A Sanctuary Model for Representing Incubation in Classical Athens

Citation with persistent identifier:

Barrenechea, Francisco. “A sanctuary model for representing incubation in Classical Athens.” CHS Research Bulletin 4, no. 1 (2015). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:BarrenecheaF.A_Sanctuary_Model_for_Representing_Incubation.2016


1§1 In December 2016, I had the wonderful opportunity to do a brief presentation of my research to an audience of fellows and colleagues at the Center for Hellenic Studies. This presentation is now available online, and the following lines are meant as a brief introduction to it. The sample I chose for my talk comes from the larger project that I worked on during my stay there as fellow: a book-length study of how Aristophanes’ comedy participated in the religious discourse of its time. My focus is on his play Wealth, staged in 388 BCE, which I propose has a rich and largely unexplored religious framework that has much to contribute to our understanding of Greek religion. I argue that the playwright articulates his play by means of stories of religious experiences that testify to a more optimistic relationship between gods and their worshippers, one more personal and beneficial than those of older cults. These stories reflect the rise in popularity of new, philanthropic divinities in response to the crises of the times: gods who cared for and dependably responded to their worshippers’ needs.

1§2 Among the stories Aristophanes includes is a marvelously rich account of ritual incubation at a sanctuary of Asklepios. In this religious experience, worshippers would lie down to sleep in a sanctuary and expect the god to contact them through dreams, so they could profit from the latter’s knowledge and skill. In order to get a sense of how the playwright puts to dramatic use this religious experience, I went outside comedy to find other representations for comparison. I chose two significant testimonia from the period: these are, in order of antiquity, Attic votive reliefs that depict incubation scenes, which first appeared at the end of the fifth century BCE, and the stories of miracle cures, or iamata, of the sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidauros, inscribed in the second half of the fourth century BCE.

1§3 Scholars often point out the similarities of these two testimonia with Aristophanes’ comedy, and list one as evidence for a feature of the other. But the dots still need to be connected with respect to their religious function. Much valuable work has already been done on the Epidaurian iamata, and the recent work of Dorati and Guidorizzi is now essential for understanding the impact of the sanctuary’s agenda on their composition. When it comes to Aristophanes, Sineux has also published an article that examines the playwright’s account in the light of the Epidaurian iamata, which should be the point of departure for any serious comparative study. Yet there is still much to be said about how they relate to each other as representations of religious experiences. A chapter of my book makes the case that the comic incubation tale can be considered religious discourse, for the following reason: a narrative model, heavily influenced by the agenda of a sanctuary, is already at work behind the playwright’s story, decades before this model manifested itself fully in the Epidaurian iamata.

1§4 My CHS presentation lays out an important piece of evidence for the existence of this model, and that is the motif of the third-party witness to the contact with the god; this motif, which features in the Epidaurian iamata, is found much earlier, in the votive reliefs and the comic incubation story. It is my belief that the sanctuary model is behind for this motif, in that the inclusion of witnesses serves to vouchsafe for the actuality of the experience, and consequently, to strengthen belief in the effectiveness of the experience — a purpose that Aristophanes is only too happy to highlight in his own account, in order to acclaim the radical availability and kindliness of the new god Asklepios.


Dorati, M., and G. Guidorizzi. 1996. “La letteratura incubatoria.” In Pecere and Stramaglia 1996: 343-371.

Pecere, O., and A. Stramaglia, eds. 1996. La letteratura di consumo nel mondo greco-latino. Cassino.

Sineux, P. 2006. “Une nuit à l’asklépieion dans le Ploutos d’Aristophane: un récit dans le théâtre pour l’étude du rite de l’incubation.” Mètis N.S. 4:193-210.