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Religious Healing and the Asclepius Cult: A Case of Placebo Effects

Olympia Panagiotidou
Published Online: 2016-02-04 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/opth-2016-0006


This paper suggests a cognitive approach to the Asclepius cult which may throw light on the supplicants’ personal experiences of healing during the ritual of incubation. In particular, the possibility of healing at the Asclepius sanctuaries is presented as a potential result of the patients’ placebo responses. The prerequisites of placebo effect as determined by Nicholas Humphrey are traced in the wider social and conceptual contexts of Greek antiquity and the specific religious context of the Asclepius cult. In this framework, it is argued that personal experiences of people, social information about the Asclepius’ healing powers and the confirmation of this information by human doctors would have influenced how people “lived” an illness or a disease infliction, “appropriated” the religious beliefs in Asclepius, and experienced cures at the asclepieia. These cures could have derived from patients’ self-healing mechanisms, but would have been perceived and conceptualized as “healing miracles” performed by the god. This preliminary study intends to show how cognitive approaches can enrich historical knowledge on the Asclepius cult and on supplicants’ healing experiences, suggesting that such approaches may contribute to a better understanding of “lived religion” and of multiple religious experiences in various religious contexts.

Keywords: Asclepius; cognitive approach; cognitive historiography; placebo effect; religious experience; lived religion; appropriation; self-healing; healing miracles


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About the article

Received: 2015-08-11

Accepted: 2015-10-26

Published Online: 2016-02-04

Citation Information: Open Theology, Volume 2, Issue 1, ISSN (Online) 2300-6579, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/opth-2016-0006.

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©2016 Olympia Panagiotidou. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License. BY-NC-ND 3.0

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