Asclepius: the famed ancient Greek God of Medicine and Prophecy

Asclepius

Fast Facts about Asclepius and his worship

God of: Medicine, Prophecy, physicians, healing

Father: Apollo

Mother: Koronis (Coronis)

Aunt: Artemis

Consort: Epione, Hygeia

Children: Panacea, Podaleirios, Aceso, Aglaia, Machaon, Iaso

Symbols: snakes, the rod of Asclepius, olive trees

Association: Darrhon (a minor Greek god of healing)

Most famous sanctuary: Epidaurus

Worship and cult places: Athens, the island of Kos, Tegea, Pergamon, Tiber Island

Egyptian equivalent: Imhotep

Roman Equivalent: Vejovis

Although his sanctuaries were littered all across ancient Greece, how much do you really know about Asclepius? From the ancient Greeks to the Romans, worldhistoryedu.com presents to you the major myths and facts associated with Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of medicine and prophecy.

Origin Story

The ancient Greeks believed that Asclepius was born to the Greek god Apollo and the mortal Koronis of Thessaly. His father, Apollo, was the ancient Greek god of light, music, prophecy, medicine, arts, and a host of other things. In some accounts of the story, Koronis is portrayed as a very negligent mother who left the baby Asclepius to fend for himself. It is believed that Koronis feared being shamed by her peers over the birth of Asclepius. Hence he was raised by either a goat or a dog in a region near Epidaurus.

A different account of the story states that Apollo murdered Koronis after she was caught cheating on him with a mortal called Ischys. Some accounts state that Apollo killed Ischys while the goddess Artemis (Apollo’s sister) killed Coronis.

In any case, Asclepius spent his formative years with Apollo, acquiring vast knowledge in medicinal healing, prophecy and other forms of disciplines. At some point in time, he went to Mt. Pelion to study under the guidance of the wise centaur Chiron.

Wife and children

He married Epione. Other accounts state that he instead married Hygeia, the goddess of health and cleanliness.

All in all, Asclepius had quite a number of children, including:

  • Panacea (the goddess of universal health);
  • Iaso (the goddess of recuperation and recovery);
  • Aceso (the goddess of healing);
  • Machaon;
  • Aglaia (the goddess of good health) and;
  • Podaleirios

The children of his children came to be called the Asclepiads; they were famed for practicing medicine and using a variety of herbs and plants to cure illnesses.

Asclepius meaning

His name generally translates to “well-being” or “good health”. His original name was believed to be Hepius. He later got his current name, “Asclepius”, after he healed the illness in the eyes of Ascles, the ruler of Epidaurus.

Asclepius and the Hippocratic Oath

Asclepius being invoked in the original Hippocratic Oath

The Staff of Asclepius

The Staff of Asclepius

Asclepius is often depicted wielding his staff with a snake coiled around it.

He is generally depicted with a full beard wearing a decent robe. Almost every time, he is depicted holding his famous staff/rod – the Staff of Asclepius. His most famous symbol – the sacred snake – can be seen coiled around the entire staff.

Today, the Rod of Asclepius is commonly used by physicians and health institutions all across the world. For some organizations in the U.S. however, the Caduceus – the staff of Hermes – is the preferred symbol of medicine since the late 19th century.

The Staff of Asclepius

The flag of the World Health Organization, with a rod of Asclepius

Symbols and Depictions

Many sculpture and pottery works often show Asclepius in the company of the goddess Hygeia, who is sometimes seen as either his wife or daughter.

Other very important symbols of the god are the olive, pine and cypress trees. The olive tree was quite a staple symbol for the ancient Athenians; it’s been associated with many ancient Greek deities.

Worship of Asclepius

Owing to his area of purview, he was commonly worshiped in many temples across ancient Greece.  However, his most famous place of worship was at Epidaurus – the very place he was believed to have been abandoned by his mother.

Established around the 6th century BCE, the sanctuary of Epidaurus was the go-to place for Greeks that were suffering from a wide array of illnesses. The sick were attended to by priests and herbalists of Asclepius. Offerings, sacrifices and prayers were usually made to the god in the sanctuary. Additionally, the sanctuary had many temples and statues dedicated to him.

After going through the mandated rituals at the sanctuary of Epidaurus, the sick were asked to take a nap at place called Enkoimeterion. While they napped, either Apollo or Asclepius is believed to appear in their dreams, offering them solutions to their illnesses.

Like many other Greek and pagan religious activities, Asclepius’ worship came to an end around the 5th century CE, during the reign of Roman emperor Theodosius II.

Asclepius

A Roman coin from Odessos depicting Asclepius with Hygieia on one side. The reverse side shows Gordian III’s portrait

Powers and abilities

The Greeks believed that he possessed vast knowledge of the human body in ways no other Greek deity did. He benefited from years of tutelage under his father Apollo and the centaur Chiron.

At the peak of his powers, he had developed several potions that allowed him to raise the dead. His discovery certainly came as a huge shock to the gods on Mt. Olympus. The god of the Underworld, Hades, was particularly threatened by Asclepius as less and less humans died. This deprived Hades of so many souls in the underworld. Hades went on to connive with his brother Zeus to eliminate Asclepius.

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How did Asclepius die?

For a Greek god so knowledgeable in medicine and prophecy, surely one would have expected him to be immortal, conveniently eluding the grip of death. However, that was not the case with Asclepius. It was believed that the god of medicine died at the hands of Zeus, the king of the gods.

Zeus, along with a number of Olympian deities,  had grown very frustrated of Asclepius’ constant use of his talents to heal the sick. Zeus felt that was Asclepius allowed to practice medicine in an unchecked manner the humans could become immortal, thereby threatening the balance of the world . Bent on keeping humans in their place, Zeus struck Asclepius with one of his thunderbolts, killing the god on the spot.

Saddened by the death of his son, Apollo shot a number of criticisms at Zeus. For his transgressions against Zeus, Apollo committed to a year of indentured service in the court of Admetos, the king of Thessaly.

How snakes came to be associated with Asclepius and medicine in general

Asclepius

The Staff of Asclepius | (From top left to bottom right) – American Medical Association; alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine; Australian Medical Association; British Medical Association; Nigerian Medical Association; Dental Council of India; Yale School of Medicine; Kenya Medical Research Institution; World Health Organization

Scholars have stated that his temple at the sanctuary of Epidaurus had snake-infested underground tunnels.

Not only were snakes associated with medicine and health, the serpents were also connected to prophecy and wisdom. This connection is evident throughout Greek mythology. For example, Apollo is believed to have slain the mighty python (which was sent by Hera to torment Apollo and his family) at the site of the oracle of Delphi.

It was also believed that a snake once licked the ears of Asclepius and revealed to him the art of medicine.

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