Asklepios the Physician

Amanda Aremisia Forrester

Great Asklepios, skilled to heal mankind,

all-ruling Paian, and physician kind;

whose arts medicinal can alone assuage

diseases dire, and stop their dreadful rage.

Strong, lenient God, regard my suppliant prayer,

bring gentle health, adorned with lovely hair;

convey the means of mitigating pain,

and raging deadly pestilence restrain.

O power all-flourishing, abundant, bright,

Apollon’s honoured offspring, God of light;

husband of blameless Hygeia (Health),

the constant foe of dread disease, the minister of woe:

come, blessed saviour, human health defend,

and to the mortal life afford a prosperous end.”

Orphic Hymn 67 to Asclepius

 

Apollo is the God of Healing, and the father of the God of Medicine, Asklepios. The Romans spelled his name as Aesculapius, or Asclepius. The last form is the spelling you will usually see. Asklepios’ symbol is a tall staff with one snake curled around it. His temples often kept snakes, cared for by the priests and priestesses, and they were believed to be a form of Asklepios on earth. Asklepios was equated by Alexandrian Greeks with the Egyptian Physician-God Imhotep and thought by some modern Hellenes to be an aspect of Apollo Himself. Some might go so far as to consider him an avatar, or mortal incarnation of the God, much as Krishna is considered by Hindus to be an avatar of Vishnu. Either way, I prefer to treat Asklepios as a separate entity from Apollo.

Asklepios begins as mortal. Apollo fell in love with a beautiful maiden named Koronis, the daughter of the Thessalonian horse-breeder Phlegyas. Koronis became His lover, but He was almost never around because He had to spend so much time tending to his Godly duties.

The girl was lonely, and she took a mortal, Iskhys of Elatos, to be her lover. The pair tried to keep their affair a secret, but they were seen by a raven, one of Apollo’s sacred animals. Now, at this time, ravens were beautiful birds with snow-white feathers. They were still as chatty as today. The raven immediately flew to Delphi, declaring the unfortunate news to Apollo. Apollo had already known this in His heart, but was in denial. The harsh words from the raven were the straw that broke the camel’s back. In a jealous rage, Apollo grabbed His bow and shot her through the heart[1]. Before she died, she was able to gasp out “Our child.”

Apollo was consumed with guilt and grief. What had He done? How could He have acted so rashly, egged on by gossip from a bird? His grief turned to anger, which He directed at the raven: henceforth, all ravens have had feathers as black as night. Another version says that it was Apollo’s twin sister Artemis who killed Koronis for her infidelity[2]. Artemis values purity and loyalty, and as a sister myself, I understand the urge to punish the one who wrongs your sibling.

As for Koronis, the villagers of Thessaly were already beginning to burn her body on a funeral pyre. Apollo reached out and snatched the baby boy from his mother’s womb. He gave that boy, named Asklepios, to be raised by Kheiron, the wise immortal centaur[3].

Asklepios grew to become a wise doctor, a physician who could cure any ill. He married a woman by the name of Epione, who bore him two sons, Makhaon and Podalirius, who in Homer’s Iliad later follow in their father’s footsteps to become physicians[4]. Asklepios was famed for his skill and loved by all. Edith Hamilton, in her Mythology, called him a universal benefactor[5]. Asklepios became not only a favorite of his father Apollo but also of the wise Goddess Athena. It was Athena gifted Asklepios with two vials of blood from the dead Medousa[6], one from the right side, which could cure any ailment and even raise the dead, and one from the left, deadlier then any poison.

Asklepios bought many people back from the brink of death, and using the vials of Medousa’s blood even raised the dead. This did not sit well with Haides, Lord of the Underworld. He began to complain to Zeus that His kingdom was being robbed of its rightful inhabitants. He added that Asklepios would begin to think himself a God, deciding who lived and who died. Zeus agreed, and killed Asklepios with a thunderbolt[7]. Pindar and several others said that it was not Haides who convinced Zeus to kill Asklepios, but that Zeus was offended when Asklepios violated his sacred oath and took a bribe to bring back a rich man[8]. By another tale, Artemis asked Asklepios to bring back Hippolytus after he died through the machinations of Aphrodite[9].

Apollo was outraged at the death of His son, when he had merely been a good and compassionate doctor.  Athena was also displeased. The people, who had loved Asklepios deeply, were angry with the Gods. So Zeus placed Him in the sky as the constellation Ophiochos, the “Serpent Holder”. Apollo and Athena convinced Zeus to deify Asklepios as well. As a God, there was no impropriety in raising the dead. Asclepius’s wife Epione became the Goddess of Soothing and Comfort. After they ascended to Olympos, Asklepios and Epione had five immortal daughters, all related to the field of health and medicine. The eldest and most famous of the five was Hygeia[10], Goddess of health, from Whom’s name we get the word “hygiene”. Her sisters were Iaso[11], whose name means “Healer”, the Goddess of recovery,  Aigle[12], “Radiance”, the Goddess of the radiance of good health, Panakeia[13], “All-Cures”, the Goddess of cures and medicines, and Akeso[14], the Goddess of healing and curing. While Her sister Panakeia represented the medicine itself, such as healing ointments and herbs, Akeso was a personification of the healing process. Greek mythology being what it is, in some cases Hygeia was said to be Asklepios’s wife, not His daughter, as evidenced by the Orphic hymn that begins this essay.

Asklepios became a popular God through the Greek and Roman world, perhaps because He began as a mortal, and knows the pain of human suffering in ways that His father Apollo cannot. His most sacred sanctuary was in Epidaurus, situated in the northeastern Peloponnese, and He is often referred to as the Epidaurian. His sacred animal is the cock or rooster, the animal typically sacrificed by those seeking a cure to an illness.

His cult became very popular during the 300s BCE. The sick would make pilgrimages to His cult centers in Epidaurus and elsewhere seeking healing. His cult centers had schools of medicine as well as temples. In those days, the scientific and the religious aspects of healing were not separated, so that doctors would prescribe the “real” treatment as well as recommending a certain sacrifice or prayer. Frances Bernstein, the author of Classical Living: Reconnecting with the Rituals of Ancient Rome, comments on the centers of Asklepios and Salus, the Roman Hygeia.

 

The ancient healing shrines were not unlike our modern spas, except that first and foremost they were religious centers, sites of holistic healing and mind/body work under the power of the god and goddess where all aspects of the patient were treated. We can recapture the sage advice offered by Aesculapius and Salus. Ancient healing shrines were usually located in quiet valleys or sites away from a large city. Patients seeking cures from a variety of ailments from baldness to lameness and disease often stayed for months. The shrines were staffed with priests, priestesses, and attendants to guide patients through the cure. Diet was supervised and exercise such as walking, games, and sports was encouraged. As mental stimulation was considered important for a well-balanced life, the shrines contained libraries where philosophers and lectured. Since drama, poetry, and music had a healing and cathartic effect upon patients, the larger shrines had theaters for performances[15].

 

And His temples were as far flung as Trikkus in Thessaly, which appears to be the oldest. It was from the Isle of Kos, the site of another prominent temple to Asklepios, that Hippocrates hailed. The legendary Hippocrates was said to be a descendant of Asklepios. Doctors today still swear his Hippocratic Oath to do no harm. The original oath began with “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asklepios and by Hygeia and Panakeia and by all the gods and goddesses, that, according to my ability and judgment, I will keep this Oath and this stipulation  …”

The primary practice of Asklepios’s cult was dream incubation. The supplicant, after going through various rituals, would sleep in the temple. Often there would be a pit dug into the soil, in which the patient would sleep. Many times sacred (non-venomous) snakes who lived in the temple would be released to crawl over the sleeping supplicant. Asklepios was believed to visit the sleeper in their dreams, often giving them a remedy. If Asklepios did not explicitly state what would cure the supplicant, then the Priests would attempt to interpret the symbolism of the dreams.

My relationship with Asklepios began only a few months ago, and already He is claiming a lot of my attention and time. I entered His sphere when I entered the medical field and began taking CNA classes. At the same time, I got a job as a caregiver in a group home for developmentally-disabled adults. I feel that one of the primary lessons of Asklepios is to see the value and sacredness of all life. In that vein, I see my work as service to Him, caring for those who for whatever reason cannot care for themselves. Every day while I prepare to go to work I recite a prayer to Asklepios, a small and simple act that nonetheless raises my consciousness, reminding myself that my work is sacred.

Asklepios has been pushing me to make changes to my diet and to live more healthfully. I have been a fish-and-eggs-vegetarian for a year and a half, on ethical grounds. After Asklepios entered by life, I decided to stopped drinking pop. After pushing through the headaches and caffeine withdrawal, which lasted for only a few days, I felt immensely better. I am clearer-headed than I have ever been, and have more energy than I would have thought possible without artificial means. Although I have not cut out coffee completely, I have decreased my dependence in on it tenfold. I drink water, tea, and juice throughout the day. I am making an effort to make healthier choices, to pick organic fruits and vegetables over chips and processed foods. Soon I will start doing yoga, and dedicate my sessions to Him.

To acknowledge my quickly growing relationship with Him, I set aside a specific day of the month to honor Him. I choose the 8th of the lunar month, the day after His Father Apollo’s birthday, and Apollo sacred day in the Athenian calendar. On this day I abstain from sex and food, and meditate on Him and His gifts to mankind. I am new to His worship, but I feel Him taking my hand and leading me down the path of the healer. I pray that as I begin to heal myself, I will become more capable of healing others. May I become an instrument to work His will on earth. Hail Asklepios!

 

 

 

 

[1] Pseudo-Hyginus. Fabulae 202,

[2] Pindar. Pythian Ode 3. 5, Pausanias. Description of Greece 2. 26. 1 – 7

[3] Pseudo-Apollodorus. Bibliotheca 3. 118, Pindar. Nemean Ode 3. 51

[4] Homer. Iliad 4. 193 & 217, Homer. Iliad 11. 518, Pseudo-Hyginus. Fabulae 97, Diodorus Siculus. Library of History 4. 71. 3

[5] Hailton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Warner Books. 1969. New York. Pg 294.

[6] Pseudo-Apollodorus. Bibliotheca 3. 121,

[7] Hesiod. Catalogues of Women Fragment 90,

[8] Pindar, Pythian Ode 3. 54, Stesichorus, Fragment 147 , Plato. Republic 408b

[9] Philodemus, On Piety, Greek Lyric IV Stesichorus Frag 147 & Cinesias Frag 774

[10] Licymnius. Fragment 769, Apuleius. The Golden Ass 10. 25, Orphic Hymn 68 to Hygeia, Aeschylus.  Agamemnon 1001, Euenus. Fragment 6

[11] Aristophanes. Plutus 701, Suidas s.v. Epione,

[12] Greek Lyric V Anonymous, Fragment 939 (Inscription from Erythrai)

[13] Pausanias. Description of Greece 1. 34. 3,

[14] Suidas s.v. Epione

[15] Bernstein, Frances. Classical Living: Reconnecting with the Rituals of Ancient Rome. HarperCollins Publishers. 2000. Pg  25.

 

 

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3 Responses to Asklepios the Physician

  1. Matthew N. Hunt says:

    Great article! I posted it on the Asklepios Fan Page on Facebook. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Some of my writings « Temple of Athena the Savior

  3. Pingback: Asklepios the Physician « WiccanWeb

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