Abstract: Music, Healing and Sacred Space in Classical Greece: A New Interpretation of the Thymele of Epidauros


Around 380 B.C.E., the citizens of the small Peloponnesian city Epidauros launched a massive building program at the nearby healing sanctuary of Asklepios. One of the most impressive and sophisticated structures belonging to this program was an elaborate, mysterious round building known in the ancient sources as the thymele. At that time, and for its size, the thymele was the most costly and most ornate building in all the Peloponnese.

Since its excavation in the nineteenth century, archaeologists have proposed a wide range of interpretations for the thymele.  For example, the thymele has been considered to be either Asklepios’s tomb or as an architectural frame for an altar to the hero-god.  These readings seem logical, given the building’s central position in Asklepios’s sanctuary and the building’s name—the term thymele is often associated with altars or other places of sacrifice.  Perhaps less well known, the thymele has also been interpreted as a prytaneion, a fountain house, a dining hall, and astronomical tool, a library, a space for therapeutic incubation, and even as a house for Asklepios’s sacred snakes.  A curious hole at the center of the thymele’s floor opens into the labyrinthine infrastructure below, and this been interpreted as a well or a pit (ἐναγιστήριον) for offerings including blood libations and eggs (a common symbol of rebirth) that were supposedly poured into it from the cella above.  Other scholars have suggested that the labyrinthine infrastructure was a maze through which worshippers wandered like initiates in a mystery cult.

In this lecture, Dr. Peter Schultz offers another solution to this long standing mystery, the speculative suggestion that, in addition to many other possible functions, the thymele at Epidauros also served as a space for musical performance and that the design of the thymele, specifically its elaborate substructure, served to amplify and resonate sacred music performed within the building’s cella.  This argument complements a growing body of scholarship on the acoustics of ancient structures, a field of study known as archaeoacoustics, and seeks to place the thymele at Epidauros within a dynamic, living past.