Asclepius: The Greek God Of Medicine (Facts Explained)

A closer look into the life of Asclepius, the demigod son of Apollo and a healer so talented he threatened the authority of the gods.

Apr 19, 2020By Charlotte Davis, BA Art History
Statue of Asclepius
Statue of Asclepius

Asclepius, although a lesser-known figure in ancient Greek myth, was renowned as a medical doctor. As the son of Apollo and the mentee of Chiron, he became known for his inherited and taught skills in surgery, medicine and healing of all kinds. He was such a formidable healer that he even threatened the gods’ authority over life and death. Below are 10 facts about his origin, life and death.  


Asclepius Was Raised By A Centaur

Fresco from Pompeii depicting Apollo, the Centaur Chiron and Ascplepius via National Archaeological Museum, Naples.

Asclepius was a demigod born to Apollo and Princess Coronis, a mortal woman from Thessaly, Greece. During her pregnancy, Coronis fell in love with another human named Ischys. Upon learning about their affair, Apollo sent his twin sister Artemis to burn Coronis at the stake. However, Apollo decided to save his unborn child from his mother’s burning womb. This event was said to have been the Caesarion sections in human history, earning Asclepius his name, which translates into ‘to cut open.’ He then gave the infant Asclepius to Chiron, a centaur known for his medicinal skills. Chiron raised Asclepius and taught him how to be a healer. 


There Are Different Versions of Asclepius’ Birth Story

Some versions of the myth claim that Apollo fathered Asclepius on his own without the mortal mother Coronis. Other accounts state that Coronis gave birth safely, but then abandoned the infant Asclepius in Epidaurus, leaving him under the care of a goat and a dog. He was later found by Aresthanas the goatherd, who recognized the infant’s divinity and returned him to Apollo. There are also narratives which claim that Asclepius was actually the son of Arsinoe of Messene, the mother of Ptolemy I Soter, linking him to members of the Ptolemaic dynasty


His Father Gave Him The Gift Of Healing

Votive Relief of Asclepius and Hygieia, Archaeological Museum of Piraeus, 350 BC, jstor

While Asclepius was taught medicine by Chiron, he was granted supernatural healing abilities from his father. Apollo presided over music, prophecy, plague and healing, which he passed on to his son. Asclepius was naturally adept and expertly trained in administering of medicine to cure illness, performing surgery, incantations and medicinal herbology. The word of his medicinal prowess spread throughout Greece, and he soon became famous for his healing talents. These abilities made Asclepius the focus of considerable attention and jealousy of other gods. 


He Could Bring The Dead Back to Life

By the height of his career, Asclepius’ reputation had spread throughout the ancient world. It was even said that he could bring the dead back to life. The rumors speculated the goddess Athena had given him two vials filled with different types of the blood of the well-known Gorgon Medusa. One of the vials could bring life back to the dead, and the other could take life away. Asclepius made good use of the first vial, bringing well-known names back from the dead including Hippolytus, Hymenaeus and Glaucus. 


He May Have Been Based On A Real Person

Left: Asclepius with a sacred snake at his feet, 2nd century AD, Getty Museum
Right: Roman Statue of Asclepius, ca 1st-2nd century AD, Hermitage Museum

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

Homer’s Iliad, while full of religious and supernatural events, has been taken as a partially historical text as some of the dates roughly correspond to real events. Asclepius is mentioned in the Iliad, but not as a demigod. He was instead a very gifted physician who bore two of the Greek doctors at the Trojan War, Machaon and Podalirius. Although very talented, the two doctors were not gifted with divine abilities. Asclepius may not have been a demigod, but rather a very prominent healer who pioneered the medical field, earning a following and a posthumous demigod status. 


Asclepius was an Argonaut

Votive Relief of Asclepius and Hygieia, 4th century BC

Asclepius was a member of the band of ancient Greek mythical heroes called the Argonauts. The Argonauts are most infamously seen in Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica (known today as ‘Jason and the Argonauts’) in which they accompany the hero Jason on his journey for the Golden Fleece. Other Argonauts included ancient heroes such as Odysseus, Heracles, Orpheus and Meleager. 

As an Argonaut, Asclepius was also present in the ancient Greek Calydonian Boarhunt, a popular story that chronologically followed the Argonatica. The narrative features the release of a Calydonian Boar into the countryside by Artemis, which wrought havoc amongst the local population. The Argonauts, among other heroes, were called in to hunt and kill the beast. The event led to the death of fellow Argonaut Meleager and the subsequent dedication of the boar’s tusks to Artemis. 


He Was Linked With Snakes

Bust of Asclepius with his rod in the field, seal impression

Asclepius was frequently depicted as a middle-aged man, bare-chested, in a long tunic and holding a large staff with a snake wrapped around it. There are two theories behind Asclepius’  association with snakes. The first was that Asclepius healed a snake from illness or injury, and in exchange, the snake taught him secrets of medicine. The second story was that Asclepius had grown so powerful that he could heal a snakebite, one of the most fatal injuries in the ancient world. Snakes were also thought of as divine beings with healing abilities in ancient Greece. The staff with the snake wrapped around it remains a prominent symbol of medicine in the contemporary world, and it is the logo for the Worldwide Health Organization (WHO).


His Family Was Associated With Healing

Asclepius and Hygieia, ivory panels, ca. 400-430 AD, World Museum

All of Asclepius’ daughters are said to be divinities related somehow to wellbeing, while all his sons were healers. He was married to Epione, goddess of soothing. Altogether, he fathered nine children. They were Laso and Telesphorus, goddess an god of recuperation; Hygieia, goddess of cleanliness; Aglaea, goddess of good health; Panacea, goddess of remedy; Aceso, goddess of healing; Machaon and Podalirius, gifted healers of the Trojan War; and Aratus, a healer.


He Was Killed By Zeus

Façade depicting Zeus, National Academy, Athens

By the height of his career, Asclepius had grown so powerful that he became a threat to the natural order of life and death. His fabled ability to bring back the dead angered Hades, who consulted Zeus on the subject. Zeus too feared that Asclepius’ extraordinary healing abilities would close the eternal gap between gods and mortals. For these reasons, Zeus struck down and killed Asclepius with his thunderbolt. Apollo protested his son’s murder by killing the Cyclops who had forged Zeus’ thunderbolt. As punishment, Apollo was made mortal and served the King of Thessaly for the period of a year. However, it is said that Zeus recognized the good deeds of Asclepius and gave him a constellation in the stars. 


He Had A Cult After His Death

Reconstruction of the façade of the Temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus

Even after his death, Asclepius’ followers believed that he still had the power to cure illnesses and heal injuries. These worshippers erected a temple dedicated to the demigod called the Asclepeion at Epidaurus, which became the most important healing center in the ancient world. Believers from surrounding areas would come to the temple to stay the night, and it was said that Asclepius himself would come to them in their dreams. 

Non-venomous ‘Aesculapian snakes’ were present at many of the shrines on temple grounds and were said to have assisted with the cures enacted at the sanctuary. The site also included places for exercise, which doctors would sometimes prescribe to cure illness. Preliminary treatments for sickness consisted of purification or katharsis, which included a clean diet and cleansing bath. 

Activities at the Asclepeions provided some of the earliest evidence of western holistic medicine. As the cult of Asclepius grew, more Asclepeions were constructed in ancient Greece. They also became places of study for future physicians; Marcus Aurelius, Hippocrates and Galen were all said to have received medical training at Asclepeions during their lifetimes. 

Author Image

By Charlotte DavisBA Art HistoryCharlotte is a contributing writer from Portland, Oregon now based in London, England. I’m an art historian with extensive knowledge in art history, classics, ancient art and archaeology.