Asclepius | Greek God

Asclepius Greek Mythology

Asclepius (Latin: Aesculapius) or Asclepius (Greek: Ἀσκληπιός, transl. Asklēpiós), in Greek and Roman mythology, is the god of medicine and healing.

There are several versions of his myth, but the most current ones point him out as the son of Apollo, a god, and Coronis, a mortal. He was born by caesarian section after the death of his mother, and taken to be raised by the centaur Chiron, who educated him in hunting and in the arts of healing.

He learned the healing power of herbs and surgery, and acquired such great skill that he could bring the dead back to life, for which Zeus punished him by killing him with lightning.

His cult spread over a vast region of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, and he was honored with numerous temples and shrines, which acted as hospitals. His image has remained alive and is a symbol present to this day in Western culture.

The myth

The story of Asclepius is reconstructed through the collection of legends and myths created by Greek paganism. Their religion was polytheistic, with a multitude of deities and semi-deities associated with all aspects of human life and with various especially sacred places, such as some rivers and springs, mountains and forests.

This multitude of gods was subordinate to a group of powerful main deities, most of whom they said inhabited Mount Olympus, and these in turn were presided over by Zeus.

Among the chief gods was Apollo, son of Zeus, god of the sun, light, music and the arts, of prophecy and healing, patron of the young, of the lecture, and ruler of the muses, who was, according to some versions of the myth, the father of Asclepius.

The earliest record of his name is found in Homer's Iliad, and in this quotation he was apparently still considered a mortal, described as the ruler of Tricca and also as a physician who had learned the art from the centaur Chiron and taught it to his two sons, Podalyrus and Macaon.

Since today the Homeric account of the Trojan War is considered the poetization of a possibly historical event, Asclepius may have actually existed, living around 1200 B.C., and been later divinized. In Greek culture it was common for celebrated heroes to be the object of worship after their death.

Writing in the 1st century, he explained that because he had perfected the previously primitive medical arts, he deserved a place among the immortals. The origins of his name are obscure. It is possible that it meant "gentle healer", it has also been reported that at first he was called Epios, and that after healing Ascles, tyrant of Epidaurus, he was renamed Asclepios.

His divine status was not unanimous among the ancients, some regarded him as a god, others as a hero-god or as a demigod. Around the 5th century BC, there was already a great deal of folklore created about him, and Pindar wrote saying that he was the son of Apollo with the mortal Coronis, daughter of Phlegias, the ruler of Thessaly. The place of his birth was disputed by several cities: Lakerea, Tricca, and Epidaurus.

Much later the Roman poet Ovid left an account of her story in his Metamorphoses. According to the narrative, there was no more beautiful maiden in all Thessaly than Coronis. Apollo was in love with her and they became lovers, but the god's raven discovered that she had lain with the young Ischys, son of Elatus, and flew to his master to report the fact.

Enraged, Apollo took an arrow from his quiver and shot the woman he had embraced so many times in the chest. Pulling out the bloody arrow, Coronis roared, "Oh Phoebus Apollo, surely I deserved this punishment, but why didn't you wait until I gave birth to our son? Now we both die!" And so saying, he expired.

Regretful for what he had done, Apollo felt hatred for himself, and the raven that had brought such evil news, which was white, was cursed and its feathers became black. Then Apollo descended from the heavens and went to her side, taking her lifeless body in his arms, but his powers were not enough to return her to the world of the living.

When she was placed on a pyre to be cremated, Apollo, overcome with grief, poured perfumes over her chest and began the funeral rites. But before the flames consumed the body of Coronis, he took the son still alive from his mother's womb and brought him to Chiron, the wise centaur who had educated many heroes, to raise him.

Chiron's daughter, Ochirroë, who could foresee the future, upon arriving at her father's cave, saw the child and said: "Child, you who bring health to all the world, may you grow and flourish! Mortals will often owe their lives to you, and you will be granted the power to bring back to life those who have died.

But one day you will make the gods angry for such daring, and your grandfather's thunderbolt will prevent you from doing it again, and from an immortal god you will be reduced to an inert corpse. But then, from this corpse once more you will be made a god, and for a second time you will renew your destiny."

Other classical authors added details: Apollodorus said that Chiron raised him and taught him the arts of healing and hunting. From Athena he received the magic blood of the Gorgon, by whose power his own blood flowing down his left side could take someone's life, and that on his right side could raise the dead.

When Zeus killed Asclepius, Apollo, in revenge, since he could not act against his father, killed the Cyclopes who forged Zeus' thunderbolts, for which he was punished and sent without his powers to Earth to serve the mortal Admeto for a year.

Diodorus explained the reason for his death by saying that his healing power was so great that he restored health to many who were disillusioned, and that this is why he was said to raise the dead.

As Hades, the god of the dead, was having his kingdom depopulated, he demanded from Zeus a solution to this outrage. Other sources mention Hygia, Panacea, Telesphorus, Acesius and Iaso as also his sons.

Theodoret said that some, like Hesiod, had him as the son of Arsinoe of Messenia, and gave another version for his birth from Coronis, saying that at birth he was abandoned by his mother on a mountain and was found by a shepherd by a dog, who fed him.

Entrusted to Chiron, after he grew up he went on to practice medicine in Tricca and Epidaurus. Pausanias repeated versions in which the shepherd was called Arestanas or Autolaus, but that the latter, seeing an aura of divine light around the child, became frightened, and went away.

He also mentioned that instead of a dog feeding him, he would have received milk from a goat, that Coronis would have been killed by Artemis, to punish the outrage to her brother Apollo, and that the one who would have taken him from his mother's womb would have been Hermes.

Cyril wrote that there were versions of Coronis being seduced by a priest of the temple of Apollo, who taught Asclepius his art.

Lactantius said that the raven was turned black because it had been put as Coronis' guardian, and had failed in its function. Furthermore, he said that his high reputation was not fair, because he would only have healed Hippolytus.

Others said that he had unknown parents, that he had a wife, Epione, that his father had been Arsippus or Zeus himself, had loved Hippolytus, had a sister named Eriopis, and that Coronis' father would have been furious when he learned that Coronis had been raped by Apollo, would have set fire to the god's temple and thus unintentionally killed his daughter who was there.

There were also versions running, derived from Pindar, which described him as avaricious, charging in gold for his art, and arrogant, calling himself a god, and therefore being killed by lightning in punishment for his hubris, but Plato refuted the charges by saying that if he was the son of a god he could not have such faults, and if he had them, he was not the son of a god. Tertullian also doubted them as being unworthy.

Some versions of the myth say that after he was killed with lightning Zeus turned him into the constellation of Ophiuchus, so that Apollo would be comforted. The oracle at Delphi was once consulted about who Aesculapius' mother was and where he was born, and the Pythoness said it was Coronis, and that he had come into the world in Epidaurus.

Some versions of the myth say that after death Aesculapius was resurrected by Zeus, allowing him to continue his practice, provided he no longer interfered with the final fate of mortals, becoming known for his kindness and compassion in the treatment of the sick, and devoting his attention rather to the poor.

His cures

Among the cures he would have performed are those of several heroes wounded at Thebes, of Philoctetes at Troy, of the tyrant of Epidaurus, Ascles, of an eye disease, the daughters of Proetus who had been driven mad by Hera, restored sight to the sons of Phineus, healed with herbs the wounds of Hercules in his fight against the Hydra of Lerna, restored to life Orion, Hippolytus, Hymenaeus, Tindareus, Glaucus, Capaneus, Panassis, and Lycurgus.

After his death other cures were attributed to him. Rufus of Ephesus, one of the great physicians around 100 BC, said that through Aesculapius' intervention an epileptic was saved; a physician of Smyrna dedicated a statue to him in c. 200 AD. for having avoided many diseases by following his advice;

Elio Aristides, after seeking a cure for a large tumor on his leg from many doctors, without success, appealed to him, had a vision of the god, and was miraculously cured, and so on.

While in the sanctuary of Epidaurus, from where his cult radiated, the doctors did not act, but only the priests, he appeared in the dreams of the patients and directly intervened in their illnesses, later he began to appear in a more indirect way, giving advice and guiding the actions of conventional doctors, as the ancient chronicles refer to his cures in Pergamos, another great sanctuary, already from the Hellenistic period.

Some of his interventions in dreams were dramatic. One woman reported that the god appeared to her in a dream and cut out her sick eye, dipped it in a potion and put it back in its socket, and when she woke up she was cured.

Another patient said that he went to seek a cure for an abscess in his abdomen, dreamed that the god tied him on a board and cut the area, removed the abscess, then sewed up the skin. When he awoke, he was healed, but the ground around him was soaked in blood.

Another person came to the temple with the point of a spear stuck in his jaw, where it had been for six years. He slept and dreamed that Asclepius removed it, and woke up with the iron between his hands, healed. One who was bald woke up with hair on his head, and one who lacked one eye woke up with both.

Besides these extraordinary cures and other more prosaic ones, Aesculapius was also invoked to find missing persons or to solve relationship problems or everyday difficulties.

A porter who had broken a vase gathered the fragments and went to the sanctuary. When he got there, he opened the bag he was carrying them in and saw the vase had been restored. Interestingly, despite the many testimonies about his dream appearances, no account of his physical appearance survives.

Attributes, representations and symbols

Besides his direct connection with medicine, Asclepius had his image transformed and magnified, taking on other meanings. The Neoplatonists believed that Aesculapius was the soul of the world, through which Creation was held together and organized with symmetry and balance.

Elio Aristides said that he was the guide and ruler of all things, the savior of the universe, and the guardian of the immortals. Julian declared that he was the healer of the bodies and, with the help of the Muses, Hermes and Apollo, was the educator of souls.

His figure was assimilated syncretistically to that of Imhotep in Egypt, to Eshmun in Phoenicia, to Zeus in Pergamum, and to Jupiter in Rome, where he was called Aesculapius Optimus Maximus.

He is usually represented as a mature man, dressed in a tunic that uncovers his right shoulder, and leaning on a staff on which a serpent is coiled. Sometimes a boy appears at his side, symbolizing the recovery of health, or that of Telesphorus, a kind of hooded earth elemental who brought the healing process to a successful conclusion, and who some sources say is his son.

He may also be shown with some of his other children, especially Higeia, who became an important figure in his cult and even had temples of her own. Several of his statues and images survive from antiquity on coins and cameos.

The statue in his main temple at Epidaurus was, according to Pausanias, made of gold and ivory, about six meters high, and he appeared seated on a throne, his right hand resting on a serpent, while with his left he held a staff. He had a dog at his side. Asclepius was depicted on coins minted by 46 Roman emperors and empresses, and these coins circulated throughout the Roman Empire.

The main symbol of Asclepius is a staff with a coiled serpent, which has often been mistakenly confused with the caduceus, which has two serpents. The origin of the symbol is very ancient, predating the Greeks.

More than 5,000 years ago the Mesopotamians used a staff with a serpent as an emblem of Ningizzida, the god of fertility, marriage and plagues.

To the Greeks and Romans the serpent was associated with Apollo because he killed the Python of Delphi, and was a symbol of healing because it periodically shed its old skin and was apparently reborn, just as physicians remove disease from bodies and rejuvenate men, and also because the serpent was a symbol of concentrated attention, which was required of healers.

It was also known to the Jews before Christ, as we read in the Biblical account of Moses erecting a pole with a bronze serpent to deliver his people from a plague of serpents. Throughout the development of Christianity this symbol was transformed, and the pole became a Tau.

Aesculapius' connection to the serpent derives from one of the legends associated with his myth. Called to the aid of Glaucus, who had been killed by lightning, he saw a serpent penetrate the room where he was, and killed it with his staff. Soon a second serpent entered, carrying herbs in its mouth, which it placed over the mouth of the other dead serpent, bringing it back to life.

Taking these herbs, Aesculapius put them into the mouth of Glaucus, who also revived, and from then on made the serpent his guardian animal. His staff became the symbol of medicine today in many countries of the world, and is present in the flag of the World Health Organization.

The other animal associated with him was the dog, present in one version of his myth as the animal that brought him food when he was abandoned as a baby in the mountains, and for being able to follow an invisible trail with his sense of smell, which symbolized the doctor's ability to identify disease through symptoms invisible to the layman.

Finally the rooster, which was often sacrificed in his honor, was the symbol of the sunrise, the star ruled by Apollo, his divine father.

Aesculapius' cult and healing system

Hundreds of ancient shrines to Asclepius have been identified throughout the Mediterranean rim and western Europe - from Memphis in Egypt to Karpow in northern Europe, from Ecbathana in the East to Wales - through archaeological ruins, literary citations, inscriptions on monuments, and numismatic iconography.

Many of their temples were located in privileged positions, such as on the acropolis of Athens and the acropolis of Carthage, and on the Tiber Island in Rome. Alice Walton offered a listing of 368 places of worship, although for some of them the evidence amounted to a votive tablet, an altar or an inscription, and it is not always certain in these cases that there was a true sanctuary there.

She omitted the Latin sources, so there are still several gaps in a complete mapping, indicating that the spread of their influence was even wider. Gerald Hart augmented his list with 96 more sites, Esperandieu indicated 29 more, and other scholars brought evidence of several more in central Europe.

His cult began to radiate documentedly from Epidaurus around the end of the 6th century BCE, but it was from his invocation by the Athenians to ward off the plague from Athens in 420 BCE, which was successful, that his fame quickly grew, and he was often associated with Higeia.

According to Cheng-Hsiung Lü, the legends about Hiegia and Asclepius symbolize the perennial oscillation between two basic approaches to medicine: prophylaxis and therapy.

For the followers of Hygia, health was the result of following natural laws, and the function of medicine was to identify and disclose what these laws were, which were responsible for maintaining a healthy balance between mind and body, so that people would not violate them by bringing disease upon themselves.

In contrast, for devotees of Asclepius, the role of the physician was to cure the disease already installed through surgery, drugs, or supernatural agencies. For Ferguson, the wide spread of the cult of Asclepius was the most impressive religious phenomenon in Greece since the emergence of the Dionysian cult. In Athens his cult was also associated from 413 BCE with the Mysteries of Elêusis.

The sanctuary of Epidaurus, the most famous and one of the most important Greek architectural monuments of the 4th century B.C., had more than 160 rooms for pilgrims, and could be compared to a large hospital.

Other important temples were those on the island of Cos during the Hellenistic period, and Pergamos during the Roman Empire.

Asclepius was one of the first Greek gods to be assimilated by the Romans, after a plague in 293 BC. Two years later he already had a temple in Rome, on the Tiber Island, where centuries later a Christian church dedicated to St. Bartholomew (San Bartolomeo all'isola) and a hospital (Hospital Faterbenefratelli) were built and still exist.

Socrates had a rooster sacrificed to Asclepius on the occasion of his death, Alexander the Great dedicated his sword and armor to him at Gortys in Arcadia, the emperor Claudius exempted the island of Kos from taxation and dedicated it all to his cult, and the philosopher Apollonius of Tyana prepared for his career in a temple of Asclepius.

The cult of Asclepius determined certain features of the cult of Serapis, and its iconography influenced the depictions of Zeus and also those of Christ.

Every year a great festival was celebrated in Epidaurus, nine days after the Isthmic Games. The festival combined sacred ceremonies and profane gatherings, and attracted devotees of Asclepius and doctors from all over Greece.

There was a great procession from the city to the shrine, when hymns were sung in honor of the god, public and private sacrifices were performed, and then the festival closed with a great banquet, athletic competitions, and theatrical performances.

Plato said that he treated localized diseases through a balanced diet, bloodletting, medicines, and surgery, but if he considered a man sick of the soul, rebellious and fearless, and unable to follow his precepts, or if he was terminally ill, he did not treat him.

  Plato's account is colored by his ethics and political views, for he believed that a life was not worth living if it was not according to the laws of virtue, and a man did not deserve society's attention if his life did not benefit the community. 27] In any case this view was shared by the Greeks of his time.

The priest-healers of Epidaurus, at the entrance of their temple, had caused to be inscribed the saying, "Pure must be he who enters the odorous temple; purity means to be wise in sacred things," and in that age in the concept of purity was implied that of arete, virtue.

In all their shrines there was a temple, a fountain for purification, and the abaton, a place to sleep. The sanctuary area often still included spas, cultivated gardens, a theater, a gymnasium, and a library, because healing was considered a process involving the transformation of body and spirit.

Roetzel considers them the forerunners of holistic medicine, and Bergdolt considers the psychosomatic element a determining factor in the effectiveness of treatment. But pregnant women close to giving birth or terminally ill patients were not admitted, because both death and birth desecrated the sanctity of the place.

But in Roman times this prohibition was overturned. There was also a kennel or breeding ground for non-poisonous serpents, the symbols of the god, which were used as mediators of his powers through their contact with the sick.

The system of worship and healing in the sanctuaries of Asclepius developed broadly as follows: The patient would purify himself at the source of the shrine and offer a sacrifice.

Common offerings were honey cakes, cheese cakes, and figs. Prayers, meditation, the singing of sacred hymns, medicinal baths, exposure to sunlight, barefoot walks, a special diet, abstinence from sex, and physical exercise were also often part of the ritual and treatment.

At night the patient would go to the abaton in order to sleep and the enkoimesis, or "incubation", or the revelation of the god in dreams, would often take place. The god would either appear and heal directly, or give instructions about a specific treatment, which sometimes happened over several days in different dreams. The dream was then reported to the priests, who interpreted or supplemented the instructions.

The literal following of the instructions given in the dream was a prerequisite for healing. There are several known accounts of the god appearing in dreams opposed to the patient's lack of faith. Occasionally the god would transform a serious illness into a milder one, and then leave it to the care of the physicians. Sometimes the dream was not necessary, and the cure took place immediately.

If the person was cured, the custom was to give thanks with a new sacrifice, usually a rooster or a sum of money. It could also be an ex-voto, a work of art, or a poem composed in his honor. Historical records report amazing cures, straightening cripples and restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and speech to the mute.

Tradition and modernity

The medical tradition derived from Asclepius was assimilated by Hippocrates, considered by many to be the father of Western medicine, who trained at the shrine of Asclepius in Cos.

He himself was a descendant of the Asclepians, a line of priest-medics who were said to be derived from the offspring of the god himself. Although Hippocratic medicine developed along more scientific and empirical lines, several aspects of his doctrine drew on the religious folklore surrounding the cult of Asclepius, and he paid great attention to dreams as an element of diagnosis.

After the rise of Christianity, several shrines of Asclepius were transformed into Christian churches dedicated to saints connected with healing, but he was one of the pagan gods with the greatest survival in Christianity, by virtue of his reputation for kindness and compassion.

By the time the Parthenon in Athens was a Christian church, in the 6th century AD, the adjacent temple of Asclepius was still attended. Nillson & Kroll claim that the worship liturgy of Asclepius was a strong influence on the systematization of Christian ritualistics, and Justin, in his Apology, wrote that "When we say that Jesus healed the crippled and the paralyzed and those who were sick from birth and that he raised the dead, we are reporting deeds which were identical to those which Asclepius is said to have performed."

Hart drew a parallel between the lives of Asclepius and Christ, where he pointed out several similarities. Both were children of a divine father and a mortal, virgin mother, bound to mortal husbands;

their birth was charged by supernatural manifestations, Christ with a moving star before the Magi and by angels who called the shepherds to worship him, and according to Pausanias Esculapius was found by a shepherd surrounded by a divine light; both were born as mortals and after living a pure life dedicated to the rescue of mankind, performing various miraculous cures, they died a human death, and were then deified;

Jesus was persecuted by society for threatening the status quo, and Esculapius was punished for raising the dead and nullifying the power of Hades. 

Despite the similarities between both characters, throughout the Middle Ages the role of healing god was attributed to Christ, often through the intercession of saints linked to healing, such as Cosmas and Damian.

But the memory of Asclepius was not eradicated at all, being preserved in monuments, in inscriptions, and in classical literature, copied by medieval monks. In the Renaissance, he was rescued from his state of suspended animation, and his image reappeared with great frequency as the supreme patron of medicine.

During the Protestant Reformation the iconography of Cosmas and Damian was completely replaced by that of Asclepius among the reformed countries, and his staff with the coiled serpent became definitively implanted as the symbol of medicine throughout the West.

Today many aspects of the therapeutic practices inspired by Asclepius, and systematized by Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Galen and other physicians of antiquity, remain in force.

Abortion and euthanasia are still surrounded by taboos, and the prescription of drugs that can aid suicide or be used for poisoning is forbidden. For a long time, medicine has remained associated with religion, and doctors today still enjoy a social prestige that few professions enjoy;

they are authorized to practice only after a public profession of devotion to their specialty for the benefit of all - the Hippocratic Oath, which opens with an invocation to Apollo,

Asclepius Higeia and Panacea - besides being healers they are often counselors, and their relationship with patients is protected by secrecy, they are required to maintain strict ethical behavior, and abuses of all kinds on patients are punished with severe sanctions by the medical associations to which they are affiliated, often with expulsion with disgrace and cancellation of the license to practice.

The concern with diet and detailed anamnesis has recently gained new prominence among physicians, and traditional Hippocratic methods of non-invasive diagnosis, according to some research, are more efficient for correct identification of a large number of diseases than reliance on a complex instrumental and laboratory apparatus.

In addition, therapeutic practices involving the reorientation of the mind and the employment of faith have also received the attention of researchers, and show promising results.