Medical Fraternity: Initiations in the Hippocratic Corpus

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By the end of the fifth century, Hippocratic physicians were organised in a family-like association, which acted according to formal statutes, recorded in the Oath, the Law, and other deontological texts. The Hippocratics were required to adhere to strict norms of ritual and moral purity, allowing the members of the association to regard themselves as holy men, pure and pious. Medical transmission included written texts, practical instruction, and oral tradition, presumably of esoteric knowledge prohibited to the uninitiated. A Hippocratic physician probably had to undergo rites of passage on two occasions. The first initiation was performed when he began his studies as a boy or adolescent; the second followed after years of apprenticeship and formally signified his becoming a physician. The combination of a two-stage initiation into esoteric wisdom, quasi-familial ties between the master and his disciples, and the emphasis on healing as a lofty vocation was characteristic of the associations of philosophers and healers in Magna Graecia. It is possible that the Hippocratics adopted some of their practices, particularly the elements of initiation rituals, and combined them with the norms and ceremonies of the Asclepiad clans of Cos and Cnidus.

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