The gods would hear them. They must. One of the gods must hear their screams, their wallowing, their cries, their prayers for help, for cures, for remedies. A god who could soothe them, who could tell them everything would be all right. A god who loved them. That was all they needed. A god who cherished them.
City of Sikyon, Northern Peloponnese, 420 B.C.E
Along the sparkling grey rocks of the Asopos River, the dark-haired Sikyonian woman, Nikagora, scrubbed and scrubbed a purple cloth clean, her fingers raw from the frosty water. There was another woman, swollen and ready to give birth any day now, soon to hear the cries and wails of a baby; her baby. Nikagora stopped scrubbing the olive oil stained cloth and watched the pregnant girl who was holding her stomach with a handful of her garment, her body swaying as she stamped on a long red cloth, drowning the fabric deep into the river. Each stamp reminded Nikagora of what she wished for, how far away her hopes were leaving her.
She yearned for her body to be clean, cleansed by the river god Asopos, to scrape her apart, to rub her with oil, to anoint her with a child, any child like his twenty nymph daughters, the Naiads. May her child be a demi-god, a half creature, a nymph, anything, just as long as she could be a mother.
Nikagora exhaled a long deep breath. It had been too long, she thought, almost five years since she was fourteen and married. Five years and she had still not swelled with a baby. Her sister had five already, one was lost in childbirth, and Nikagora had been there, watching her sister lose someone so dear, so small, so much hope in those tiny-skinny fingers…so much.
‘Is something wrong, dear?’ the old woman, Aristodama asked nearby.
Looking up, it was the woman’s blue eyes, as deep as the river beds that poured into her soul, wanting to help her, to listen to her. The same old woman who helped her and young married girls learn the ways of washing garments, the best angles the river hit the rocks and the sun along the river bed. Nikagora felt lucky, worthy that this knowledgeable woman wanted to talk to her. Had she heard the gossiping girls talk about the curse that was on her marriage?
‘It is my husband,’ she said, wringing the purple cloth, ‘ever since he fell at the stone quarry his hips have never been the same. We try,’ she said, looking at the woman, ‘but he is in pain, and my womb has still not taken his seed after all these years, nothing has changed.’ She discarded the scrunched up cloth and grabbed another. ‘Nothing has changed, nothing will ever change.’
Aristodama touched her shoulder. ‘There is still hope, child, Asklepios will help you.’
The God of Healing, Nikagora thought, he had done nothing for her, just like Apollo and Artemis and Hera and Zeus – nothing.
‘He will come to you just like he helped me and I had my son. Take this,’ Aristodama said, her wrinkled hands that were clotted with blue veins removed a golden amulet around her neck, ‘you take this and hold on, Asklepios will come when you are ready.’
Nikagora rubbed the amulet in her palm, her thumb tracing the snake that circled the staff. ‘How will the god appear to me?’ she asked, ‘how will I know? Do I need to make an offering tonight?’
‘No, child, he will come to you, he is different to the other gods.’
She could not believe what the old woman was saying. ‘How can he help me when I have not paid him homage, I have not given him a gift, said a prayer to invoke him?’
‘Just hold the amulet,’ Aristodama said, ‘he will find you.’
That night, after the Sikyonian women stamped on and washed and cleansed the stains on the hundreds of clothes, then spread them along the rocky shore to dry in the sunshine, they hauled them onto a mule cart, and went back up the river to the city. Nikagora grabbed her bundle, was paid by the official six obols, just one drachma. This was all she could use in the following days to feed herself and her husband.
When she arrived home, her husband, Echetimos, was sitting in the courtyard, carving a piece of wood, tiny scraps of shavings fluttered to the holes of their unfinished mosaic floor. She ambled along the cracked pebbles and wrapped her skinny arms around his neck, taking in the smell of burnt wood mixed with thyme and oregano; the Lemnos red wine that her husband so dearly loved to purchase at the market.
‘What are you making?’ she asked, as she kissed the side of his cheek, his beard prickling her face. A beard he combed every morning with olive oil, a beard that should be shaved, torn from his chin like every other man who was mourning. Nikagora every day mourned for their loss, their loss of having no children. And yet, she loved him, loved him for his boldness, his hope.
He lifted the figurine up to her now. ‘A little horse,’ he said, steering her hand over its smooth muzzle. ‘I need to make the wheels soon, and then the toy will be ready.’
‘And who will play with it?’ she asked, jerking away from him. ‘What good is a toy without a child?’
Echetimos turned around. ‘A gift, to your sister’s little one.’
She tugged her cloak closer and stared at him. Was it him or her that was being punished by the gods? At the beginning, before his injury at the stone quarry, it had been nights upon nights of love, warmth, bed sheets, oil lamps burning, their hopes tangled with their limbs and their hair. Then a year went by, ‘Do not worry,’ her sister had told her, ‘eat and eat apples and honey-cakes and grapes and you will surely be ripe to bear children’. She listened to her sister, but still, change did not happen. Another year, a new garden in their courtyard with the ripe fruits of fertility that she needed, and still, nothing. And now, five years had passed; the gods had left her barren. And her husband, since the accident he could not work on foot, the wooden stool was his ally, his hips, the master of his body, the controllers of pain and happiness; the thorn stabbing at them every day.
‘Why do you choose to mock us? Why must you sit at home and make these silly toys?’ she said.
She feared that if she did not give him an heir, he would leave her. How many times she had seen a physician and tried a new test to open her womb, staying in a room fumigated with crushed laurel leaves and myrrh and garlic, and then another test by applying an ointment mixed with goat fat and cyclamen and fig tree juice, and those green cardamom seeds. And then there was that time when she had wrapped herself in a cloak and held incense below her opening, waiting for the smell to travel through her womb to her mouth, waiting for the smell to escape her lips, showing that she was not infertile; but she was. Oh Hera, and the last test she had done was the most horrid, before Echetimos had fractured his hips. She was told to insert a woollen pessary into her womb that had been dipped in goose fat, marrow of ox, rose oil and thapsia root, and then, she had to drink leek juice and white wine as well – for four days! She had never stunk so vile in her whole life with that remedy. She felt like a foul-smelling hag, her womb venomous and dark like the Furies, always wandering around with madness. Echetimos had refused to sleep next to her for those nights. ‘It smells,’ he had told her, ‘and stop seeing that physician; he will surely kill us with all of those potions.’ She had never felt so lonely.
‘They are not silly,’ he said, staring at the horse, ‘they make young ones smile.’
They make me hate myself, she thought, I hate myself for not giving you what I was born to do. ‘You deserve better,’ Nikagora said, ‘you will be fatherless if you stay with me.’
‘Nikki,’ he said, standing up from his stool with his ebony walking stick, wincing from the pain in his hips, ‘how can I be a father like this?’
‘Your pain will go away; it has only been three months since you fell.’
‘I was supposed to be cured before the harvest season and look at me,’ he said, and she did: both of his callused hands leaned on his walking stick, his long hair was bedraggled and his tunic sagged on him without his girdle, pulling his hunched over body further to the ground. ‘I am a cripple.’
She could not be angry with him, how could she be when they were both in pain? It was pain that was separating them from each other, the Algea spirits were torturing them, cursing them.
Nikagora went over to her husband and kissed him. ‘You are not a cripple, my love, we will find a way, together.’
She escorted him into the reclining room and then vanished inside the storage room, scooping out from the huge amphorae barley flour and sesame seeds for supper. After they ate the barley porridge and dipped barley bread into wine, they climbed into their wooden bed and mattress stuffed with leaves and hay; silence between them. Nikagora turned over and her husband wrapped his arm around her waist like he did every night.
‘I love you,’ he said.
His embrace used to be all she needed, but now, as she grabbed his hand and rested it on her womb and said, ‘I love you too,’ all she could think about was a prayer she wanted to say to the gods. I want a child, she wanted to pray, I want a child that I can call my own. I want my husband to be cured. I want to share our bed again, the way a husband and wife are meant to.
While she slept, Asklepios arrived in her dreams. She was in awe of him. He was as mighty as Zeus, holding his golden staff, his curly white beard as long as the monstrous snakes that hissed and slithered and coiled behind him. The oil lamps flickered as he came closer to the sitting Nikagora; she was naked, her flesh bare for him to see, stripped down to nothing; she felt like nothing. She scrunched her body into a ball, trying to hide her breasts from him, but Asklepios reached out his hand and touched her forehead, soothing her. She saw long-cloaked companions standing behind him now, his daughters, the all-healing Panakeia, the good health attendant Hygeia, the remedy-maker Iaso, and the healing and curing Akeso; they all held small stone boxes, crested in gold and red, but it was their faces that eased her fright and pain, their faces, full of hope, just like their father. The sacred snakes circled all of them now, hissing. ‘My child,’ Asklepios said, crouching down low to look Nikagora in the eye, she reached out and held his hand, bringing it to her cheek, her tears falling on his hand. ‘At present, you need me. I will be your guide.’ Yes, she thought, yes, you will help me. ‘Travel to Epidauros with your husband and I will appear to you again in the temple.’ I will, she thought, I will go. ‘I will be your cure,’ was the last thing he said to her.
Nikagora wondered what would happen to her in Asklepios’ temple. Would he need to lie down with her, consume her with his body, the snakes hissing, his daughters watching? Or would one touch, or one ointment from him be all she needed? And how would he cure her husband’s hips?
In the morning, when she jolted awake, she stuffed leather sacks with clothes and wrapped honey-cakes and barley-bread in linen cloths, and loaded them into food sacks, and then she filled small amphorae with sweet red wine and loaded those next to the front door. She snatched their secret stash of drachmas and obols that were stuffed deep inside an amphora that had a chipped rim. She counted the coins. They had fifty drachmas saved. Money that would have been used to extend their house with rooms for their children. Children that were still unborn. If it wasn’t for Aristodama and her amulet, Asklepios wouldn’t have appeared to her. How she wanted to thank the old woman for helping her. Perhaps when she returned from Epidauros, she would speak to her again. She gripped the money bag, knowing what she had to do, and fled from her house in search for a mule cart. It would take a couple of days to get to Epidauros from Sikyon and the cart was needed for Echetimos. As soon as she went to her neighbour’s property nearby, the farmer Onesiphoros was picking olives from a leafy tree, ready for the harvest season, she hurried to him, begging to borrow his mule and wagon.
‘It will only be for a couple of days,’ she told him, shaking the money bag in front of him. ‘How much do you want?’
‘Where is your husband?’ he asked her, still holding the weaved basket under his arm.
‘Packing our bags,’ she lied, ‘he sent me here to rent our transport. How much do you want?’
Under those bushy eyebrows as gnarled and thick as the olive tree’s trunk, his brown eyes squinted, probably curious to understand what she was trying to do.
‘You must help us, Onesiphoros, I need to appease the gods.’
‘When will you return?’
‘Allow me seven days and I will not be a burden, your belongings will be returned.’ She shook the bag again. ‘Please?’
He licked his top teeth and made a sucking sound. ‘Ten drachmas and you have a deal.’
It was expensive, yes, but she did not care. All the money in the world was worth saving her from being barren and healing her husband’s hips.
After the exchange was made, Nikagora returned home and loaded the sacks and amphorae onto the wagon. She dashed inside the master bedroom and sprung her husband to his feet, telling him of the news, of her dream, of Asklepios finding her. ‘Can you believe it?’ she screamed in excitement, hurrying him to dress. ‘We must leave now, I have rented a mule and wagon from Onesiphoros, Asklepios will help us, he is our last hope.’ They needed to get going, they needed to get to Epidauros now.
She prodded him to hurry and dress, but he still stayed seated on their bed, wearing his loincloth and linen bandages wrapped around his hips. ‘Nikki,’ he said, ‘listen to yourself.’
She paused for a moment and looked at him.
‘You spent our money on a wagon and mule? What for, so that we travel for two days and have our hopes stretched even more, and then nothing will come of it? What have you done?’
‘We must do something; I cannot sit around here waiting for a miracle. He has come for me, Echetimos, for us, to mend our sorrow. Why will you not see what I see?’
‘The gods have forsaken us, so why would this one help us, what does he want?’
‘Come with me and we shall learn together. He will help us.’ Echetimos had to listen to her, he had to believe, oh how she wanted him to believe in her dream, to believe in Asklepios. ‘He will be the answer to our prayers.’
‘And what if you have been mistaken, what if nothing happens?’
‘Then it is by the will of the gods that we should not be a pateras and a mitera.’ A father and a mother. ‘Perhaps, we were only ever meant to be just husband and wife.’
No, Nikagora thought, I do not think so.
Three days had passed. Three days of riding along rocky outcrops and wheel ruts and dirt roads. Nikagora kept asking for directions to Epidauros while Echetimos sat beside her, carving another wooden toy. The bumps on the road escalated the pain in his hips, but he kept carving the toy, fixating his mind on what this could all mean. ‘This time,’ he had said, ‘this will be for our own child.’ Ever since that morning she had awakened from her dream, since he had agreed to come with her, she loved him even more. It did not matter if she had a girl and not a boy, as long as she had a child with him.
They had now arrived into the bustling city of the ambeloessa, full of vineyards, the city of Epidauros. Men and women in wagons passed them, whipping their mules as they rode along the cobblestone road into the city. Merchants, on either sides of the road, were amongst colonnades selling scaly mackerel, red mullets, tunnies, anchovies, freshly picked apples and figs and dates. Further into the city were stalls selling purple, white, and red linen, while others sold tall and round jars. As they got closer, Nikagora noticed a couple of stores selling bronze and terracotta figurines shaped as body parts, like legs and hearts and eyes and ears and breasts. But there was one that looked like a woman’s womb that Nikagoara had seen in her physician’s house when she visited. This terracotta piece looked like an upside down open vessel that was ribbed.
‘What are those?’ she asked a local man.
‘Votive offerings for Asklepios,’ he said, passing by.
If Asklepios healed her, and she knew he would, she would come back to Epidauros and purchase that terracotta piece and take it to his temple herself.
Further ahead there were three old Epidaurian men holding signs that said, IEPOY ASKLHPIOS. Sanctuary of Asklepios. They were almost there.
Nikagora turned to her husband. ‘They will show us the way.’
They paid the three peppered beard men, and in a group of ten people, they followed the men up the hill, along the wheel-rutted road. After a couple of minutes of walking, they passed a long line of women crawling up the road on bloodied knees and hands, their foreheads sweaty, their clothes ripped, their hair disarrayed, their faces stained with dried tears and dirt. Oh Hera, Nikagora thought, smacking her hand to her mouth as she watched the women. Echetimos reached for her hand and clasped it tight while they road past, listening to the wailing women.
‘Be my Saviour!’
‘Please, oh please, help me!’
‘He is dying, he is dying…’
‘Once, just heal me once!’
‘Take me, take me!’
Later, much later, when they had passed the women, the outcrying had stopped. It took them three hours to reach the sanctuary on the winding hill. Three hours and all Nikagora could think about were those wailing women on their bloodied hands and knees, distressed, needing, aching for Asklepios to help them. She wondered, if Echetimos had not been here with her, would she be one of those women, a living carcass scraping her body on the ground, crawling and pleading for help, sacrificing her blood to a god?
Once they entered the sacred grove of Asklepios and tied their mule to a nearby tree, Nikagora held Echetimos’ hand, and together, while he limped, and she walked beside him holding two barley cakes, they lined up behind the bustling crowd to offer their cakes at the altar in front of the temple. Men were scratching their scalps, women tending to their clothes, others held baskets filled with honey-cakes and figs, and in the air, all Nikagora could smell was burning incense. We will see him today, she thought, we will be cured.
A man in a long white tunic approached the altar and raised his arms in the air. ‘My name is Methodios, before you can enter Asklepios’ house tonight, for those of you who wish to stay, you must bathe in the nearby baths. In the presence of our Healer, you must be clean.’
Nikagora thought it was a good idea. She stunk of sweat from the past three days, and from those annoying flies that were buzzing around the mule’s buttocks. She did not want to imagine if any of those flies were tangled in her hair.
‘I will meet you in the evening,’ she said to Echetimos.
‘Nikki,’ he said, grabbing her hand before she could go, ‘what if this does not work?’
‘It will,’ she said, squeezing his hand, ‘have faith, my love.’
She repeated these words over and over in her head while she bathed in a bath house amongst other naked women. Their chatter was loud, deafening the words she tried to repeat in her mind. Why couldn’t they let her concentrate? she thought.
‘My friend has been here three times. She had a cataract in her eye, she was having bad headaches, and I think the other time she came for her husband’s yellow toe. Asklepios healed them all!’
Nikagora stared at the women: one woman had a lopsided breast, another had purple patches on her skin, one kept jabbing her fingers into her mouth, wiggling her teeth. But there was one woman who was like her, with no stretch marks on her breasts, hips, or stomach; a childless woman. He will help us, she thought, he has too.
She melted into the steam, patting her face with a wet cloth. Tonight was it, she thought. Tonight was the night Asklepios needed to cure her and her husband like he promised. She squeezed her eyes shut to stop herself from crying. Tonight was the night he needed to help them. Please, she thought, biting down on her fist, do not abandon us.
That night, Nikagora and Echetimos lay beside one another in the temple of Asklepios on straw pallets, their noses touching. They held each other’s hands in front of their chests, listening to the hundreds of whispers drifting in the temple, their noses filling with burning incense. They had only eaten vegetable broth for supper and their stomachs rumbled as their eyes gazed at the glorious amount of fruit and cakes at the offering table in front of Asklepios’ ivory and gold statue.
Nikagora listened to the slapping of a temple slave’s sandals above her head. When she looked up, she saw that it was Methodios, and like the rest of the temple slaves, he started blowing out the oil lamps.
‘Sleep now,’ he said to the bountiful bodies in the room, ‘sleep now and if you hear any noise, remain silent; Asklepios will be in his house attending to you.’
She tried listening to her breathing, pacing herself of what was to come. Echetimos squeezed her hand and she held on, trying to fall asleep.
In her dreams, Nikagora was standing in the sanctuary of Asklepios, in front of the altar where they had placed the barley cakes at midday. When she looked up, she saw Echetimos as tall as a tree, strolling down the temple steps with Asklepios, the god’s hand on her husband’s shoulder, his chest puffed out. ‘Go to her now,’ she heard him say. Her husband came to her and cupped her face and smiled. ‘It is your time now.’ He kissed her, his lips warm and nourishing, and as he did, he undressed her, sliding her tunic straps from her shoulders. Her body naked before him, wanting to be the mother of his children. He helped her lie on top of the altar, and as she lay there, her hands on her stomach, all she could think was that this was it, finally, after all these years, she would become a mother. Echetimos placed her tunic inside a stone chest beside the altar and then, when Asklepios approached them, her husband held her hand. Do not let go, she thought, never ever let me go. Asklepios wearing his holy laurel garland touched her forehead and said, ‘You have come, and now my child, I will give you the gift you have desired.’ He made a clucking sound, and Nikagora did not wince when five snakes slithered down his arms and coiled to her stomach. They lay there, hissing, their long tongues lapping her with tickles. The last thing she could remember was Asklepios’ daughters, the all-healing Panakeia, and the good health attendant Hygeia, carrying the stone chest that treasured her tunic, and then her eyes blinked, until she was staring into the eyes of her husband.
Five years. That was all it took for Nikagora to have her fifth child. Another girl. When she had returned home from her travels, Aristodama at the Asopos River took one look at her and said, ‘You are with child.’ She then told Nikagora that Asklepios all those years ago had given her a healthy son, Aratos, and she knew the God of Healing would help her too. ‘Keep the amulet,’ she had said, ‘give it to another woman who is most deserving.’
Asklepios had also cured the lame to walk about. Echetimos was always seen now in his carpentry workshop with his five-year-old son, Agasikles, his first born. But Nikagora and him could not stop there, they now had four daughters, five healthy children that would witness today the festival in honour of Asklepios at the new erected temple in honour of the Miracle-Worker and Dream-God. It was decreed with good fortune by Nikagora and the Council that in fair and pious fashion the sacrifices and offerings of the year to the other gods would be held at the Sanctuary of Asklepion in Sikyon for all the sick and diseased.
Nikagora stood outside of the temple and stared at the two reliefs on the roof, one was a small figure of a woman riding a serpent, and beside them was a wife and husband surrounded by their five children. When she walked inside the temple holding her youngest daughter, and her second born holding her hand, she stared at the gold and ivory statue of the god, beardless, holding his rustic staff in one hand, and a cone of the cultivated pine in the other, crafted by Kalamis. Nikagora would always be thankful that this metalworker and the city had seen what her and her husband and Aristodama had seen, and believed in – Asklepios the Saviour.
He is the one who guides and rules the universe, the saviour of the whole and the guardian of the immortals…
– Aristides, Oratio XLII, 4.
Asklepios god information
Pausanius Description of Greece 10.2-3 on Sikyon
Dedications (votive offerings) and inscriptions on stone found at the sanctuary of Asklepios
Dedications and votive offerings to Asklepios
Archaeological site of Sikyon