Author of the Month

Seraperion I & II (cont.)
By Antoine Gigal

Asclepius and his daughter Hygeia

It is important for me to explain how Asclepius and his descendent Hippocrates treated their patients because they probably worked in the same way as Imhotep in the vicinity of the Serapeum. Besides their treatments with plant compounds and apart from dealing with fractures and surgery, this is what constituted the heart of their medicine: they made their patients drink the water from the underground springs and bathe in it, because for them it was obvious that the water carried in it the healing powers of the spirits of the Earth. After that they only dealt with those who had the courage and determination to undergo the treatment. Patients had to fast and make repeated ablutions in the sacred precincts of what was called the Abaton, that is to say in the temple, the caves and the underground passages, which no one else was allowed to enter. Then the patients were made to sleep in the group dormitories of the Abaton so that they would dream. There were specific rituals for encouraging dreaming, where the deepest wisdom of Mother Earth was supposed to send you dreams revealing the reasons for your illness and how to treat it. The next day you told your dream to the priests who would then prescribe a treatment. It was also said that the first image that came into the dreamer's mind would become a guardian spirit and would never leave them.

The lesson to be drawn from this study of dreams was very sophisticated. They did not give a generalised interpretation of the dreams, they considered that a dream symbol gave rise to a different meaning depending on the person. Each person was considered to have their own dream language and detailed work was done on the images and emotions of the patient. But Asclepius did not work only with the priests of his cult, he was assisted by - guess what? - a horde of snakes. Non-venomous snakes slithered all over the floor of the dormitories during the night and were believed to be divinities who mediated between Asclepius and the patient. Because of the way they shed their skins, snakes were a symbol of rebirth and resurrection. (Incidentally, I can tell you that the word "life" in Chaldean is the same as for "snake", and in Arabic it's the same except for one letter.) Among the ancient Egyptians, the uraeus - the divine cobra on the headdress or forehead of the pharaoh - represented the life force with all its power, as it was supposed to strike with lightning any enemy or any negative principle. However they did not confuse this snake of highly positive qualities with the other, the serpent Apophis who brought chaos and negativity.

Hippocrates treating a patient

As a rule, the snake had the reputation of being "invigorating" and bringing eternal youth and immortality. Why? Apart from shedding its skin, it was because Asclepius had a reputation for knowing how to administer doses of poison and antidote, including snake venom, with such skill that he was able to bring the dead back to life. He was known in antiquity to be a master of resurrection thanks to his snakes. We now understand better why when he was transformed into a constellation it was that of Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer. We can also understand better why the symbol of medicine is the rod with the large snake. In the small Imhotep museum that has just opened next to the Serapeum and displays objects and statues from in and around the Serapeum, what do we find? Snakes in all forms. The feet of a statue of Imhotep posed on beautiful painted snakes, carved cobras that covered the enclosure walls around the pyramid of Djoser, friezes of snakes in bas-relief found above the Serapeum, and so on - snakes everywhere.

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