Medical Maze: Part II

Harborview Medical Center, Seattle. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015


The modern hospital traces its roots back to Greek temples of healing, which were often caves set near streams or pools of water. There was an elaborate set of initiations that ill people went through in order to enter the sacred space of healing from the outside profane world. Bathing and the donning of clean, flowing robes. Going barefoot and ridding oneself of rings or other jewelry. Then, being given a pallet in a large, communal sleeping space, an enkoimeteria, where patients slept side by side as they were to do centuries later in open hospital wards. The Greek temples of healing had stone tablets, iamata, set outside the entrances. The tablets were inscribed with healing narratives—testimonials—in the form of poetry or brief prose, all written in third person. Ancient Greek healing practices included bathing, exercise, special diets, dream divination, and bloodletting. Prayers at an altar at the threshold, the entrance to the healing space. Sacrifices of animals and offerings of food.

The business of hospitals, in Ancient Greece as well as now, is life, illness, and death. Everyone who enters the hospital as a patient emigrates—at least temporarily—to the land of the sick. It is a shadow-land, a liminal space where tides ebb and flow, a place that offers glimpses of the abyss. As the surgeon Richard Selzer points out, a hospital is alive: “The walls palpitate to the rhythm of its heart, while in and out the window fly daydreams and nightmares. It is a dynamism that is transmitted to the hospital by the despair and the yearning of the sick.” (p. 33).


Quote above is from: Selzer, Richard. “Down from Troy, Part 1” in The Exact Location of the Soul: New and Selected Essays. New York: Picador, 2001, Print.

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