The Cult of Asclepius

The Greek Gods had their own physician—Paeon. In fact Paeon eventually became a descriptor for ‘physician’—and the name of my medical school’s student magazine. We did not take the Hippocratic oath there (it has become somewhat passé). But had we done so we would have sworn by Apollo, Asclepius, Hygieia and Panacea. The most medically prominent in this pantheon is Asclepius, who was a physician of, dare we say it, mythical proportions.

Most people are more familiar with his father, Apollo. But Apollo had such diverse attributes that one might think he suffered from multiple personality disorder. Medicine was a small and somewhat dreadful part of this god’s repertoire. His arrows, and that of his sister Artemis, were considered vectors of sudden illness. And he was sometimes known as Apollo Smintheus, ‘the mouse god’, associating him with rodents as the cause of plague.

Son of Apollo

The son of Apollo and the mortal princess Coronis, Asclepius was an heroic healer who spawned a family of mythical physicians and ‘nurses’ and a real world cult in the healing arts. But as Prometheus also discovered, ‘no good deed goes unpunished.’ He is mentioned in the Iliad (c750 BCE),along with two physician sons.

His remarkable healing powers were learned not from his father, Apollo, but from Chiron, a Centaur, after being rescued from his dying mother’s womb. And Athena taught Asclepius the secret of the blood of Medusa’s head—that from the left veins was poison, and that from the right could raise the dead. Zeus and Hades feared his power and agreed to punish his hubris, and thus Asclepius died of a bolt from the blue—from Zeus.

Asclepius’s legacy of healing continued on in his family. Two sons were physicians, one, the dwarf, a nurse-like figure, as were all of his five daughters, including Hygieia and Panacea, names that resonant in modern medicine as hygiene and, well, panacea.

Cult of Healing

But his real-world legacy endured as hero worship and a cult of healing spread out from Thessaly in Greece. In Epidaurus, supplicants slept in temples (Asclepeions), awaiting the cures that might come during dreaming. By 300 BCE medical practice in his name and honor was also established in Pergamum and Rome by the ‘Therapeutae of Asclepius’. The Roman spelling is ‘Aesculapius’. Famous followers included Hippocrates and Galen.

The true symbol of medicine in Western culture is not the Caduceus, as often misappropriated, but the rod of Asclepius, which has one snake entwined, not two. It derives from the story of a kindness shown by asclepius to a serpent (the Aesculapian snake or Zamensis longissimus). In return, the snake revealed secret knowledge. The Caduceus, on the other hand, is the traditional symbol of Hermes and was mistakenly adopted by the US Military in the 1800s. But that's a ‘whole–nother’ story.

Look up

These days we can show our reverence for the devotion to healing embodied in the mythical Asclepius either by looking him up in the historical record—or to the heavens. Zeus, out of regret or respect, placed his body in the constellation Ophiuchus: ‘The Serpent Holder’.

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On Amazon

Plague and the Athenian Imagination: Drama, History, and the Cult of Asclepius,  Robin MItchel-Boyask.

"The great plague of Athens that began in 430 BCE had an enormous effect on the imagination of its literary artists and on the social imagination of the city as a whole. In this book, Professor Mitchell-Boyask studies the impact of the plague on Athenian tragedy early in the 420s and argues for a significant relationship between drama and the development of the cult of the healing god Asclepius..."

Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies Reprint edition by Edelstein, Emma J., Edelstein, Ludwig (1998) Paperback

 "Providing an overview of all facets of the Asclepius phenomenon, this book, first published in two volumes in 1945, comprises a unique collection of the literary references and inscriptions in ancient texts—given in both the original and translation—to the deity, his life, his deeds, his cult, and his temples, as well as an extended analysis of them."

Further reading
Encyclopedia Britannica: AscelpiusEpidaurus
Wikipedia: Asclepius,  PaeanTherapeutae of AsclepiusCaduceus as a symbol of medicine
U. Virginia Antigua Medicina: Homer, Greek Gods and Goddesses and the Plague
Greek Medicine .net: Asclepius
Media credits
Map: Homan Heirs Map of Ancient Greece
Figure: Asclepius Louvre Engraving c1880
Constellation: Ophiuchus,  Sidney Hall c1825 Serpens depicted in Urania's Mirror

Rod of who, now...?

Rod of who, now...?