Myth Monday: Asclepius, God of Medicine (Greek Mythology)
By Kara Newcastle
Maybe you’re aware of it already, but if not, you should know that we are in the middle of a pandemic, caused by the coronavirus, or Covid-19. While we’re INCREDIBLY lucky that this has not hit tuberculosis, Spanish flu, or Bubonic Plague-type proportions yet, millions of people have been stricken and, sadly, many have died from it. Fortunately, we have these amazing people called nurses and doctors who are highly trained in medicine and healthcare, working around the clock nonstop to keep us healthy and safe. So, in their honor, I’d like to present the god that helped to create the world of medicine as we know it now: Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine.
According to myth, Asclepius was the son of the Thessalian princess Coronis (or Arsinoe) and Apollo, the god of light, prophecy, music, and medicine. The circumstances around Asclepius’s birth vary; some versions say that Coronis secretly gave birth to him and left him to die of exposure on a mountainside, where he was rescued by a shepherd. The more widespread version tells that, while pregnant with Asclepius, Coronis fell in love with a mortal man named Iskhys, choosing him over the divine Apollo. Apollo discovered the affair when a white-feathered crow (or raven) told him about it. In jealous rage, Apollo threw a fireball at the crow, and while the bird managed to dodge the worst of it, its feathers were singed, which is why crows are always black.
Hellbent on avenging himself, Apollo either killed Coronis himself with an arrow or sent his twin sister Artemis, the goddess of the moon and the hunt, to do it for him. Coronis died admitting that she had been wrong to love Iskhys but grieved that her unborn child would die with her. Realizing what he had done, Apollo tried to save Coronis’s life, but could not. Not wanting their son to die as well, Apollo performed a caesarean section on the dead princess as she laid on her funeral pyre and rescued the infant. This is where Asclepius earned his name: “to cut open.”
Naming the baby Asclepius, Apollo cared for the child for a time, teaching him about medicinal herbs. When Asclepius was a boy, Apollo entrusted him into the care of Cheiron, the wise, civilized centaur who tutored many heroes. Seeing Asclepius’s interest in medicine, Cheiron encouraged the boy, teaching him medicine, how to diagnose diseases, set bones, and perform surgery. Asclepius also used divination (fortunetelling) to contact his father Apollo for further instruction.
As a young man, Asclepius returned to the city and began his work as a physician, curing among many others King Ascles of his blindness and serving as one of the Argonauts. Asclepius married Epione, a soother of pain, and together they had seven children, all renowned healers. Their two sons were Podaleirios and Makhaon, who served as warriors and doctors during the Trojan War. Their five daughters were Hygeia, whose skill was in hygiene; Panacea, who created medicines; Iaso, a healer; Akeso, who specialized in curatives; and Aegle, who was blessed with radiant good health. The five daughters were called the Asclepiades and were their father’s retinue.
Asclepius was so successful that his fame spread all the way to Crete, where King Minos’s son Androgeon (other versions say it was Glaucus, still others say it was Hippolytus, son of Theseus) had died from an unknown illness. Minos summoned Asclepius to Crete and had him locked in the dungeon with the prince’s body, saying that the physician would not be allowed to leave until he had brought Androgeon back to life. At a loss, Asclepius sat there beside the body, wracking his brain for ideas. As he sat there, Asclepius glanced down and noticed a snake slithering into the cell through a hole in the wall. Grabbing up his staff, Asclepius struck the snake dead.
Not long after the snake had stopped its death throes, a second snake eased into the cell. Asclepius was ready to kill this one as well, but then he noticed that the second snake had a leaf in its mouth. It crept over to its fallen brother and laid the leaf on its head. To Asclepius’s disbelief, the dead snake took a breath, rolled over, and followed the second snake back outside. Realizing that the leaf had brought the snake back to life, Asclepius took the leaf and applied it to the dead Androgeon. In moments, the corpse began to breathe, and then it opened its eyes. Blinking in confusion, Androgeon sat up—he was alive! (Another version says that Asclepius’s aunt Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was so impressed by Asclepius’s passion for medicine that she gifted him vials of blood taken from the monster Medusa, and told him that the bottles containing blood from the right side of Medusa would restore life, while the vials containing blood taken from the left side would kill all. Asclepius used the right vials to save Androgeon, or whoever the story says it was. And yet another version says that while Asclepius grew up with Cheiron, he was kind to the snakes that lived nearby. One night while he was asleep, a snake licked his ears and whispered the secrets of resurrection to him.)
Overjoyed to have his son back, Minos released Asclepius who returned home, with his staff now bearing a snake wrapped around it (called the asclepian, still used by many healthcare organizations today.) Once home, Asclepius began raising many more people from the dead. Unfortunately, this upset Hades, the god of the dead, and for good reason; the universe followed a strict set of rules in order to stave off chaos. One of those rules was that people were born, people lived, people died—now that Asclepius was resurrecting the dead, the planet was being overpopulated, and he was throwing the order of the universe out of balance.
Hades brought his case to Zeus, the king of the gods. Zeus agreed that the very fabric of reality was in danger of being unraveled by Asclepius’s good intentions, and so struck his grandson dead with a thunderbolt. Asclepius’s father Apollo was outraged by the murder and, because he couldn’t avenge his son directly, he instead slew the Cyclops that had forged Zeus’s thunderbolts. Zeus was so shocked and angry at Apollo’s behavior that he considered locking the sun god away in Tartarus, the infernal prison, but relented when Apollo and Artemis’s mother Leto pleaded on his behalf. Instead, Zeus sentenced Apollo to be the slave of King Admetus for one year. (It wasn’t all that bad; they wound up falling in love.)
After Asclepius died, Zeus placed him in the sky as the constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Holder, but it’s said that Apollo begged Zeus to let Asclepius come back and live as a god. Zeus agreed, resurrected Asclepius, and turned him, his wife Epione, and their daughters into gods of health and medicine. (Some versions say that when Hercules descended into the Underworld as one of his Labors, he rescued Asclepius’s spirit and brought it back to the surface.)
In Ancient Greece, temples to Asclepius were known as asclepieions, and also served as hospitals. The ailing would sleep inside the temple and received dreams from Asclepius. The patients would report the dreams to the priests, also called Asclepiades (or Therapeutae in Latin), who would then divine the meaning and proceed with the appropriate treatment. If a patient was sick enough to visit an asclepieion, they’d better be brave; the floors of the sick rooms were always crawling with the non-venomous Aesculapian snakes (and those suckers were big—at least six feet long!) Sacred dogs were also kept in the temples and were brought out to (skip this if you’re squeamish) lick the wounds of the injured. Every temple contained purifying baths of fresh water, and the doctors regularly prescribed diet and exercise to keep their patients healthy.
The most famous of Asclepius’s followers was Hippocrates, “the Father of Medicine.” Born in the 5th century, Hippocrates studied at the asclepieion at Kos (one of 200 shrines to Asclepius) and was one of the first physicians that believed illnesses were caused by disease, not by evil spirits (he also claimed to be a descendent of Asclepius’s son Podaleirios.) He is credited with creating the code of ethics, known as the Hippocratic Oath, that all doctors must swear by before they practice medicine. Originally, the Hippocratic Oath began with, “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods and goddesses, making them my witnesses, that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and this indenture,” and included many of the tenements of treatment and responsibility that is in the modern oath today.
Asclepius became a very popular god, with several events and important figures linked to him. During a battle against the Malli, Alexander the Great was badly wounded, but saved by an Asclepian doctor. In 430 BC, plague struck Athens, and the philosopher Sophocles pressured the leaders of the city-state to build a temple to Asclepius to counter it. According to the philosopher Plato, after Socrates had drunk the fatal hemlock poison, his final words were, “Make a sacrifice to Asclepius.” Aristotle claimed to be a descendent, and the great Roman physician Galen was also an Asclepiad.
Worship of Asclepius and his daughter Hygeia continued well into the 3rd century A.D. after the worship of all other Greco-Roman gods had ended. He had over 500 temples scattered across Europe and the Middle East, many of which were turned into churches once Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion. Even so, Asclepius continued to be identified with medicine, and his name has been used in a variety of medicinal plants and treatments. Milkweed’s botanical genus is known as Asclepias, and the variant A. tuberosa, also known as butterfly weed or pleurisy root, is used to treat pleurisy (inflammation of the lungs.) The roots contain asclepiadin, which is used as an expectorant and anti-inflammatory.
Now, I’ve already gone long on this, but I just want to add a note: early I mentioned Asclepius’s staff, a rod entwined with a single snake. I’m sure that you’ve seen a similar symbol, that of a winged staff with two snakes coiled around it, facing each other. This is a caduceus and was used by the messenger gods Hermes and Iris. Neither one of these gods had anything to do with medicine, so why would you see the caduceus in hospitals and on ambulances? Well, not only was the caduceus a symbol of a messenger, but it was also a symbol of peace in ancient times; if in the middle of a battle a guy started waving a caduceus in the air, it was sort of like waving a white flag for surrender or truce, and he would be permitted to enter the enemy camp with his message without worrying he’d get his head chopped off. In the American Civil War, stretcher-bearers on the battlefield would wear the symbol and be identified as noncombatants. This is the theory as to why in 1902 the United States surgeon general chose the caduceus as the symbol of the Army Medical Corps.
Just thought I’d clear that up a bit.
Now, once you’ve finished reading this, please take a moment and either send a note of thanks or a donation to our nurses, doctors, first responders, and specialists who are out there slaying the monster that is Covid-19. Today, they’re heroes, but in the future, we may think of them as gods.