Many people are familiar with the famous symbol of medicine. It features a staff with a serpent wrapping around it. This iconic has many iterations, but it’s most often attributed to the Ancient Greek myth of Asclepius, also known as Asklepios.
A demigod hero, Asclepius was a revered figure in Ancient Greece. He became the Greek god of medicine, healing, and doctors. His ability to heal the sick made him one of the most beloved and influential gods to mortals. The story of Asclepius is one of determination and service. It’s a tale that continues to inspire, resonating the most in the world of healthcare.
There are a couple of different stories about how Asclepias came into the ancient world. However, most accounts agree that he was the son of Apollo and a mortal woman. As a result, he was born as a demigod.
His father, Apollo, was one of the famous twelve Olympians. A significant deity in the Greek Pantheon, many recognize Apollo for many feats. In Ancient Greece, he was the god of music, archery, dance, and truth. However, many also saw him as a god of healing. That connection is a crucial piece to the story of Asclepias.
In most accounts, Asclepias’ mother was Coronis, sometimes spelled Koronis. She was a mortal Thessalian princess and the daughter of Phlegyas, the King of the Lapiths. Apollo reportedly loved her.
One version of the tale says that Apollo purposely impregnated Coronis. However, another says that Asclepius was an illegitimate child. In this version of events, Coronis gave birth and abandoned Asclepius near Epidaurus.
In another version, the events surrounding Asclepius’ mother are much bleaker. Some scholars recount a tale of infidelity. Coronis fell for mortal man named Ischys, which enraged Apollo enough to send his sister, Artemis, to kill her.
While the events surrounding the fate of Coronis is up for debate, there is one thing that all version of the story agrees on: Coronis was not around to raise Asclepius. She died, almost taking Asclepius with her. However, Apollo jumped into action and cut him from his dying mother’s womb as she lay on a funeral pyre.
Apollo then took the motherless Asclepius to Chiron, a centaur, to look after him.
Learning the Art of Healing
Apollo requested that centaur Chiron teach Asclepius the art of medicine as he raised him on Mt. Pelion. His teachings had a massive impact on the young Asclepius. By the time he reached adulthood, his healing skills had surpassed his teacher and father.
It wasn’t long until Asclepius became a powerful healer and hero to humans. Not only did he heal sicknesses, but Asclepius reportedly brought people back from the dead. One story says that used the blood of Medusa given to him by Athena.
The temple of Asclepius, called asclepeions, appeared to honor the demigod. Humans flocked to the temples to cure their ailments. Some of the most prominent temples were in Epidaurus, Trikala, and the island of Eros and Kos. Asclepius spread cures of the sick through dreams. As a result, it became standard practice for the sick to sleep in the asclepeion temples.
Asclepius Appearance and Symbolism
In most depictions, Asclepius is a bearded, bare-chested man wrapped in a long cloak. His identifying feature is the staff he carries. The staff is nearly as tall as he is. Wrapping around the wood is a serpent.
The serpent-wrapped staff is the one valid symbol of medicine, and it continues to resonate today. There are a few iterations of the emblem. For example, the most commonly seen version is the Caduceus. The Caduceus looks like the rod of Asclepius. But a couple of notable differences make it unique. Instead of one serpent, the Caduceus usually has two wrapping around the staff and looking at one another. The staff itself also features two prominent wings. According to lore, this short staff was carried by Hermes.
The Caduceus is sometimes used in healthcare settings, but the rod of Asclepius is a more accurate symbol in connection to Greek Mythology.
The Life of Asclepius
Asclepius did more than just heal and revive the sick. He also married and bore children. His wife was Epione, the goddess of soothing pain. With Epione, he had eight children. The most famous offspring of Asclepius was Hygea, also known as Hygeia or Hygieia. Hygea was the goddess of health and cleanliness, and was the inspiration for the word “hygeine.”
Other notable children include:
Iaso, the goddess of recuperation from illness
Aceso, the goddess of the healing process
Panacea, the goddess of universal remedy
Aegle, the goddess of good health
His sons names were Podalirius, Telephoros, and Aratus.
His children continued with the art of medicine and healing, and his descendants were known as Asclepiads. One famous Asclepiad, Machaon, even helped Menelaos during the Trojan War. However, the most recognizable Asclepiad is, without a doubt, the father of medicine himself, Hippocrates.
Jealousy of the Gods
Despite all the good that Asclepion was doing, his actions did not favor his reputation among the gods. His power did not go unnoticed. A demigod was suddenly healing and reviving mortals, which directly impacted the actions of several gods.
Take the Ancient Greek god Hades, for example. Hades was the god of the Underworld who passed judgment on souls looking to enter Elysian fields. When Asclepius burst onto the scene, his acts of healing dramatically reduced the number of people dying. Hades had fewer and fewer souls to welcome to the Underworld, creating a massive conflict between the god and demigod.
The Death of Asclepius
Unhappy with how Asclepius was becoming a hero among mortals and reduced the number of souls coming into the Underworld, Hades took action. He sought help from his brother, Zeus. As the head of the gods, Zeus was the go-to for conflicts such as these.
Unfortunately for Asclepius, Zeus was not on his side. The father of the gods was angry about how Asclepius revived the dead. He did so without the permission of Zeus, which he saw as a threat to the eternal division between humanity and the gods. It threatened the very way of life in Ancient Greece.
Angered by his actions, Zeus struck Asclepius with a thunderbolt. Asclepius’ father, Apollo, attempted to intervene and save his son. However, his efforts were futile. Asclepius died and was flung into the cosmos by Zeus. His body made up the Ophiuchus constellation, which is a man holding onto a serpent.
- His staff, often called the rod of Asclepius, is a prominent symbol in healthcare. It often adorns hospitals, pharmacies, and other healthcare facilities.
- Asclepius is the progeny of Apollo and Coronis. Some version of the myth state the Asclepius’ mother was Arsinoe, a Messenian.
- His wife was Epione, the goddess of soothing pain.
- Asclepius and his wife Epione bore eight children; three sons and five daughters.
- He was considered by many in Ancient Greece to be a hero and god.
- Asclepius is the god of medicine, healing, and doctors.
- The cult of Asclepius began in Thessaly before spreading to Greece.
- Asclepius learned medicine at the behest of his father and under the guidance of Chiron.
- Asclepius was not well-liked by gods due to his ability to heal humans and bring them back to life.
- Zeus killed Asclepius with a thunderbolt.
- According to the myth, his body makes up the “Serpent’s Holder” constellation, also known as Ophiuchus.
- Ancient Greeks built healing temples to honor Asclepius. They called the temples asclepeions.
- In some stories, he was brought back to life by Asclepius goes by the name Aesculapius in Roman mythology.
- Aesculapian Snakes are a non-venomous snake species native to Europe. The species got its name from the Asclepius myth and the healing rituals used by worshippers at his temples.
- Asclepius also lends his name to a group of medicinal plants called Asclepias, or milkweed.
- Homer mentions Asclepius in the Iliad.
- The original Hippocratic Oath began with an invocation to Apollo and Asclepius
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