Asklepius, Ancient God of Healing, Precursor of Hippocrates

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Asclepius with his serpent-entwined staff, Archaeological Museum of Epidaurus, Greece

 

Western culture’s demands of integrity, sacrifice, and compassion from its physician healers have roots in the mythic traditions of ancient Greece. By understanding these traditions, modern physicians can better understand their patients’ expectations and the high expectations physicians often have for themselves.

 

The mythic figure Asklepios was the focus of Greek and Roman medical tradition from approximately 1500 BCE to 500 CE. As a physician-hero, Asklepios exemplified the ideal physician and the pitfalls he or she may face. With the progressive deification of Asklepios and the spread of his worship first in Greece and then in the Roman empire, Asklepios became generally recognized as the god of healing and served as an object of supplication, particularly for the poor and disregarded. Asklepian traditions for medical service provide historical insight into the role of modern physicians and their obligations to care for the underserved. Asclepius was a god of medicine in ancient Greek religion and mythology. Asclepius represents the healing aspect of the medical arts; his daughters are Hygieia (“Hygiene“, the goddess/personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation), Iaso (the goddess of recuperation from illness), Aceso (the goddess of the healing process), Aglaea/AEgle (the goddess of beauty, splendor, glory, magnificence, and adornment), and Panacea (the goddess of universal remedy). He was associated with the Roman/Etruscan god Vediovis. He was one of Apollo’s sons, sharing with Apollo the epithet Paean (“the Healer“). The rod of Asclepius, a single snake-entwined staff, remains a symbol of medicine today. Those physicians and attendants who served this god were known as the Therapeutae of Asclepius.

 

Although Asclepius was the son of Apollo, according to the earliest accounts, his mother was a mortal woman named Coronis. His mother was killed for being unfaithful to Apollo and although pregnant, she was laid out on a funeral pyre to be burned to death. As the story goes, the unborn child was rescued from her womb. Or, in another version, his mother died in labor and was laid out on the pyre to be consumed, but his father, Apollo, rescued the child, cutting him from her womb. From this he received the name Asklepios, “to cut open.“ Apollo carried his baby son, to the centaur Chiron who raised Asclepius and instructed him in the art of medicine. It is said that in return for some kindness rendered by Asclepius, a snake licked Asclepius’ ears clean and taught him secret knowledge (to the Greeks snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection). Asclepius bore a rod wreathed with a snake, which became associated with healing. To this day a species of non-venomous pan-Mediterranean serpent, the Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus) is named for the god. Asclepius became so proficient a healer that he surpassed both Chiron and his father, Apollo. Asclepius was therefore able to evade death and to bring others back to life from the brink of death and beyond. This caused an influx of human beings and Zeus resorted to killing him to maintain balance in the numbers of the human population.

 

 

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Asclepios with his daughter Hygieia. Wikipedia

 

Asclepius was married to Epione, with whom he had five daughters: Hygieia, Panacea, Aceso, Iaso, and Aglaea, and three sons: Machaon, Podaleirios and Telesphoros. He also sired a son, Aratus, with Aristodama. The names of his daughters each rather transparently reflect a certain subset of the overall theme of “good health“. At some point, Asclepius was among those who took part in the Calydonian Boar hunt. Another version of Asclepius’ death is that Zeus killed Asclepius with a thunderbolt because he, Asclepius, brought Hippolytus back alive from the dead and accepted gold for it. Other stories say that Asclepius was killed because after bringing people back from the dead, Hades thought that no more dead spirits would come to the underworld, so he asked his brother Zeus to stop him. This angered Apollo who in turn killed the Cyclopes who made the thunderbolts for Zeus. For this act, Zeus suspended Apollo from the night sky and commanded Apollo to serve Admetus, King of Thessaly for a year. Once the year had passed, Zeus brought Apollo back to Mount Olympus and revived the Cyclopes that made his thunderbolts. After Asclepius’ death, Zeus placed his body among the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus (“the Serpent Holder“). Some sources also state that Asclepius was later resurrected as a god by Zeus to prevent any further feuds with Apollo. It was also claimed that Asclepius was instructed by Zeus to never revive the dead without his approval again.

 

 

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Majestic Zeus-like facial features of Asclepius head (Melos). Wikipedia

 

The most famous temple of Asclepius was at Epidaurus in north-eastern Peloponnese, dated to the fifth century BCE. Another famous healing temple (or asclepieion) was built approximately a century later on the island of Kos, where Hippocrates, the legendary “father of medicine“, is thought to have begun his career. Other asclepieia were situated in Trikala, Gortys (in Arcadia), and Pergamum in Asia. From the fifth century BCE onwards, the cult of Asclepius grew very popular and pilgrims flocked to his healing temples (Asclepieia) to be cured of their ills. Ritual purification would be followed by offerings or sacrifices to the god (according to means), and the supplicant would then spend the night in the holiest part of the sanctuary – the abaton (or adyton). Any dreams or visions would be reported to a priest who would prescribe the appropriate therapy by a process of interpretation. Some healing temples also used sacred dogs to lick the wounds of sick petitioners. In honor of Asclepius, a particular type of non-venomous snake was often used in healing rituals, and these snakes – the Aesculapian Snakes – slithered around freely on the floor in dormitories where the sick and injured slept. These snakes were introduced at the founding of each new temple of Asclepius throughout the classical world.

 

The original Hippocratic Oath began with the invocation “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods.

 

 

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Asclepius – a fragment of mosaic bathroom in Kyustendil (Bulgaria). Source: Wikipedia

 

Some later religious movements claimed links to Asclepius. For example in the 2nd century CE the controversial miracle-worker Alexander (this is not Alexander III of Macedonia, also called Alexander the Great) claimed that his god Glycon, a snake with a “head of linen“ was an incarnation of Asclepius. The Greek language rhetorician and satirist Lucian produced the work Alexander the False Prophet to denounce the swindler for future generations. He described Alexander as having a character “made up of lying, trickery, perjury, and malice; [it was] facile, audacious, venturesome, diligent in the execution of its schemes, plausible, convincing, masking as good, and wearing an appearance absolutely opposite to its purpose.“ However, this particular religious fraud, amassed great wealth, due to his ability to convince people that he had healing powers.

 

In Rome, the College of Aesculapius and Hygia was an association (collegium) that served as a burial society and dining club that also participated in Imperial cult. The botanical genus Asclepias (commonly known as milkweed) is named after the great healer and includes the medicinal plant A. tuberosa or “Pleurisy root“.

 

Asclepius was depicted on the reverse of the Greek 10,000 drachmas banknote of 1995-2001.

 

Asclepius is mentioned by Hercules in the Hercules: The Legendary Journeys episode “Siege at Naxos.“ He is mentioned to be Hercules’ cousin who taught him how to mix healing herbs and medicines. In “The Apple,“ Hercules told Iolaus that Asclepius often said “An apple a day keeps Asclepius away“ and that he never quite knew what was meant by that. In “Centaur Mentor Journey,“ Asclepius was one of the students mentored by the centaur Ceridian. When Ceridian was dying, Hercules suggested that Asclepius might be able to help. Ceridian knew better.

 

In the fantasy novel The Son of Neptune, the Roman Lar Gaius Vitellius Reticulus was a descendant of Asclepius. Later, in The Blood of Olympus, a novel from the same series, Asclepius was mentioned by Apollo, his father, when Leo Valdez speaks to him. The god himself appears when Leo, Piper McLean, and Jason Grace visit his office to retrieve the physician’s cure, which can bring the recently deceased back to life. He quickly diagnoses Jason with myopia and gives him a pair of glasses. Later, he uses the Pylosian mint (the “cursed“ daisy) and the Makhai to formulate the physician’s cure and gives the trio instructions on its use.

 

In the short story “The Two Temples“ by Herman Melville, the narrator, hired by a lady as a personal physician, describes his job as “the post of private Aesculapius and knightly companion.“

 

In the manga Saint Seiya: Next Dimension, the Ophiuchus Gold Saint is loosely based on the figure of Asclepius, since it is said that he was regarded as a god and had the power to heal others, which is why the gods punished him and erased his existence.

 

In the “Trauma Center“, multiple protagonists of the game hold an inherited ability called the ‘Healing Touch’, which is said to be an ability originally held by Asclepius.

 

Asclepius is alluded to in a Mars Volta song, “Askepios.“ The song makes mention of both un-death and resurrection. In popular American culture, Asclepius was seen in Marvel Comics where he appeared in Ares #4.

 

Today, there is a pharmaceutical company named, Asklepion, with a fine reputation of creating products that heal. Asclepius lives on!

 

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