Josyph: “I swear by Apollo, the physician.” On whom did Apollo practice?
Selzer: Well, he was called upon to heal miraculously. Iapyx, in the Aeneid, was a doctor. He had asked to learn the healing arts from Apollo because he wanted to save his own father, who was ill and dying. Famously, Iapyx was summoned to the battlefield because Aeneas was struck by an arrow, and Iapyx, who was unable to extrude the arrow, prevented an infection by treating the wound with an herb. Iatros, the word for doctor in Greek, is still used all over the world. Diseases that are caused by doctors are called iatrogenic diseases.
Josyph: Did Apollo minister to other gods?
Selzer: No, gods don’t need doctors. Actually, Asclepius was the god of medicine.
Josyph: “I swear by Apollo, the physician, and Asclepius.” Isn’t this the god that Socrates owed a cock to? Those were his last words, “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius.”
Selzer: Yes, and I remember seeing on a krater, one of those ancient pots, a painting of someone holding a cock and handing it to Asclepius. There was a Temple of Asclepius in Greece which was one of the most beautiful in the country, and it was there that sick people came from all over. They were told to lie down on pallets on a great veranda, called the abaton, outside of the temple. The priests would walk in bearing bowls of fire, and the patients were commanded to sleep. There were serpents—a species of large yellowish snake—that were given free run of the temple grounds. The patients were told that when they went to sleep in the temple they would dream, and in their dreams Asclepius would appear to them in the form of a serpent. So, that’s the way they were healed: they were healed by dreaming.
Now, science and technology—all of our medical advances—notwithstanding, I think that was a superior way to be healed—by a whole lot—than by going in and having, say, open heart surgery. The Greeks healed by dreaming! We’ve never reached those heights in medicine since. There are many testimonials by patients, carved into the stellae, these stone pillars, attributing their cures to this experience of being touched by the serpents in their dreams.
Josyph: The serpent in the Bible represents evil.
Selzer: Yes, but this is a good serpent. Finally the snake got the good role.
Josyph: Is there a lesson behind that dreaming business?
Selzer: There are great truths in it, frankly. Because the Greeks were not so entrenched in the Western scientific method that has hampered us, they were more open to the idea of mind-body unity, and they used it in healing.
Josyph: And by implication the individual’s ability to call upon the deeper forces of Nature?
Selzer: Yes—but of course they didn’t know that. They thought they were being healed by an act of the god. One had to propitiate this god and pray to him.
Josyph: They were right, though, weren’t they?
Selzer: They were absolutely right. There is no civilization like the ancient Greeks. That was the height of it. We’ve been going downhill ever since.
Josyph: “To reckon him who taught me this Art equally dear to me as my parents.”
Selzer: Well, you see, this is a wonderful notion of the love between teacher and pupil, and the reverence in which the teacher was held by the pupil because of this gift he was giving. The transmission of the craft, the lore, to the next generation is an act of immense generosity and love. In our society this has virtually disappeared, hasn’t it? My own teachers of surgery were not, for the most part, reverable to me—and so, in a sense, I have broken the oath already, and it makes me very sad that I was not able to revere these men.
Josyph: The piety goes further. “To share my substance with him, and relieve his necessities if required.” That’s a beautiful phrase: to share my substance with him.
Selzer: Wealth, food, clothing, shelter.
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