Hygieia – Greek Goddess of Health

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Hygieia (pronounced hay-jee-uh) is known as the goddess of health, cleanliness and hygiene in both Greek and Roman mythology. She’s one of the lesser known goddesses and played a minor role as an attendant to her father Asclepius, the god of medicine.

Hygieia is best identified by her main symbol – the bowl of Hygieia. She’s also often depicted with a serpent, either wrapped around her body or drinking from a saucer in her hand.

Who was Hygieia?

Hygieia building with snakes
Hygieia featured on a modern-day health clinic

According to the myth, Hygieia was one of five daughters of Asclepius and Epione, who was said to be the personification of care needed for recovery. While Hygieia was responsible for health, sanitation and cleanliness, each of her sisters also had a role in healing and good health:

  • Panacea – universal remedy
  • Iaso – recovery from illness
  • Aceso – the process of healing
  • Aglaia – splendor, beauty, glory and adornment

Hygieia played an important role in the cult of her father, Asclepius. Although Asclepius was said to be Hygieia’s father, more recent literature, such as the Orphic hymns, refer to her as his wife or his sister.

While he was directly associated with healing, she on the other hand was associated with the prevention of illness and maintenance of good health and wellbeing. The English word ‘hygiene’ is derived from her name.

Hygieia was typically depicted as a beautiful young woman with a large snake wrapped around her body which she fed from a saucer or a drinking jar. These attributes of Hygieia were adopted much later by the Gallo-Roman goddess of healing, Sirona.  In Roman mythology, Hygieia was known as Valetudo, the goddess of personal health, but over time she began to be increasingly identified with Salus, the Italian goddess of social welfare.

Symbolism of Hygieia

Symbolism of Hygieie bowl

Hygieia is now accepted as a symbol of pharmacy throughout the world, especially in several European countries. Her symbols are the snake and the bowl she carries in her hand. She has also been depicted on labels and medicine bottles in the past.

The bowl (or saucer) and the serpent have become symbols separate from Hygieia and are also internationally recognized as symbols of pharmacy.

In the U.S. the Bowl of Hygieia Award is one of the most prestigious prizes of the profession and is awarded to pharmacists with excellent records of civic leadership within their community.

The Cult of Hygieia

From around the 7th century BC, a local cult began in Athens, with Hygieia as its main subject. However, Hygieia’s cult as an independent goddess didn’t begin to spread until she was recognized by the Delphic oracle, the high priestess of the temple of Apollo, and after the Plague of Athens.

The oldest known traces of Hygieia’s cult are at the village of Titane, west of Corinth, where she and Asclepius were worshipped together. The cult began to spread concurrently with Asclepius’ cult and was later introduced in Rome in 293 BC.

Worship

Hygieia was worshipped by the ancient Greeks as the goddess of health rather than of medicine or pharmacy. According to Pausanias (Greek geographer and traveler), there were statues of Hygieia at the Asclepieion of Titane, situated in Sicyon.

A Sicyonian artist, Ariphrone, who lived in the 4th century BC, wrote a famous hymn to celebrate Hygieia. Several statues of her were created by famous sculptors like Bryaxis, Scopas and Timotheus, to name a few.

In Brief

Throughout history, Hygieia has remained an important symbol of good health, embraced by pharmacists all over the world. Like her father, Hygieia has also had a notable impact on the modern-day field of health and medicine. Depictions of Hygieia and her symbols are commonly found on health-related logos and branding.