Thessalos’ travels and his “magical” cures

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Thessalos’ travels and his “magical” cures,' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 11, 2023,

Seldom in ancient sources does one encounter extensive autobiographical statements about a person’s supposed journeys and communications with the gods (with the exception of novels like the Golden Ass). For this reason, the first century letter of Thessalos, which served as a preface for an astrological guide-book on medical materials, provides an important glimpse into ancient expectations regarding travel and religion. Yet this letter is not readily available in English. In connection with the Travel and Religion in Antiquity website, I have now created a webpage on Thessalos which provides a translation (along with the Greek text) of this seldom studied document. I’ve been working on an article that looks at Thessalos’ story within the context of Greek expectations regarding such journeys in pursuit of wisdom from the gods, and so the webpage will likely expand with time.

The letter attributed to Thessalos, which was only rediscovered and published by Charles Graux in 1878, relates the story (however fictional) of Thessalos’ early life and education in Asia Minor. There he demonstrates extraordinary abilities that lead him to pursue a medical education in Alexandria in Egypt. Towards the end of his education as a physician, Thessalos discovers an ancient book by king Nechepso which promises twenty-four medical cures according to the signs of the Zodiac. Thessalos rashly believes that the treatments will work and spreads word of the amazing cures to both his family in Asia and his colleagues in Alexandria, only to discover that he cannot make the prescriptions work. This leads him to thoughts of suicide. Thessalos then wanders through Egypt in search of a solution that is only satisfied after meeting an Egyptian priest at Diospolis (Thebes), who reluctantly prepares Thessalos to communicate with a god. After attaining purity, the story culminates in Thessalos meeting the god Asklepios “face to face”. Thessalos receives from Asklepios secret knowledge concerning the connections between effective healing, plants, and the stars.

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