Healer of All

I’m going to share some very personal information here, as much as that makes me uncomfortable, because I cannot shake the feeling that posting about this might help someone else navigate their own situation, somewhere down the line. And because I wish to honor a god that has helped me. But understand that I am only doing so in order to address the spiritual ramifications of these experiences, rather than seeking emotional support. I am actually doing very well and have found this overall to be a positive chapter in my story, albeit one with many challenges.

I spoke in my last post about change. Trust me when I say I am very well acquainted with that. Over the past 18 months, I have gone through three significant life changes and am looking at a fourth before too long. Each one affected my spiritual life to varying degrees, directly and indirectly. But this is about only one of those things, the one that has had the most impact so far.

Last summer, after I had adjusted to two big shifts in my circumstances, I found I had the spoons to face something I’d been fearing and avoiding for most of my life – the possibility that I had inherited my matrilineal ancestral legacy of a BRCA1 gene mutation, putting me at extremely high risk of ovarian and breast cancer. I realized I could not only handle the diagnosis, which I expected and received (I had a 50% chance but my gut told me it was there), but I could actually do something about it. And so I began a journey that has radically altered my body, inside and out, which then altered me in other ways, too.

The doctors recommended, as I suspected they would, that I take an aggressive approach to avoid cancer, by removing the susceptible parts – a full hysterectomy, followed by a total mastectomy. And I was ready for it. Thus followed months of research and preparation. I realized I was in a unique position to approach this properly from the start, in a spiritual sense, since I didn’t have an active illness requiring most of my attention and emotional engagement (it is so much harder, I’m sure, to think about devotional activities when one is facing treatment for a serious condition, which is part of the reason I am offering this in case it might be helpful). I knew immediately that this was, inherently, a sacred journey I was undertaking, and a powerfully transformative one, and that it needed to be honored and ritualized every step of the way. That I was in the hands of the gods, now more than ever.

This was confirmed very early on in the process. I had just received the genetic results and had my initial consultations maybe a month before, and had only just begun figuring out which of my gods and spirits I would be petitioning for assistance, when I was antiquing with a friend one day and stumbled upon a beautiful old statue of none other than Asklepios – heavy and substantial, with classic iconography and even His name in Greek scratched into the base. I think we both knew right away that this was no random find.

Honestly, while He may seem an obvious choice in my situation, I hadn’t even considered approaching this god – although I had thought of His father of course, having had a prior devotional relationship with Apollon. But seeing Him there, I immediately realized how fortunate I would be to have the help of the god of physicians, in addition to the many gods of healing and transformation and luck I was already surrounded by. Because this was not a simple matter of overall health, but a very medical road I was embarking on, in both ancient and very modern ways, full of doctors and technicians, tests and procedures, even the arcane workings of health insurance. And I quickly felt that this is why Asklepios was presenting Himself to me, as a guide through that particularly strange and complex world.

I bought the statue, delved into research on His cultus (the university library here fortunately had several books dedicated to the topic), carefully set up a shrine with all the necessary symbolism (locating it near both my ancestor photos and my houseplants – sharing space with my snake plant, of course), and began establishing ritual protocols.

I got a notebook and filled one side with doctor’s numbers and to-do lists, expenses to prepare for, questions to ask at my next appointment…. and the other side with notes on Asklepios worship, ideas for devotional practices (for Him and Others – there were many aspects to this work and I may talk about the rest in a future post), and the Orphic Hymn to the god in two languages. I took that notebook with me to every appointment, and it helped ensure that I always remembered the sacred aspect of this process along with the physical. (And it meant that, for instance, when I was left in a tiny room alone for ages waiting on an MRI, I could pass the time reading the hymn and thinking about its meaning.)

In the few weeks leading up to each surgery, I rose at dawn each day to light the tiny oil lamp on Asklepios’ shrine [1], share a cup of herbal tea [2], light a special blend of incense [3] and read the hymn aloud in Greek and English followed by whatever specific prayers I had. (I was also doing daily work with Dionysos and one of my spirits, centered on letting go, and keeping my chi flowing.) But in addition to this formal daily practice, throughout the months of this process, every time I did anything related to the medical stuff – before doctor’s appointments, during calls to the insurance company, waiting for test results – I lit the lamp and asked for His help. It was such an immense lesson in making even the most tedious, difficult and scary “mundane” experiences into holy ones.

And over and over again, He (and Others) came through. The whole process was remarkably smooth overall (not to say there haven’t been challenging parts, but it could have been much, much worse, and I was very lucky in the doctors I was assigned). And most importantly, I came through both surgeries healthy and whole – well, except for the parts they removed, of course, but it feels like a new kind of wholeness rather than a loss… perhaps more on that in a future post, especially the way it basically propelled me into instant cronehood. Suffice to say for now that I feel quite comfortable in my new body, and while I recognize and respect that losing one’s fertility (even if mostly symbolic at my age) and most of the internal and external physical markers of femaleness (I did not have reconstruction after the mastectomy) would be difficult if not tragic for many women, for me it actually turned out to be a welcome release and transition to a new way of being embodied. And gave me some extra mojo, in fact.

One interesting thing about Asklepios is how He echoes in some ways the traits of Apollon, but as a hero-god who died Himself, and as one who deals primarily with people in a state of imbalance or miasma, there aren’t the same purity rules at all. While I veiled certain shrines during my recovery periods, I actually made a special sacred space for the healing work by turning my adyton into a temporary incubation chamber where I slept for weeks until I felt I had passed through the liminal, miasmic stage. There was a lot of discernment involved to determine which gods and spirits were appropriate and willing to surround me for this process and which needed to be away from it. But the incubation chamber served its function well, and indeed like it happened in antiquity, I had a dream while there which directly tied into my healing and my future.

The ancient healing shrines of Asklepios were filled with inscriptions of gratitude, declarations of healings accomplished, along with votive objects representing the parts of the body affected. So, after my hysterectomy in January, I presented the god with a small pewter charm of a uterus and ovaries [4], and in April after the mastectomy I added a milagro of breasts. And I consider this post and picture to serve as my public inscription of gratitude to the god who held me safely through a dangerous, frightening and sometimes bewildering journey. May He do the same for all those who come to Him.

Hail Asklepios, greatest of physicians.

Asklepios, lord Paian, healer of all, you charm away the suffering of men in pain.
Come, mighty and soothing, bring health,
And put an end to sickness and the harsh fate of death.
Helper, blessed spirit of growth and blossoming, you ward off evil,
Honored and mighty scion of Phoibos Apollon.
Enemy of disease, whose blameless consort is Hygeia,
Come, O blessed one, as savior and bring life to a good end.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

[1] I’ve been using oil lamps for my Hellenic gods in recent years, with great success, using a variety of receptacles. This time I simply took a small brass pipe fitting of some kind from the hardware store, put a rubber washer under it to protect the table surface, used a metal wick-holder from making tealight candles (but leaving it uncrimped), inserted a very short length of cotton wick, and filled it with olive oil. Makes a lovely light for about an hour.

[2] Just as I was embarking on this work, a religious colleague, unaware of any of it, brought me a gift of a dried plant I had never encountered before called Sideritis syriaca, or Greek Mountain Tea. It is used as a panacea, so I thought it might be an appropriate offering for Asklepios and indeed it was well-received. It’s also quite a compelling, subtle flavor. I alternated sharing small amounts of this with tisanes brewed from other herbs.

[3] In case anyone is interested, the incense cones I made consisted of bay leaves, rosemary, Greek mountain tea, yarrow and sage, with makko for combustion, and mixed with khernips to form the dough.

[4] Funny story about this – the only one I really liked was made in Sweden so I took a chance and ordered it, leaving plenty of time for it to arrive. It was shipped quickly but then something went awry and the tracking showed it bouncing around various far-flung distribution centers in random directions for weeks. I had to laugh because I realized it had become a “wandering uterus” (the ancient belief that sometimes the uterus wandered around a woman’s body, causing problems, hence “hysteria”)! It ended up arriving the day before my surgery. Of course.

~ by Dver on June 5, 2022.

11 Responses to “Healer of All”

  1. OMGs such a story… thank you for sharing it. Dver you are really blessed. Best of the bests to you! Stay well!

  2. This is so empowering to read and think about. I wasn’t nearly so well organized or prepared and spent (still spend) more time howling than remembering to fasten myself to the spirits guiding me through.
    Your words on so many levels have made one of the worst times of my life more bearable. Thank you so much for sharing such intimate, tender details of your journey.
    Io Asklepios!

    • Yes that’s exactly why I wrote it, because I had the relative luxury to get organized and think about it calmly, and I know when one has an actual illness it’s harder if not impossible to be thinking like that. (Not that I didn’t have my times of tears and pain and panic, but I had a lot more control over my situation which helped immensely. And because my ordeals were all preventative measures rather than treatments for an aggressive disease, they were a lot gentler, relatively.)

      I am so, so glad I could be even the tiniest bit of help to you in your terrible ordeal. Io Asklepios!

  3. Thanks so much for sharing all of this, and I’m glad to know that you’ve been able to undergo this process with such a high degree of balance, sanity, and–I can’t say it any other way!–holiness for such a difficult situation! I am particularly glad to know about this due to something that I can’t fully detail currently, but that is impacting my family at the moment.

    So, hail to Asklepios and all of His many children involved in healing! And, hail to you!

    • Thank you! If there’s any way I can be of assistance with your family matter, feel free to email me privately about the situation.

  4. For those who are curious about the Greek mountain tea, I will share what information I can: the family of plants called Sideritis seems to have been used across the Mediterranean basin as an herbal tea from antiquity. Its English name is “ironwort”, which is a close approximation of the actual meaning of “Sideritis.” Some folklore claims it was used for healing wounds caused by iron weapons. To this day it is drunk in Greece and elsewhere in the Mediterranean as an herbal medicine, particularly in the mountainous regions where it grows both wild and cultivated.

    Thank you, Dver, for sharing publicly such a detailed and complex account of an initiatory journey. We polytheists are fortunate to have so rich an account of the God shared with us, by such an experienced practitioner. Ἰώ Παιάν Ἀσκληπιέ!

  5. Hail Asklepios! I am glad He and the Gods pulled you through this

  6. Thank you for sharing such a succinct devotional! I’m reblogging as I have just been through the cancer experience (breast cancer both breasts, bilateral mastectomy + DIEP Flap reconstruction + chemotherapy + endocrine therapy ongoing) – Asklepios and His Family have been so important throughout my experience, and not a lot of practitioners share about them! Thank you.

  7. […] Healer of All […]

  8. […] have been very positively inspired by the posts of Dver at A Forest Door recently on her own health challenges and their resulting transformations, and her further observations on Asklepios’ role in healing, and comments on her medical […]

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