctuary, and the winged Nikes that stood high above pilgrims, gazing out from their corners of the roof of the temple of Artemis, the second largest temple of the sanctuary.

I wondered if the people walking through the museum realized how beautiful the statues they were walking by actually were, the meaning they held for those coming to the sanctuary in search of help.

The Museum Interior

The Museum Interior

Once we had cooled off a bit, we gathered ourselves to head back out into the heat and head for the sanctuary of Asklepios just north of the museum and theatre.

The site was completely empty.

It seemed that most visitors headed for the theatre alone, some to the museum afterward, but none wanted to tough it out among the ruins of one of the most famous sanctuaries in the ancient world.

The Sanctuary of Asklepios from the North

The Sanctuary of Asklepios from the North

The Sanctuary of Asklepios lies on the Argolid plain, with Mt. Arachnaio and Mr. Titthion to the north. The former was said to have been a home of Zeus and Hera, and the latter, whose gentle slopes lead down to the plain, was said to have been where Asklepios was born.

To the south of the sanctuary is Mt. Kynortion, where there was a shrine to Apollo, Asklepios’ father, and farther to the south are the wooded slopes of Mt. Koryphaia, where the goddess Artemis is said to have wandered.

This is a land of myth and legend, a world of peace and healing, green and mild, dotted with springs. The sanctuary was actually called ‘the sacred grove’.

Apollo and Artemis

Apollo and Artemis

Asklepios, as a god of healing, was worshiped at Epidaurus from the 5th century B.C. to the 4th century A.D. According to archaeologist Angeliki Charitsonidou, it was the sick who turned to Asklepios, people who had lost all hope of recovery – the blind, the lame, the paralyzed, the dumb, the wounded, the sterile – all of them wanting a miracle.

But who was Asklepios?

Some believed he learned medicine from the famous centaur, Cheiron, in Thessaly. Another tale from the Homeric ages makes Asklepios a mortal man, a king of Thessaly, whose sons Machaon and Podaleirios fought in the Trojan War, and who learned medicine from their father.

Eventually, it came to be believed that Asklepios was a demi-god, born of a union between Apollo and a mortal woman. His father was also a god of healing and prophecy, both of which went hand-in-hand in the ancient world. The snake was a prophetic creature, and a creature of healing, so it is no wonder this animal came to be associated with Asklepios and medicine.

At Epidaurus, snakes were regarded as sacred, as a daemonic force used in healing at the sanctuary. These small, tame, blondish snakes were so revered that Roman emperors would send for them when in need.

Now you know where this symbol comes from!

Now you know where this symbol comes from!

The thing about Asklepios was that he was said to know the secret of death, that he had the ability to reverse it because he was born of his own mother’s death. Zeus, as king of the gods, believed that this went against the natural order, and so he killed Asklepios with a bolt of lightning.

There are no written records of medical interventions by the priests of Epidaurus in the early centuries of its existence. The healing that occurred was only through the appearance of the god himself. However, over time the priesthood of Epidaurus began to question patients about their ailments, and prescribe routines of healing or exercise that would carry out the instructions given to pilgrims by Asklepios in the all-important dreams, the enkoimesis, which they had in the abato of the sanctuary.

It is quite a feeling to walk the grounds of the sanctuary at Epidaurus, to be in a place where people believed they had been touched or aided by a god, and actual miracles had occurred and were recorded.

Faith and the Gods are a big part of ancient history, and cannot be separated from the everyday. I’ve always found that I get much more out of a site, a better connection, when I keep that in mind. You have to remove the goggles of hindsight and modern doubt to understand the ancient world and its people.

From the museum we walked past the ruins of the hospice, or the ‘Great Lodge’, a massive square building that was 76 meters on each side, two-storied, and contained rooms around four courtyards. This is where later pilgrims and visitors to the sanctuary and the games that were held in the stadium there would stay.

Map of the Sanctuary (from the site guide book)

Map of the Sanctuary (from the site guide book) – 1 is the Propylaia; 12 the Temple of Asklepios; 18 the Tholos; 20 the Temple of Artemis; 19 the Abato

Without a map of what you are looking at, it’s difficult to pick out the various structures. Most of the remains are rubble with only the foundations visible. This sanctuary was packed with buildings, and apart from a few bath houses, a palaestra (22), a gymnasium (23), a Roman odeion (24), the stadium (26) and a large stoa (7), there are some ruins that one is drawn to, notably the temples.

I’m not sure why temples, among all those other ruins, are such a draw. Perhaps it is the mystery that surrounds them? Maybe it’s the fact that they were the beating heart of ancient sanctuaries where, for centuries, the devout focussed their energies?

The sanctuary of Asklepios has several temples the largest being dedicated to the God of Healing himself, within which there stood a large chryselephantine statue of Asklepios.

There were also temples to Artemis (the second largest on-site), Aphrodite, Themis, Apollo and Asklepios of Egypt (a Roman addition), and the Epidoteio which was a shrine to the divinities Hypnos (sleep), Oneiros (Dream), and Hygeia (Health). These latter divinities were key to the healing process at Epidaurus.

The Stadium

The Stadium

As I sit at my desk writing this post on a chilly November evening, fighting my first cold of the season, I’m warmed by my memories of the sanctuary – the sunlight, the heat, the fresh air, the sight of green trees with a backdrop of mountains with the sea not far beyond.

That’s the type of place ancient Epidaurus was, and still is; a sacred escape where the mind, body, and soul could recuperate. It still feels like that, even in memory.

As the cicadas yammered on in their bucolic frenzy, and bees and butterflies wended their way among the fallen pieces of the ancient world, our feet crunched along on the gravel pathway, past the ruins of the palaestra, gymnasium, and odeion to an intersection in the sacred precinct of the sanctuary.

Reconstruction of the Temple of Asklepios' south side (from site guide book)

Reconstruction of the Temple of Asklepios’ south side (from site guide book)

I looked down at my map and found that I stood with the temple of Artemis to my right as I faced the ruins of what was the magnificent temple of Asklepios to the north. You can see the foundations, the steps leading up.

The image of Asclepius is, in size, half as big as the Olympian Zeus at Athens, and is made of ivory and gold. An inscription tells us that the artist was Thrasymedes, a Parian, son of Arignotus. The god is sitting on a seat grasping a staff; the other hand he is holding above the head of the serpent; there is also a figure of a dog lying by his side. On the seat are wrought in relief the exploits of Argive heroes, that of Bellerophon against the Chimaera, and Perseus, who has cut off the head of Medusa. (Pausanias on Epidaurus – from the Description of Greece; Book 2.27.2)

I wondered how many pilgrims, how many people in need had walked, limped or crawled up those steps seeking the god’s favour.

I turned to my left to see a large, flat area of worn marble that was once the great altar of Apollo where pilgrims made blood sacrifices to Apollo and Asklepios in the form of oxen or cockerels, or bloodless offerings like fruit, flowers, or money.

Remains of the Great Altar of Apollo

Remains of the Great Altar of Apollo

Standing there, you can imagine the scene – smoke wafting out of the surrounding temples with the strong smell of incense, the slow drip of blood down the sides of the great altar, the tender laying of herbs and flowers upon the white marble, all in the hopes of healing.

As people would have stood at the great altar, they would have seen one of the key structures of the sanctuary beyond it, just to the west – the Tholos.

The Tholos was a round temple that was believed to be the dwelling place of Asklepios himself. It was here that, after a ritual purification with water from the sanctuary, that pilgrims underwent some sort of religious ordeal underground in the narrow corridors of a labyrinth that lay beneath the floor of the Tholos’ cella, the inner sanctum.

The Tholos, undergoing reconstruction for the last decade

The Tholos, undergoing reconstruction for the last decade

After their ritual ordeal, pilgrims would be led to the abato, a long rectangular building to the north of the Tholos and temple of Asklepios.

The abato is where pilgrims’ souls would be tested in by away of the Enkoimesis, a curative dream that they had while spending the night in the abato.

I have to admit that on previous visits to Epidaurus, I had by-passed the abato, this crucial structure where the god is said to have visited and healed pilgrims. This time, however, I went into the remains (which have been partially restored), and stood still for a while.

Miracles happened in this place, and there are over 70 recorded inscriptions that have survived which detail some of them – mute children suddenly being able to speak, sterile women conceiving after their visit to sanctuary, a boy covered in blemishes that went away after carrying out the treatment given to him by Asklepios in a dream. There are many such stories that have survived, and probably many more than that we do not know of.

The Abato with staircase leading down

The Abato with staircase leading down

As I stood in the abato, careful not to step on any snakes that may have been hiding along the base of the walls, I reflected on the examples of healing on the posted placard. It seemed that the common thread to all the dreams that patients had was that Asklepios visited them in their dreams and, either touched them, or prescribed a treatment which subsequently worked.

Relief of Asklepios healing a dreamer

Relief of Asklepios healing a dreamer

For a moment, I had my doubts, but then I remembered where I was, and for how many thousands of years people had been coming to this sanctuary for help, and had been healed.

Sleep. Dream. Health.

When I think of those divinities who were also worshiped at Epidaurus, right alongside Asklepios, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. In fact, standing there, in that place of peace and tranquility, it seemed highly likely.

The people mentioned on the votive inscriptions – those who left vases, bronzes, statues, altars, buildings and fountains as thank offerings to the god and his sanctuary for the help they received – those people were real, as real as you or I. They confronted sickness, disease, and worry, just as we do.

Today, some people turn to their chosen god for help when they are in despair. Others turn to the medical professionals whom they hope have the skill and compassion to cure them.

Ceiling section from the Tholos

Ceiling section from the Tholos, where pilgrims underwent their religious ordeal

At ancient Epidaurus, people could get help from both gods and skilled healers, each one dependent on and respectful of the other.

As we walked back to our car, the sun now dipping orange behind the mountains to the west, I thought about how special this place was, how the voices of Epidaurus, its sanctuary, and its great theatre, will never die or fade.

Indeed, just as Asklepios was said to have done, this is a place that defies death.

As we drove away, I found myself looking forward to my next return visit, and the new things that I will discover.

Thank you for reading.

 

Here is a short video I shot on-site. The quality is not great (that hot wind!), but it will show you a couple of the ruins I talked about above from where I was standing in front of the great altar of Apollo. The columns beyond the long rectangle of the temple of Asklepios belong to the abato.

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Dancing Priests and the Month of Mars

Mars - God of War

Mars – God of War

We’re finally into the month of March and Spring is in our sights.

If we were living in ancient Rome, this would have been a very exciting time. Mars’ month, or mensis Martius, was almost entirely taken up with various celebrations to honour the Roman god of War.

The festival of Mars included the Equirria, a horse-racing festival at Rome, and the Tubilustrium, the day when the sacred war trumpets were purified. The festival of Mars also coincided with the Matronalia, the festival of Juno, mother of Mars, to whom prayers were offered. During the latter, husbands gave gifts to their wives, and female slaves were feasted by their masters.

One of the fixtures of the Festival of Mars were the dancing, or leaping, priests of Mars known as the Salii.

Artist impression of Salii

Artist impression of Salii

Throughout the festival, the Salii would process through the streets of Rome wearing military dress and armour, and stop at certain places along the way to perform ritual dances and sing their ancient hymns known as the Carmen Saliare, sung at the beginning (March) and end (October) of the military campaign season. Here is a small fragment:

Sing of him, the father of the gods! Appeal to the God of gods!

When thou thunderest, O God of light, they tremble before thee!

All gods beneath thee have heard thee thunder!

but to have acquired all that is spread out

Now the good … of Ceres … or Janus

In the Roman state religion, there were no full-time, professional priests. Most were taken from the aristocracy, including the Salii who were supposed to be patricians with both parents still living.

Artist impression of theTemple of Mars Ultor

Artist impression of theTemple of Mars Ultor

But where did the order of Salii come from?

Legend has it that Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius (715 – 673 B.C.) created them in order to protect the sacred shields of Mars, called the ancilia, which the Salii carried in their processions, and which were stored in the Temple of Mars. Dionysius of Halicarnassus relates the legend:

Among the vast number of bucklers [the ancilia] which both the Salii themselves bear and some of their servants carry suspended from rods, they say there is one that fell from heaven and was found in the palace of Numa, though no one had brought it thither and no buckler of that shape had ever before been known among the Italians; and that for both these reasons the Romans concluded that this buckler had been sent by the gods. They add that Numa, desiring that it should be honoured by being carried through the city on holy days by the most distinguished young men and that annual sacrifices should be offered to it, but at the same time being fearful both of the plot of his enemies and of its disappearance by theft, caused many other bucklers to be made resembling the one which fell from heaven, Mamurius, an artificer, having undertaken the work; so that, as a result of the perfect resemblance of the man-made imitations, the shape of the buckler sent by the gods was rendered inconspicuous and difficult to be distinguished by those who might plot to possess themselves of it.

(Dionysius of Halicarnassus; Roman Antiquities)

King Numa instituted twelve Salii to guard the sacred shields and perform the rites for Mars, and his successor, King Tullus Hostilius, is said to have instituted another twelve Salii, bringing the number to twenty-four which became the norm for generations.

Salii carrying the sacred Ancilia

Salii carrying the sacred Ancilia

It must have been quite a sight to see these patrician priests dancing through Rome’s streets, carrying the sacred shields while singing, and dancing or leaping before the crowds.

We should remember that this was not some clown-like activity. Mars, war, and the rites to honour both were extremely sacred to the Roman people. When the Salii came into a square, or stood before a temple, I can imagine a hush falling over the people of Rome as they watched the dances and listened to the ancient hymns. Or perhaps the crowd chanted and stomped their feet along with the Salii, all of them honouring the god who had helped to make Rome the superpower it had become?

This dance they perform when they carry the sacred bucklers [the ancilia] through the streets of the city in the month of March, clad in purple tunics, girt with broad belts of bronze, wearing bronze helmets on their heads, and carrying small daggers with which they strike the shields. But the dance is chiefly a matter of step; for they move gracefully, and execute with vigour and agility certain shifting convolutions, in quick and oft-recurring rhythm. (Plutarch; Numa)

Artist impression of the Salii performing the ritual dance to honour Mars

Artist impression of the Salii performing the ritual dance to honour Mars

I love learning about ancient religions not only for what they tell us about ancient cultures, but also for the uniqueness of the rites themselves, the origins and mythologies of the beliefs, and the glimpse they give us of what life was like in the ancient world.

Armed and dancing priests during the month of Mars? Who doesn’t like that?

Thank you for reading.

Ruins of the Temple of Mars Ultor

Ruins of the Temple of Mars Ultor (Mars the ‘Avenger’)

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