Asclepius appears in literature and artwork, on coins, and in temples dedicated to his name for over a millennium of the ancient world. Greek mythology tells that he originated as a half-mortal hero, the son of the god Apollo and a Thessalian princess named Coronis.
Apollo fell in love with Coronis and they conceived a child together. However, while Apollo was away, Coronis fell for another mortal, Ischys. When Apollo found out, he flew into a jealous rage and killed Ischys.
He didn’t have the heart to kill Coronis, but his twin sister, Artemis, had no such reservations. Yet Apollo saved their son, naming him Asclepius, and gave him to the centaur Chiron to rear. Chiron had himself been a pupil of Apollo, and therefore possessed great knowledge of medicine. He raised Asclepius, teaching the boy all of his medicinal arts.
With his divine parentage, Asclepius soon eclipsed his foster father’s abilities. He became revered for his abilities to cure the sick and heal the cripple. Eventually, he grew so skilled that he could resurrect the dead.
Soon Hades complained to his brother Zeus that Asclepius was interfering with the natural order of things and keeping souls from the underworld. As a result, Zeus reluctantly sent a thunderbolt to kill Asclepius. Asclepius had three sons and four daughters. His sons became healers and his four daughters are all considered minor goddesses of a specific aspect of healing. In addition, his descendants staffed his temples and continued his medicinal work for generations.
The legend of Asclepius suggests an earlier knowledge of caesarian sections than otherwise evidenced
Caesarian sections were not unknown in the ancient world. However, they were only used in the most extreme circumstances as they invariably resulted in the death of the mother. The first recorded mention of a caesarian section is in India from the 4th century B.C.
When the empress of India was dying of poison close to delivery, the emperor’s advisor cut her open and successfully saved the baby. Yet the Asclepius myth significantly predates this story, perhaps by as much as one thousand years. It describes Apollo cutting Asclepius out of his mother’s womb before she was totally consumed by flame. Though a mythical account, it certainly suggests that caesarean sections had been performed in order for them to be incorporated into the local mythology.
Asclepius may be based on a real man
The very first mention of Asclepius in scholarship is in Homer’s Iliad, where the two sons of Asclepius appear as healers. Homer’s poetic references to the interference of the gods in mortal affairs have caused generations of historians to dismiss the Iliad as a historical source. However, with the discovery of the actual site of Troy and evidence of a massive siege corresponding to the approximate date of the legendary Battle of Troy, the Iliad has received renewed attention.
Scholars now believe that Asclepius was likely a great pioneer in the field of medicine. His expertise and his reputation after death pushed his elevation to the status of a god.
One of the most compelling arguments for the existence of Asclepius comes from the description of his sons’ exploits at Troy. Though Homer describes Machaon as “god-like” in one passage, it is clear he is not using magic or divine powers, but the human application of medicine. Machaon and Podaleirius carefully cut arrowheads and javelins from wounds, use bandages, compresses, methods of stopping bleeding and of curing wounds with balm, and make medicines with herbal extracts.
It is especially interesting to note that Homer never mentions wounds festering or injured men developing fevers. The sons of Asclepius apparently had some concept of the importance of removing foreign debris from a wound to prevent infection.
At one point in the battle, Machaon received an arrow wound in the shoulder. The Greeks immediately went to extra effort to get him to safety. Idomeneus even exclaimed that “a healer like him, who can cut out an arrow and heal the wound with his herbs, is worth a regiment (Homer, Iliad, Book 11: 489-542). Considering this, it is not difficult to imagine how a great medical mind could be elevated into a legendary god.
Snakes were a positive symbol in the ancient world and very closely associated with
It was only in the medieval era that snakes became representative of deception, trickery, and evil. To the ancient Greeks, snakes symbolized healing, resurrection through the shedding of their skin, and wisdom. It was said that their hisses were words of prophecy and wisdom. They often appear in artwork with Athena, goddess of wisdom, for this reason.
One of the myths surrounding Asclepius suggested that he received his knowledge of medicine from a snake. After saving it, the snake licked his ears and opened his mind to the secrets of healing. The largest non-venomous snake in Mediterranean Europe, now known as the Aesculapian snake, was encouraged to take up residence in his temples, or Asclepieions. It would often slither among the patients, through the dormitories and chambers of the building.
The followers of Asclepius were the first practitioners of Holistic Medicine
The Asclepieions originated as temples, but quickly became the hospitals of the ancient world. Ruins of these exist throughout the Mediterranean, often located on top of hot springs or in particularly beautiful outdoor settings. One of the largest and most important was located at Epidaurus, sometimes thought to be Asclepius’s original place of work.
Far from one small temple building for worship, the Asclepieions became large, fully self-contained complexes that addressed many aspects of patient care. In addition to surgical and medicinal practices, they also worked to improve hygiene, diet, exercise, and mental health.
The more superstitious aspects of treatment, which involved dream interpretation and visions of the god Asclepius, may seem foreign to modern sensibilities. However, they played an important role in the morale of the patients.
They often seemed to act as a placebo, thereby justifying the practitioners’ faith in their use. Yet the physicians that occupied the Asclepieions were still the best of their age. Hippocrates, the “father of medicine” likely got his start at an Asclepieion, possibly the one located on the island of Kos.
Asclepius’s legacy survives into the modern era
Asclepius’s association with snakes also influenced his own personal symbol, the rod of Asclepius, which is a single snake, likely a depiction of an Aesculapian snake, coiled around a wooden staff. It has been mistakenly reported that Asclpeius’s symbol spawned the modern symbol for pharmacy. However, the image of double snakes topped by wings is actually the symbol associated with the messenger god Hermes.
Asclepius’s symbol does still stand in the logos of many individual medical societies, including the World Health Organization. Though the modern Hippocratic Oath has changed its wording, that famous pledge for health practitioners originally opened with the invocation: “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods” (Hippocrates, 298).