Modern medicine comes down to us from Galen and Hippocrates, Greek physicians who were part of the ancient cult of Asklepios, the god of healing. According to myth, Asklepios, the son of Apollo, learned the healing arts from the centaur Chiron. He learned easily and became more skilled than his mentor, even succeeding in raising the dead. But this stirred the wrath of Hades, who complained to Zeus about the encroachment on his domain. Zeus responded by killing Asklepios. But after death Asklepios was given a place among the gods, from which, it was said, he affected even greater cures than before.
From Greece, the worship of Asklepios spread throughout the ancient world. More than four hundred temples were built from Egypt to Rome, with the most famous at Epidauros. The temples existed for one thousand years. Their disappearance coincided with the development of the healing shrines of the various saints—the most recent example being that at Lourdes.
Clearly, then, modern medical science has religious roots. Today’s surgery and pharmacology dominate a healing discipline that evolved from direct experience—usually through dreams—of the god of healing. Along with other aspects of ancient religions, the sacred practices of Asklepios were incorporated into Christianity. People began making pilgrimages to the gravesites of saints and martyrs associated with healing. As with Asklepios, the reports of healing became significantly more dramatic after the saints’ death—when, presumably, they became channels of God’s healing power.
Coincidentally, Christ’s death and resurrection bear parallels to the story of Asklepios. Jesus also raised the dead, and in John’s gospel he meets his own death after the raising of Lazarus. Afterward he ascends to heaven, taking his place with God. Then he emerges to dispense divine grace and healing.
In the absence of a gravesite for Christ, the graves of certain saints became the precincts where one could seek healing from God. As such sites proliferated and Christianity came to dominate the Mediterranean world, the temples of Asklepios yielded their place. Medieval physicians continued the medical science begun by Galen and Hippocrates and originally inspired by the Greek god of healing.
During the renaissance and the age of enlightenment, the scientific side of medicine began to grow, while the spiritual side declined. Healing was seen more and more in concrete, biological terms: illness was physiologically caused and could be remedied through medicine or surgery. By the end of the nineteenth century this became the exclusive view.
Early in the twentieth century, significant challenges to this approach began to emerge. As physicians studied certain cases more closely, they realized that some physical symptoms had emotional and psychological causes. Such cases gave impetus to Freud, Jung, and other early depth psychologists. A purely biological view of illness, they saw, was not enough—psychological and spiritual factors were also significant. With depth psychology and psychosomatic medicine, medical practice has been returning to its origins in the cult of Asklepios.(1)
According to Greek myth, Asklepios had two sons, Machaon and Podaleirios. Machaon was the first surgeon, while Podaleirios healed “invisible” ills, including those of the soul.(2) The work of Machaon has developed into today’s medical practice. That of Podaleirios was absorbed into the healing cults of the saints and has gradually died out. It has so thoroughly disappeared from our religious institutions that the quest for meaning and the religious nature of the psyche frequently turn up in the psychotherapist’s office. The loss from our churches of what Podaleirios represented is felt both inside and outside organized religion.
Depth psychology allows the forgotten side of the Greek god of healing to be recovered. Inner experiences crucial to healing become available once more. However, it offers more than a recovery of the healing of Asklepios; it opens the door for a recovery of the healing work of Jesus. Like the cult of Asklepios, Jesus’s healing reflects the profound importance of spiritual and psychological elements. But while Asklepios, and the Christian cults that followed him, focused on the divine physician or god of healing, Jesus also stressed human interaction and human feeling. He carried on aspects of the ancient traditions of the shamans, human beings with healing personalities.(3) While linked to shamanism, Jesus also prefigures depth psychology. In a sense he was the first depth psychologist, preceding Freud and Jung by nineteen hundred years.
As we have seen, the healing that Jesus practiced and tried to pass on became lost as his divinity was proclaimed. Legends grew up around him after his death—the healing cult of the proclaimed divinity—but the fully human healer disappeared. Depth psychology allows us to renew not only the ancient religious roots of the physician, but also the shamanistic style of healing—in which the psyche lives fully in the interaction between two people.
The future of the church hinges on its capacity to integrate such healing into its life. The growing numbers who journey to the psychotherapist’s office nowadays demonstrate the desire and need for this. The church’s recovery of healing in the decades ahead will go a long way in determining whether it answers Jesus’s call, or whether the task will be left to others.
You've just read an article from Steven A. Galipeau's Transforming Body and Soul: Therapeutic Wisdom in the Gospel Healing Stories
Steven Galipeau is a Jungian analyst in private practice in Calabasas, California and President and Executive Director of Coldwater Counseling Center in Studio City. A member of the C.G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles, he teaches in the analyst training program and lectures regularly in public programs on a wide variety of topics related to Jungian psychology. In addition to Transforming Body & Soul, Steve is also the author of The Journey of Luke Skywalker: An Analysis of Modern Myth and Symbol.
1. C.A. Meier, Ancient Incubation and Modern Psychotherapy.
2. C. Kerenyi, Asklepios: Archetypal Image of the Physician’s Existence.
3. John A. Sanford, Healing and Wholeness. Chapter 3, “The Divine Physician,” and Chapter 4, “The Ecstatic Healer,” amplify some of the differences between the inner divine healer and the shamanistic healer.
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