Sunday, December 4, 2016


Hedvig von Ehrenheim, Greek Incubation Rituals in Classical and Hellenistic Times. Kernos. Supplément, 29. Liège: Presses Universitaires de Liège, 2015. Pp. 282. ISBN 9782875620859. €35.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Balbina Bäbler, University of Goettingen (

Version at BMCR home site


The sanctuaries and rites of Asclepius have recently been the subject of several, mostly archaeological studies.1 However, such studies often have the problem that one well-documented place or case has been taken representative for the cult as a whole, and not all available sources have been taken into account. Ehrenheim's book brings together all the testimonia that describe the rites connected with incubation, that is, the literary and epigraphic evidence that she analyzes in its chronological and cultic context (pp. 16–18).

Chapter 1 ("The rites and rules", pp. 23–109) deals comprehensively with the rituals surrounding incubation like preparation, purification and payment (pp. 23–48), offerings and prayer (pp. 48–75), the appearance of the incubant (like wearing a wreath or white clothes, pp. 75–79), the setting, i.e. the dormitory (in particular, the question if incubants slept on klinai, beds of twigs or animal skins), the possibility of performing incubation for someone else (p. 96f.), and the giving of thanks (pp. 97–109). It becomes evident here that the main rites are the same as in standard Greek sacrificial rituals; many rites are probably not mentioned in inscriptions because they were so well-known, whereas the leges sacrae that were on public display prescribe parts of the ritual that were not common. The great number of local variants is noteworthy, for example abstinence from certain foods prior to the incubation at some places (pp. 29–34).

Ehrenheim convincingly cautions against the uncritical use of later sources; the rites described, e.g., by Pausanias may have been introduced only in Roman times. 2 In Aristophanes' Plutus the plot is of course fictional, but the rites described are meant to make sense to the audience. Another difficulty is the identification of dormitories. For practical reasons, a separate building is more likely than a great number of worshippers sleeping in the temple, but there is no clearly defined building type for the purpose (pp. 79–86).

Especially interesting is chapter 2 ("Making sense of the rituals", pp. 112–147): Since a survey of previous theoretical models used to explain incubation shows that they do not conform to the material (pp. 125–137), Ehrenheim proposes as a new approach the analysis of the rites themselves, which she discussed within their social framework in chapter 1. While some rites were stricter for—or even exclusive to—incubants, the majority of them were performed by the incubants together with the ordinary worshippers and well integrated within what happened at the same sanctuaries. The giving of thanks was also common among worshippers, but incubants performed it in a special manner, by the dedication of (sometimes expensive) votives and cure tablets (iamata) that were placed at the entrance of the sanctuary, where they certainly had a decisive psychological impact on the visitors, who were thus more prepared to conceive healing dreams. Those dedications enhanced the intensity of the experience (pp. 135–141, cf. above pp. 97–105). As these cults became so popular in the course of the 4th century BC, no really unusual or complicated rites are to be expected; the difference from "ordinary" worship lies mainly in the emotional setting (p. 145).

In chapter 3 ("Origins and developments", pp. 149–203) Ehrenheim convincingly shows that neither Egyptian nor Mesopotamian origins are plausible for incubation in Greece; belief in the meaning of dreams and need for healing and oracles was universal. Neither did incubation rituals conform to chthonian rites or hero worship: the incubants slept on makeshift beds, not on the earth or the tomb of a hero (at the time of widespread incubation practice, Asclepius already was a god, pp. 152–158).

Asclepius and Amphiaraus were decidedly Greek phenomena. Many of their incubation sanctuaries had started as oracle cults, a closely related phenomenon (the first reliable case of incubation is attested in Herodotus 8,134). While in Herodotus' time enquirers were mostly specially selected people, towards the end of the 5th century BC there was a move from oracular revelation towards healing, as well as from a selective towards a mass phenomenon. (pp. 158–183).

Healing via incubation is first described in the so-called iamata from Epidauros; the accounts of these miraculous healings were later edited and put on stelai in the second half of the 4th cent. BC. The earliest iamata might probably be dated back to the 450s, as the cult was already famous when it was transferred to Athens in 420/19 B.C. (pp. 169–171).

Whereas in archaic times important dreams were reportedly sent only to significant people like kings and queens (as noted in poetry; see Ehrenheim pp. 176-180), Asclepius and other healing deities and heroes offered direct contact with the god for everybody, regardless of the social status of the enquirer. This was probably one of the main reasons that allowed incubation to become a mass phenomenon.

Ehrenheim's thorough overview of healing sanctuaries in the Greek world clearly brings out that there was no single, coherent incubation ritual transferred from the center of Epidaurus to the other sanctuaries (Piraeus, Athens, Pergamon etc). While there was a common basic structure of the rites, which corresponded to the normal rituals of Greek and Roman cults (purification, prayer, making a sacrifice), there were also many local variants, sometimes obviously derived from an earlier local, indigenous cult at the same place (pp. 183–201).

Most of the healing sanctuaries persisted into Roman times (pp. 195–201); the Asclepius cult was transferred to Rome in 293 B.C. but places like Pergamon, Epidaurus and Kos remained popular; new buildings in these places were added during Imperial times. The focus of the worshippers shifted from strictly medical to generally improved well-being.

The appendix (pp. 207–237) provides a collection of all the texts discussed in the book with English translations.

The great merit of this study is its thorough and careful examination of all the written testimonia of Classical and Hellenistic times about known incubation places in the Greek world. While previous studies were often in danger of generalizing the well-documented rites of one single place or draw conclusions from Roman back to Classical times, Ehrenheim's new approach of analyzing the material within its social context illustrates the many local variations of the cult that had, however, a basic structure in common with the usual rites at sanctuaries; this common structure enabled incubation to become a mass phenomenon together with the attraction held by the possibility of direct communication with gods even for the poor.

The book is very carefully produced with no misprints and will certainly be the basis for further studies on the phenomenon.


1.   J. Riethmüller, Asklepios. Heiligtümer und Kulte (Heidelberg 2005); M. Melfi, I santuari di Asclepio in Grecia 1 (Rome 2007).
2.   A highly special case is Aelius Aristides, whose personal religiosity and immense financial means enabled him to seek constant contact with the god, p. 124; see now D. A. Russell, M. Trapp, H.-G. Nesselrath (Eds.), In Praise of Asclepius. Aelius Aristides, Selected Prose Hymns (SAPERE XIX, Tübingen 2016).

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