Have you ever wondered about the connection between art and healing?
These two themes have been at the root of my creative life and livelihood since the beginning. My recent trip to Greece gave me an entirely new perspective on it all…
Asklepios is the Greek god of medicine and healing. Throughout the ancient Greek world, sanctuaries were built in his honor, where priests (and priestesses?) learned the arts of medicine, and performed healing rituals with the infirm pilgrims who traveled in search of relief and cure.
On the bus ride to the site from Athens, our guide, author and filmmaker Phil Cousineau, told us the story of how Epidaurus came to be the first healing temple of Asklepius, and how the site was likely used for healing even earlier, back to 8,000 BC, by worshippers of Apollo.
He told us of the myths and stories of Asklepius, and how the healing protocols at Epidaurus included seeing plays and performances in the theatre, watching or participating in physical activity in the gymnasium, and working with your dreams in a specially built dream temple.
Walking up to the towering pillars that mark the entrance to the theater, I was struck still by by a palpable force.
In my minds eye—visions of thousands of people seeking healing, filing though the narrow portals.
In present reality— throngs of tourists-on-a-schedule filed out of their long, air-conditioned buses and marched through the entrance, ignoring their guides, talking over each other and running ahead to capture the best Instagram shot.
In one surreal moment, I was surrounded by selfie-sticks and feared a stampede, as I openly wept into the scarf I wore to keep the sun off my neck.
Feeling the pulse of the ancestors in search of healing who walked this very path.
How I too, have sought healing for one thing or another my entire adult life. Healing from physical ailments, but also the ailments of the psyche wounded by trauma.
People came to a healing sanctuary, and there was a theater as part of the centerpiece of wellness.
Art and healing together.
The way some of us know it works.
Scenes (how appropriate, in a theater) reeled through my mind as I stood there:
Writing and putting on plays with my friends in grade school. Filming commercial parodies with someone’s dad’s movie camera. We wrote the scripts, acted out the parts, and made hand-drawn titles and drawings that we shot one frame at a time.
How when I worked as an art and music therapist in a private psychiatric hospital outside of Chicago, I would ride the train to work thinking that my job was really more of an urban shaman, using the arts to heal.
But before that, making art played the major role in saving my own life.
Painting, drawing, writing, escaping into books and poetry at public libraries all over Chicagoland.
Learning there was such a thing as art therapy, music therapy, drama therapy. That these were actual professions.
My higher purpose ignited when I noticed a “Music Therapy Awareness Day” poster tacked up by a Chicago university that happened to be next to my El stop.
In this altered state of time travel, I forgot to take photos other than square ones. Blame Instagram.
Editing images for this post, I couldn’t decide if I liked the black and white or color photos better… and that’s what led to me doing both together.
Because more compelling professional photos exist of ancient architecture, the best I can do with my iPhone 6 is something more abstract. Thus, these collages of my photos which actually help me see things differently.
Built in the 4th Century B.C., the theater seats a whopping six thousand people and is considered one of the masterpieces of Greek architecture.
In the center of the circle that makes up the stage of the theater, there is a stone.
Visitors take turns standing on the stone and speaking from the stage.
I waited my turn, slipped off my sandals, and stood barefoot on the stone.
The theater acoustics are constructed so that everyone can hear the actors and musicians. Remember, this was the age before amplifiers and microphones.
What did I whisper out from the center of the stage to the rows of stone arcing in front and around me?
I said of short prayer of gratitude for being an artist and a healer.
Here in the theater of Epidaurus, I felt that I belonged to an ancient chain of ancestors who knew the power of the arts to heal.
Even though I wasn’t learning about them until now, I could feel so much of my life (and my art) making sense to me.
It’s difficult to articulate the content of this knowing, as it was more a felt sense, a kind of emotional download.
The wise people of this world teach that there are other ways of knowing besides what we “know” with our thinking, rational minds,
I could feel how I belong to the family of artist-healers, and healing artists.
Feeling that I belong… well… that’s what made me stop in the middle of a perfectly sunny and hot October day in Greece, and weep in front of God, Goddess and everyone.
It wouldn’t be the first or last time I cried on this trip. Tears of the good kind.
After visiting the theater, I walked through large fields of stone foundations, some partially forested now. The remains of dormitory buildings to house the guests.
All of the healing temples of ancient Greece have a theatre, gymnasium and dream temple. A true medicine of the body, mind and spirit.
There are those rare moments when one feels connected to everyone through all time.
That’s what I felt: connection.
The word eluded me until I started writing this.
Going back and forth over my own scribbled notes in my journal, trying to put a massive shift in consciousness into words. Like trying to move a piece marble from the ruins to its proper place in the monument that was.
There is so much more I want to share with you, so my plan is to continue unwinding this tale of art and writing in Greece here on my blog.
Stay tuned…there are snake priestesses, donkeys and more epiphanies ahead.
Do Soulful, Artful Journeys Sound Like Your Idea of A Good Time?
If you want to travel with Phil Cousineau, he’s going to Crete next April. (I am dreaming and scheming of going!)
But before Crete, Phil is coming HERE to Mexico, in March, to lead a writing-meets-pilgrimage retreat, at Art House Oaxaca!
Writing and traveling with Phil is simply one of the very best experiences I have ever had, as an artist, a writer, a traveler, a fellow teacher and guide.
Come write and travel with Phil Cousineau in Mexico… all of the details are right here.