A Hotbed of Healing: Ritual Cures in Roman Palestine

Posted in: AIAR
Tags: AIAR, Albright Institute for Archaeological Research, ASOR, Healing, Megan Nutzman, Palestine, Roman, University of Chicago
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By: Megan Nutzman, University of Chicago
2012-2013 Educational and Cultural Affairs Fellow
W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research

Megan Nutzman

Megan Nutzman

My dissertation looks at ritual healing in Roman and late antique Syria-Palestine.  Significant scholarly work has been done in the areas of “magical” healing, through the use of amulets and incantations, and on localized healing cults, such as those of Asclepius or healing saints.  However, previous scholarship has often emphasized cures labeled as either “religious” or “magical” to the exclusion of the other category.  The goal of my project, therefore, is to bring together these two avenues of ritual cures in order to consider how people navigated their ritual options for preserving health, healing injury, and curing illness.  I am looking for evidence of whether certain ritual options were more or less desirable among particular religious groups or whether certain ritual cures were preferred for different types of ailments.  I am also evaluating continuity and coexistence of cult and the appropriation of rituals by disparate religious traditions in Roman and late antique Syria-Palestine.

During my time at the Albright I worked on two chapters of my dissertation: the first focuses on site-specific ritual healing and the second looks at the use of inscribed amulets.  Localized healing cults in Syria Palestine were commonly found at thermal-mineral springs, which form the core of my first chapter.  One of the most famous of these springs was Hammat Gader, whose healing properties are well attested in the literary sources.  Rabbinic literature contains numerous discussions of Hammat Gader and surprisingly permits visits to this and other hot springs on the Sabbath.  In light of the inscriptions from the bath complex and nearby synagogue, rabbinic permission to visit the thermal-mineral baths on the Sabbath suggests that Jewish visitors sought ritual, rather than medical, cures there.  The ritual nature of healing at Hammat Gader is also reinforced by the large number of lamps found in the bath complex, which seem to have been left as votive offerings.

For the second chapter of my dissertation, I have been compiling a database of published amulets from Syria-Palestine dating to the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods.  My database currently numbers a little over 200 entries, including unprovenanced amulets that are said to be from Syria-Palestine.  The amulets fall into three basic categories: rolled lamellae, gemstones, and jewelry with protective inscriptions.  Among the characteristics that I am tracking are language, images, divine names, voces magicae, and quotations from the Hebrew Bible.  I am also interested in whether these amulets were for general protection or whether they were intended to treat a particular ailment, identifiable either in the inscription or in the iconography.  By comparing the diseases found on the amulets to those treated at the hot springs, several preliminary observations can be made.  For example, digestive and gynecological concerns are common among both types of ritual cures, while skin disease was common at the hot springs but absent among amulets.  Similarly, protection against fever appears on a number of lamellae, but there is no record of people seeking healing from it at the thermal-mineral baths.

In conjunction with these two main avenues of research, I visited the IAA storehouses in Beth Shemesh to see the finds from Hammat Gader.  I also went to a number of sites associated with ritual healing and met with people associated with some of the excavations, including at Hammat Gader, the Pool of Bethesda, Hammat Tiberias, Kallirhoe, and Dor.  I am very appreciative of my time at the Albright, which enabled me to make significant progress on my dissertation and to make valuable contacts within the academic community in Israel.

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1 Comments for : A Hotbed of Healing: Ritual Cures in Roman Palestine
    • Cassandra
    • May 1, 2016
    Reply

    I found myself nodding my noggin all the way thhorgu.

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