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by Archaeology Newsroom

Disease and Corporeality in Early Byzantium: The Miracles of St. Artemios

A well established institution in antiquity, incubation, involves evoking a curative dream by sleeping on sacred ground, after following specific purification rituals. Christianity embraced it and adapted it to fit its own purposes, employing a ritual deceptively similar to that of pagan sanctuaries. Christian incubation represents a form of secular religiosity, whose aims and principles are removed from those of asceticism. In spite of the supposed shift of Christian spirituality away from the body-centred culture of antiquity towards an ascetic hostility to the body, incubation is predominantly concerned with the body, not the spirit. It caters for its supplicants’ earthly existence, not their lives after death. While ascetics appear ashamed to have bodies―and even tend to regard disease as a divine gift that spares them the effort of mortifying their bodiesn themselves―incubation patients appear to value their bodies and to be ashamed of their deformities or diseases. The article concentrates on The Miracles of St. Artemios, a text which records 45 cures, which took place an incubation centre in seventh-century Constantinople. The saint’s specialisation in curing scrotal hernia and disorders of the male genitals makes this text a rare and unexplored source of information on subjects such as attitudes towards the body, masculinity, castration. For the Saint’s predominantly male secular client le, disease, deformity or mutilation of the genitals is a clear source of embarrassment, shame and fear ―fear of losing their masculine identity, on which the text masterfully plays. Aversion to surgery and hostility to doctors, is brilliantly portrayed in the miracle narratives―sometimes through the description of vivid dreams. Again, it reflects, for the most part, fear of losing their masculinity, through castration―which was often the outcome of hernia surgery at the time. Resort to the incubation centre of Artemios offers to hernia patients a safe ground where they can find refuge from social hostility and stigmatization. They become members of a sheltered group of fellow sufferers, where they can openly discuss their problems and fears, or even compare the magnitude of their ailments. Acquainting themselves with past miracle accounts, they gradually prepare for the long awaited cure, rediscovering hope of rehabilitation.