Health & Healing

Aloha, buona serra from Rome,

I’d be remiss if I didn’t learn a little about Italian & Greek practices in health and healing.

I’ve already mentioned my visit to Epidaurus, which was built in the 3rd century BC. The highlight for most is the huge amphitheater with perfect acoustics, but I was more interested in the history of this place as a one for healing, and the attitudes and beliefs about healing in ancient times.

Asclepius was the son of a mortal mother and the god Apollo who inherited healing powers from the blood of a Gorgon. Asclepius was said to have been such a good doctor that he could bring people back from the dead; this ticked off Zeus for a while, but Asclepius proved himself worthy over time and Zeus eventually declared him to be a god. He had several daughters, including Panacea and Hygeia.

He was adopted by Roman culture, the spelling of his name changed only slightly.  The Roman goddess Minerva (Greek Athena) oversees wisdom, wars, schools and commerce, but another form, Minerva Medica is the goddess of medicine and doctors.

His healing center was at Epidaurus, meaning outside or on top of—EPI, and aura—AURA. This is an indication of the holistic sense of wellbeing and healing.  When people were ill, they were first taken into a round room, called a tholos, and made to spend the night with snakes, sort of a shock therapy; their overnight dreams would be interpreted to identify what kind of medicine or treatment would be required for healing. This is where the snakes on the staff of Asclepius come in. If the patient survived s/he was taken to the hospital. At Epidaurus, we saw where physicians trained and saw patients in the hospital, including old instruments and guidebooks to healing certain conditions.

A descendant of Asclepius is Hippocrates, a Greek physician who first documented the sacred responsibility to the patient and whose oath, the Hippocratic Oath, is sworn by medical doctors today.

The guide we had for four days and who took us to Epidaurus happened to be 7.5 months pregnant (although she was the smallest hapai woman I’ve ever seen). She had her first baby 3+ years ago via Caesarean—yes, they call it this even in Greece—and expects to do the same in December. As I had the opportunity to share that both of my daughter’s babies were born in my home within the last three years, we learned from Maritsa that it’s illegal in Greece to give birth at home, but in Holland, where she often vacations, there is an entire movement and developing infrastructure to support home births.

In Ephesus, there is a hospital on one side of the ancient main street and a pharmacy on the other, both symbols in use today. Good hygiene was practiced in Greece and ancient Rome and these practices seem to have been exported to other areas of southern Europe and what was called Asia Minor centuries before Christ was born.

What happened to the continuation of this knowledge? Why is Hungarian Ignać Semmelweiss (read The Cry of the Covenant), albeit posthumously, credited with the preceeding Pasteur’s germ theory with the notion that hand-washing reduce deaths due to infections among women giving birth.

I’ve already talked about the public toilets in Ephesus, Turkey. These practices, indeed early public health practices, appear to have been brought in with Romans of old. Romans introduced public baths, heated, warm, and cold, and a sewer system built in 8th century BC that preceded the Roman aqueducts by nearly 300 years. The Scholastica Baths of Ephesus that included waters of various temperatures and properties, followed by a good scrubbing and body work were further developed into a higher form, today known as Turkish baths.

My next trip will include more of Turkey and definitely a Turkish bath.

It seems that Heracles understood that disease was coming in from the harbors. Not only is he responsible for assuring that Kusadasi harbor was dredged—3 times—to prevent the spread of malaria, but also for setting up hand washing stations at the gates of Ephesus that all desiring entry were compelled to pass. They were also scanned by cootie agents for good health and if they appeared to be unwell, they were denied access or whisked away to the nearest hospital.

Such practices were talked about in Delphi and Olympia, too. The Olympic games, a tribute to Zeus and first held in 6th century BC, were all about celebrating the body and its excellence. Baths were integral to the start of the preparation of the physical competitions, which also included music and art for the holistic health of the citizens. In Delphi, there was a cleansing ritual to undergo before seeking wisdom from the Oracle. As seen in pī kai, or cleansing practices, today in Hawai‘i, there was a purification ritual that was common before accessing sacred places or engaging in meaningful activities.

One thing I noticed in Rome is that there are few obese people, although we saw more as we left Rome, in the more rural areas of Italy. This is similar in France. The average life expectancy for Italians is 78 and 84 for men and women, respectively.

There were many more chubby people in Greece, though not so many on Santorini which I attribute to the many steep hills that are being climbed daily. The life expectancy for Greeks is 77 & 82 for men and women.

Both have national health care programs, although Greece spends more per capita on health care, and has higher chronic disease rates.

An interesting about traveling at this particular time is that group travel has been impelled to be proactive about educating tourists to prevent swine flu and other heebie jeebies from spreading. On the cruise ship and on group tours, guides in Greece are now required to mention H1N1 and advise people to sneeze into their elbows (I heard many jokes by hearty people about whether one could actually reach one’s mouth with one’s elbow), wash hands frequently, use the many new alcohol sterilizers in group dining places, and to confine oneself if flu symptoms arise.

Finally, medical students often find it helpful to have some working knowledge of Latin to help them with the medical names, but it should be noted that most medical words are actually Greek in origin: psychology, gynecology, pharmacy, epiderm, ectoderm, hygiene, etc., etc., etc.

One thought on “Health & Healing”

  1. Wow, it seems you have excellent, knowledgeable guides! I bet you’re reading voluminously too. Love how you’re getting so much out of your travels.

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