Asclepius or Hepius is a hero and god of medicine in ancient Greek religion and mythology.
Asclepius is the son of Apollo and Coronis, or Arsinoe, or of Apollo alone. He represents the healing aspect of the medical arts; his daughters are Hygieia (“Hygiene”, the goddess of cleanliness), Iaso (the goddess of recuperation from illness), Aceso (the goddess of the healing process), Aegle (the goddess of good health), Panacea (the goddess of universal remedy), and several sons.
He was associated with the Roman/Etruscan god Vediovis and the Egyptian Imhotep. He shared with Apollo the epithet Paean (“the Healer”). The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, remains a symbol of medicine today. Those physicians and attendants who served this god were known as the Therapeutae of Asclepius.
Birth of Asclepius
Asclepius was the son of Apollo and, according to the earliest accounts, a mortal woman named Coronis. When she displayed infidelity by sleeping with a mortal named Ischys, Apollo came to know this with his prophetic powers and killed Ischys.
Coronis was killed by Artemis for being unfaithful to Apollo and was laid out on a funeral pyre to be consumed, but Apollo rescued the child by cutting him from Coronis’s womb.
According to Delphian tradition, Asclepius was born in the temple of Apollo, with Lachesis acting as a midwife and Apollo relieving the pains of Coronis. Apollo named the child after Coronis’ nickname, Aegle.
Phoenician tradition maintains that Asclepius was born of Apollo without any woman involved.
According to the Roman version, Apollo, having learned about Coronis’ betrayal with the mortal Ischys through his raven, killed her with his arrows. Before breathing her last, she revealed to Apollo that she was pregnant with his child. He repented his actions and unsuccessfully tried to save her. At last, he removed their son safely from her belly before she was consumed by the fire.
In yet another version, Coronis who was already pregnant with Apollo’s child had to accompany her father to Peloponnesos. She had kept her pregnancy hidden from her father. In Epidaurus, she bore a son and exposed him to a mountain called Nipple. The child was given milk by one of the goats that pastured about the mountain and were guarded by the watch-dog of the herd.
Aresthanas, the owner of goats and the guard dogs found the child. As he came near, he saw lightning that flashed from the child, and thinking of it to be a sign of divine, he left the child alone. Asclepius was later taken by Apollo.
Education and adventures
Apollo named the rescued baby Asclepius and reared him for a while and taught him many things about medicine. However, Asclepius had his formal education under the centaur Chiron who instructed him in the art of medicine.
It is said that in return for some kindness rendered by Asclepius, a snake licked Asclepius’s ears clean and taught him secret knowledge (to the Greeks snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection). Asclepius bore a rod wreathed with a snake, which became associated with healing.
Another version states that when Asclepius was commanded to restore the life of Glaucus, he was confined in a secret prison. While pondering on what he should do, a snake crept near his staff. Lost in his thoughts, Asclepius unknowingly killed it by hitting it again and again with his staff.
Later, another snake came there with a herb in its mouth and placed it on the head of the dead snake, which soon came back to life. Seeing this, Asclepius used the same herb, which brought Glaucus back. A species of non-venomous pan-Mediterranean serpent, the Aesculapian snake (Zamenis longissimus) is named for the god.
He was originally called Hepius but received his popular name of Asclepius after he cured Ascles, ruler of Epidaurus who suffered an incurable ailment in his eyes. Asclepius became so proficient as a healer that he surpassed both Chiron and his father, Apollo.
Asclepius was, therefore, able to evade death and to bring others back to life from the brink of death and beyond. This caused an influx of human beings and Zeus resorted to killing him to maintain balance in the numbers of the human population.
At some point, Asclepius was among those who took part in the Calydonian Boar hunt.
Death of Asclepius
Asclepius once started bringing back to life the dead people like Tyndareus, Capaneus, Glaucus, Hymenaeus, Lycurgus, and others. Others say he brought Hippolytus back from the dead on Artemis’ request and accepted gold for it. It is the only mention of Asclepius resurrecting the dead. In all other accounts, he is said to use his skills simply as a physician.
However, Hades accused Asclepius of stealing his subjects and complained to his brother Zeus about it. According to others, Zeus was afraid that Asclepius would teach the art of resurrection to other humans as well. So he killed Asclepius with his thunderbolt.
This angered Apollo who in turn killed the Cyclopes who made the thunderbolts for Zeus. For this act, Zeus banished Apollo from Olympus and commanded him to serve Admetus, King of Thessaly for a year. After Asclepius’s death, Zeus placed his body among the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus (“the Serpent Holder”).
Later, however, upon Apollo’s request, Zeus resurrected Asclepius as a god and gave him a place on Olympus.
Sacred places and practices
The most ancient and the most prominent Asclepeion (or healing temple) according to the geographer of the 1st century BC, Strabo, was situated in Trikala. One of the most famous temples of Asclepius was at Epidaurus in north-eastern Peloponnese, dated to the fourth century BC.
Another famous Asclepeion was built approximately a century later on the island of Kos, where Hippocrates, the legendary “father of medicine“, may have begun his career. Other Asclepieia were situated in Gortys (in Arcadia), and Pergamum in Asia.
From the fifth century BC onwards, the cult of Asclepius grew very popular and pilgrims flocked to his healing temples (Asclepieia) to be cured of their ills. Ritual purification would be followed by offerings or sacrifices to the god (according to means), and the supplicant would then spend the night in the holiest part of the sanctuary – the abaton.
Any dreams or visions would be reported to a priest who would prescribe the appropriate therapy by a process of interpretation. Some healing temples also used sacred dogs to lick the wounds of sick petitioners.
In honor of Asclepius, a particular type of non-venomous snake was often used in healing rituals, and these snakes — the Aesculapian Snakes — slithered around freely on the floor in dormitories where the sick and injured slept. These snakes were introduced at the founding of each new temple of Asclepius throughout the classical world.
The original Hippocratic Oath began with the invocation:
“I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods …”.
Some later religious movements claimed links to Asclepius. In the 2nd century AD the controversial miracle-worker Alexander claimed that his god Glycon, a snake with a “head of linen” was an incarnation of Asclepius.
The Greek language rhetorician and satirist Lucian produced the work Alexander the False Prophet to denounce the swindler for future generations. He described Alexander as having a character “made up of lying, trickery, perjury, and malice; it was facile, audacious, venturesome, diligent in the execution of its schemes, plausible, convincing, masking as good, and wearing an appearance absolutely opposite to its purpose.”
In Rome, the College of Aesculapius and Hygia was an association (collegium) that served as a burial society and dining club that also participated in the Imperial cult.
The botanical genus Asclepias (commonly known as milkweed) is named after him and includes the medicinal plant A. tuberosa or “Pleurisy root“.