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A model dressed as Angitia

A model dressed as Angitia

The Romans borrowed most of their official pantheon from the Greeks–but the Roman canon of gods was large & diverse: other deities great and small sneaked in from a variety of non-Greek cultural traditions (like Charun the blue hammer-wielding Etruscan god of death or mighty Hecate, goddess of witchcraft, night, and the crossroads). Angitia was a goddess of serpents, snake-charming, magic, and healing among the Marsi, a Latin tribe who lived in the mountainous region of Italy which is today known as Abruzzo. The Marsi (whom I keep miswriting as Martians) were integrated into the original Roman alliance early on in Roman history and their language and culture was quickly subsumed by the growing republic, but Angitia survived in her original form through the long centuries of Roman hegemony. A great temple was built for her on the shores of Lake Fucinus (a large lake drained in the 19th century).

A Modern Painting of Angitia (from thaliatook.com)

A Modern Painting of Angitia (from thaliatook.com)

Although there is evidence that Angitia was originally a local goddess, the Romans found was to Hellenize her, and writers identified her as a granddaughter of the sun (and sister of the golden-eyed Cretan sorceresses Medea and Circe). Some later sources even equate her directly to Medea, who after all vanished in a serpent-drawn flying chariot after poisoning her children with Jason and Jason’s younger trophy wife.

Medea--Image from an Ancient Greek Vase  (Lucanian red-figure krater C4th B.C)

Medea–Image from an Ancient Greek Vase (Lucanian red-figure krater C4th B.C)

In classical antiquity, serpents were strongly associated with healing magic—and this became a particular specialty of the serpent-goddess Angitia. She was reputedly able to cure sickness and poisoning—particularly snakebite. Snakes obeyed her whims and she possessed power of life and death over them by merely speaking a word. The lands which had originally been inhabited by the Marsi also acquired a magical reputation and were alleged to be the haunt of witches, sorcerers, and supernatural beings.

San Domenico stands in for Angitia at the modern festival (although he doesn't look super happy about it)

San Domenico stands in for Angitia at the modern festival (although he doesn’t look super happy about it)

Even when the Roman Empire eventually blew apart and was replaced by Christian kingdoms and city-states, the worship of Angitia did not wholly vanish. Throughout the middle ages, Abruzzo was the site of “the Feast of the Serpari” a spring festival dedicated to snakes. Serpent charmers would collect local snakes in order to perform great tricks and shows while healers assuaged pains and illnesses. A statue of San Domenico was draped with snakes and carried through the region in a great procession, after which the snakes were cooked and eaten (although in today’s festival they are replaced with snake-shape confections and sinuous breads).

In Greek mythology, Apollo was the god of healing (as well as the god of light, poetry, music, and sundry other good things).  Yet Apollo was surpassed as a healer by his son the demigod Asclepius.  Asclepius should be one of the most exalted figures in classical mythology, yet his story is ambiguous and troubling (which is perhaps a more fitting tribute to the complexity and heartache of the healers’ arts). The mother of Asclepius was a mortal woman, Coronis, who cheated on Apollo with a mortal lover. When a crow reported to Apollo that Coronis was unfaithful, the sun god disbelieved the fowl and he turned all crows from white to black and gave them discordant voices.  Yet the story rankled the god’s heart.  When he investigated the rumor and found it to be true, Apollo killed Coronis with one of his terrible arrows.  As she writhed in death agony, he slit her open to rescue the son she bore (hence Asclepius’ name means “to cut open”).  Apollo then granted crows cleverness beyond other birds to make up for his anger.

The Birth of Asclepius (print)

Like many other demigods, Asclepius was raised and tutored by the centaur Chiron, a matchless teacher.  Soon the pupil surpassed the student and it was rumored that snakes licked Asclepius’ ears and taught him secret knowledge (to the Greeks snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection).  Asclepius bore a rod wreathed with a snake, which became associated with healing.  To this day a species of pan-Mediterranean serpent, the Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus) are named for the demigod.

Asklepios (Marble, c. 160. AD, found at Asklepios sanctuary in Epidaurus. Copy of an original from IV century BC)

Being the greatest healer in the world brought wealth and fame to Asclepius, who had many successful children, each of whom was named after some aspect of the medical craft (Hygiene, Panacea, Recuperation, etc…), but his success became his undoing.  When he left Chiron, the centaur had given him two vials of blood—one from the left side and one from the right side of a gorgon. The blood from the left side was a fatal poison which caused ultimate agony (as Chiron himself experienced firsthand at his anguished destruction).  The blood from the gorgon’s left side was a miraculous elixir which could bring the dead back to life.  Asclepius began to accept gold to revive the dead and he drew the baleful attention of Hades.  Afraid that the decisions of the gods would cease to hold terror for mortal kind, Hades begged his brother to make a final end of Asclepius.  Zeus was in full agreement and he burned Asclepius to a cinder by casting a lightning bolt at him.

Asclepius Reviving Hippolytus (Claude Lorrain, 17th century, pen & ink, wash and chalk on paper)

Apollo was furious at the death of his son (and the extinction of the apex of medical art).  Not daring to strike Zeus, Apollo killed the Cyclops who has fashioned the lightning bolt, an act which led Zeus to banish Apollo to the mortal realm for a year (during which time the god designed the walls of Troy). When his term was served, Apollo joyously rejoined the other Olympians.  Different traditions interpret the story’s end differently.  In happier versions, Zeus and Hades bring Asclepius’ spirit to Olympus to act as god of healing forever.  In other versions Apollo and Zeus hang the image of Asclepius in the heavens as the constellation Opiuchus, “the Snake Bearer” both to remind humankind of the physician’s greatness and to warn them to eschew seeking immortality.

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