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Both an ancient religious group and a therapeutic belief system, the Cult of Aesculapius (called Asclepius in Greek) thrived during the 3rd and 4th century B.C. in Italy and Greece. Members were priest-healers who worshiped Aesculapius, a mythological physician who was deified in the 5th century B.C. They worked their healing art at a shrine known as an Aesculpation; the plural form being Aesculapia. The sick and lame would embark on a pilgrimage to these ancient hospitals to obtain a divine cure for their ailment.

The healing powers of the Cult of Aesculapius were based on magic and not on the knowledge of science, although in all likelihood they employed some effective practices, if only through tradition and intuition. Their main healing process was known as Incubation. According to this process patients were instructed to purify themselves by fasting and taking a ritual bath. This was to prepare them for a night spent in a sacred precinct, during which the god Aesculapius would appear to them in their dreams. Whether patients were given a hallucinogenic substance is unknown. Afterward their nighttime visitation, if they were not instantly healed, a healer-priest, or therapute, would interpret the dreams and recommend a remedy. Although medical treatment by the Cult of Aesculapius was free, tossing gold into the sacred fountain was encouraged. Also, a patient was expected to make a special type of offering, in the form of a replica of the afflicted organ or limb. Typically these were made in miniature, but sometimes were larger than life size. This is evidenced by parts of the human body depicted in terracotta found at known Aesculpation sites. These archeological finds hint that certain cults centers may have developed specialties. For example, at Ponte di Nona, a rural township to the east of Rome, terracotta feet and hand sculptures dominate - exactly the body parts likely to be injured from agricultural work. Terracottas from the Campetti sanctuary, in the city of Veii, contain a huge number of male and female sexual organs, perhaps indicating a high occurrence of sexually transmitted diseases, or possibly infertility.

It is believed that the famous healer Hippocrates was a member of the cult, and plied his trade at one of the Aesculapia on the island of Kos.

Although more than 100 possible Roman Aesculpation sites have been located, the majority being in west-central Italy, very little trace of the Cult of Aesculapius exists today. Legend holds that Rome’s first and greatest Aesculpation stood on the Isola Tiberina.

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