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Asclepius was a demi-god of Greek mythology praised for his contribution to ancient medicine. His other abilities included healing and foretelling prophecies. Here’s a look into the life of Asclepius.
Who Is Asclepius?
Asclepius was a demi-god born in the 6th century, near the mountain of Titthion, the son of the Olympian god Apollo and the mortal princess Coronis, daughter of King of the Lapiths. In some accounts, Asclepius is the son of Apollo alone. There are many stories related to his birth, amongst which the most famous is that Coronis was about to be killed by Artemis on a funeral pyre for being unfaithful to Apollo, who swooped in, cut her womb and saved Asclepius.
As a motherless child, he was given to the centaur Chiron, who raised him and taught him the arts of healing and medicinal uses of herbs and plants. He was also a descendant of the original guild of ancient doctors, and this coupled with royal and godly blood, had given him extraordinary healing powers.
As a child, living under the apprenticeship of the centaur Chiron, Asclepius had once healed a snake. To show his extreme gratitude, the snake bestowed on him secret healing knowledge. The snake entwined on a staff became the symbol of Asclepius, and as snakes are known for their ability to regenerate and symbolize healing and rebirth, the Rod of Asclepius became a symbol of healing and medicine.
With the knowledge passed on to him by the snake, Asclepius would use the blood of Medusa, given to him by Athena, to bring the dead to life. In another context, however, it is said that he brought people back using the venom and blood of a particular breed of a snake – with their permission.
In his visual representation, Asclepius is depicted as a simple wise and kind man, clothed in a simple robe, with a long beard, and staff with a snake coiled around it – in his hands. People who follow the teachings of Asclepius are known as Asclepiads.
What Does Asclepius Symbolize?
In visual representation, the Rod of Asclepius is itself a reflection of medicine and its advancements.
The snake coiled around the rod symbolizes his association and friendliness towards animals. The staff can symbolize authority, while the snake represents healing and rejuvenation.
This symbol is used today in the context of medicine and healthcare and is often found on logos and badges of medical departments. Although the Caduceus is considered more popular, it’s the Rod of Asclepius that’s the true symbol of medicine.
Where are Asclepius Sanctuaries?
During his life, Asclepius visited many places, which became known as his sanctuaries after his death. People from all parts of Greece and beyond would travel to these sacred places believing that they could get healed at these locations through the powers of Asclepius. While Asclepius had numerous sanctuaries, there are two, which are particularly famous.
Epidaurus, or Askelpieion, is the most famous of all of his sanctuaries. This sanctuary has many buildings, a temple, a gigantic statue of Asclepius transcribed by Thymele, and a mysterious underground labyrinth.
This sanctuary is a symbol of divine healing, and anyone with any illness would come here in search of a cure. Some residents live in this sanctuary, to provide medicine and any other help to the people coming.
In cases of extreme illness, in Epidaurus, ill people who had gone through the spiritual cleansing process would spend the night in the designated rooms. In their dreams, they believed relevant gods would make an appearance and heal them. As a show of gratitude, people would leave behind the representation of their healed body parts, as a service to God.
Briefly before his death, Asclepius is said to have visited this location in the form of a snake. It is located exactly under the city of Acropolis, in the western geographical slope.
How Did Asclepius Die?
According to some accounts, when he began to resurrect dead people and bring them back from the underworld, Zeus feared that he would teach this skills to other humans as well and the line between the dead and the living would become blurred. Zeus, using his thunderbolt, killed Asclepius.
After his death, his body was placed in the heavens and became the constellation Ophiuchus, meaning the serpent holder. However, Apollo requested that Asclepius be resurrected and made a god on Olympus. Thus, after his death, Asclepius became a god and had a cult following.
After his death, his pictures were painted on coins and pottery, and his scriptures were also readily found in almost all markets.
The Significance of Asclepius
Asclepius’ may have been based on a real person, an important healer who may have pioneered the field of medicine and was elevated to the status of a god after his death. His role in medicine made him a significant figure and is one of the most important of all the Greek gods.
The original Hippocratic Oath began with the line:
“I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods…”
Even today references are made to Asclepius in medical journal. For example, in the Handbook of Clinical Neurology, authors Schneiderman and De Ridder write:
“From the classical period we also find a model of what may be regarded as qualitative futility. Recall that, in the Republic, Plato (1974) wrote: “For those whose lives were always in a state of inner sickness Asclepius did not attempt to prescribe a regimen…to make their life a prolonged misery.”
It’s safe to say that Asclepius still is a prominent figure of ancient medicine. His staff and snake symbol continues to be used as the emblem of medicine and healthcare.
Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring Asclepius.
Apollo and Coronis, although some versions state that he was Apollo’s alone.
He has numerous half-siblings from his father’s side.
He had several children, five daughters – Hygieia, Panacea, Aceso, Iaso and Aegle, and three sons – Machaon, Podaleirios and Telesphoros.
He married Epione.
There’s some contention that he could be based on a prominent healer of the time.
He is the god of medicine. He was made a god by Zeus after his death and was given a place on Olympus.
He was killed by the thunderbolt of Zeus.
Asclepius remains one of the most important figures of Greek myth, with an influence that can be found even today in our modern world. His powers of healing and his philosophy of saving lives and alleviating pain still resonate.