Demons, Symbols, and the Cosmos

Beliefs surrounding illness and healing in Byzantium stem from the myths, astrology, and magic practiced around the Mediterranean by Jews, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Greeks. Amulets were widely prescribed, even by medical treatises, against demonic invasion, thought to be a primary cause of illness. One finds green jasper gemstones featuring the solar lion–headed serpent Chnoubis, hematite stones showing Herakles fighting the Nemean lion, and octagonal rings invoking solar symbolism and resurrection and featuring astral lions.

Octagonal Ring Against The Evil Eye, 5th–6th century. Gold. İstanbul Archaeological Museums. 

Medicine based on links between the thirty-six astrological decans, parts of the body, plants, animals, and stones was a fundamental element of late antique magic. The biblical king Solomon reigned here, having received a magical seal ring from God to defeat demons, including decans causing bodily harm. The position of the stars and moon played a role in scheduling medications, while the cosmic order served as the model for reestablishing bodily order—health and strength—with amulets. 

- Brigitte Pitarakis, curator of Life Is Short, Art Long

Serpent Head

Serpent Head

The Greek god Apollo and his son Asklepios presided over the realm of medicine and healing. Apollo was also the god of light and sun, whose solar symbolism and association with medicine would become linked to Christ the Physician, and the resurrected.

Medicinal Herbs in Byzantium

Medicinal Herbs in Byzantium

Knowledge of plants and the practice of healing are closely entwined. The toxic or hallucinogenic nature of some roots, and the dangers associated with picking them, conferred a mythical or magical character and power. 

Rational Medicine in Byzantium

Rational Medicine in Byzantium

Byzantine medical art was grounded in the Greco-Roman medicine transmitted by Hippocrates and Galen and new concepts introduced by such physicians as Oribasios of Pergamon, Aetius of Amida, Alexander of Tralles and Paul of Aegina.