Asclepius (Greek Άσκληπιός, transliterated Asklēpiós; Latin Aesculapius) was the god of medicine and healing in ancient Greek mythology. Asclepius represented the spiritual aspect of the medical arts, while his daughters Hygieia, Meditrina, Iaso, Aceso, Aglæa/Ægle, and Panacea (literally, "all-healing") symbolized the forces of cleanliness, medicine, and healing, respectively. Correspondingly, the plant Asclepias (commonly known as milkweed), was also named after the god, due to its numerous uses in folk medicine.
Given humanity's universal interest in health and longevity, it is not surprising that Asclepius was one of the more popular deities in the Greek pantheon. Though he is not strongly attested to in the mythic corpus, archaeological evidence demonstrates that Asclepius was widely venerated in ancient Greece by individuals of all ages and social classes. Indeed, no less an exponent than Socrates is said to have recognized the god in his last words: "Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius; pay it, therefore; and do not neglect it."
The etymology of Asclepius is still a matter of debate. In his revised version of Hjalmar Frisk's Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, Robert S. P. Beekes gives this summary of the different attempts:
H. Grégoire (with R. Goossens and M. Mathieu) in Asklépios, Apollon Smintheus et Rudra 1949 (Mém. Acad. Roy. de Belgique. Cl. d. lettres. 2. sér. 45), explains the name as "the mole-hero," connecting σκάλοψ, ἀσπάλαξ "mole" and refers to the resemblance of the Tholos in Epidauros and the building of a mole (Thus Jaan Puhvel, Comp. Mythol. 1987, 135.). But the variants of Asklepios and those of the word for "mole" do not agree.
The name is typical for Pre-Greek words; apart from minor variations (β for π, αλ(α) for λα) we find α/αι (a well known variation; Edzard Johan Furnée 335-339) followed by -γλαπ- or -σκλαπ-/-σχλαπ/β-, i.e. a voiced velar (without -σ-) or a voiceless velar (or an aspirated one: We know that there was no distinction between the three in the substr. language) with a -σ-. I think that the -σ- renders an original affricate, which (prob. as δ) was lost before the -γ- (in Greek the group -σγ- is rare, and certainly before another consonant).
Szemerényi's etymology (Journal of Hellenic Studies 94, 1974, 155) from Hitt. assula(a)- "well-being" and piya- "give" cannot be correct, as it does not explain the Velar plosive.
One might add that even though Szemerényi's etymology (Hitt. asula- + piya-) does not account for the velar, it is perhaps inserted spontaneously in Greek due to the fact that the cluster -sl- was uncommon in Greek: So, Aslāpios would become Asklāpios automatically.
Unlike many gods, whose admission to the pantheon (or to the worship practices of the Hellenes) are forever lost to the mists of time, the popularization of the cult of Asclepius can be tied to a particular historical period. More specifically, worship of the god in Athens (the political and cultural hub of the Hellenic world) began in 420 B.C.E., when the city was wracked by a pestilence that claimed the lives of up to one third of its population. After appeals to all of the members of the traditional pantheon failed, they imported the worship of Asclepius from Epidaurus. When the plague began to recede, much of the credit was given to the newly established cult, which proved its worth in the eyes of the Athenian people.
The events surrounding the birth of Asclepius represent an instance of the god Apollo's dreadful luck with human women. In the tale, the God of Music falls in love with Coronis (or Arsinoe) and seduces her, after which point she becomes pregnant with the future Asclepius. Unfortunately, his beloved was untrue, and happened to fall in love with a human male:
For she in the madness of her heart had spurned the god, and unknown to her father took another lover, even though her maiden bed she had already shared with Apollon of the flowing hair, and bore within her the god’s holy seed. She waited not to see the marriage feast, nor stayed to hear the sound of swelling bridal hymns, such notes as maiden friends of a like age are wont to spread in soothing songs upon the evening air. But no! her heart longed for things far off, things unknown, as many another has longed ere now … Such the all-powerful, ill-fated madness that held the proud heart of fair-robed Koronis; for with a stranger, come from Arkadia, she lay in love’s embrace (Pindar, Odes Pythian 3).
When Apollo discovered this betrayal, either through his own omniscience or when informed by a passing raven, he became furious and decided to take an immediate and bloody revenge:
Swept in a storm of rage, he seized his bow, by habit, strung the string, and shot a shaft unerring, inescapable, to pierce her breast whereon so often his own had laid. She screamed and, as the arrow came away, her fair white skin was drenched in crimson blood. "It could have been," she moaned, "that I had borne your child [Asklepios] before you punished me; but now we two shall die together," and her life ebbed with her blood; she breathed her latest breath and through her body stole the chill of death. Too late, alas, too late the lover rues his cruel punishment … and tries if some late slave may vanquish fate, and practices his healing art in vain. And when he finds all fails, and sees the pyre stands ready and her body soon to burn in the last funeral flames … that his seed should perish in that fire Phoebus [Apollon] could not endure, and snatched his son [Asklepios] out of his mother’s womb, out of the flames and carried him to two-formed Chiron’s cave (Ovid, Metamorphoses 2.620).
Thus, Apollo saved the infant Asclepius from the charred corpse of his mother and delivered him to Chiron (the wise centaur) to raise. It was under the centaur's tutelage that the youth developed his legendary healing abilities.
Asclepius: Excellence in medicine and apotheosis
Chiron taught Asclepius the art of surgery, honing his protegé's abilities to the point that he was the most well-respected doctor of his day. In addition to the techniques of medicine, the young god also had magical techniques at his disposal, including the use of drugs, incantations and love potions, and the use of Gorgon's blood as an elixir (a gift given to him by Athena). This latter technique turned out to be the most significant to the god of medicine, as it actually gave him the power to resurrect the dead.
Unfortunately, this interference in the natural order raised the ire of Zeus, who decided that the situation needed to be remedied directly. As a result, he smote Asclepius with a thunderbolt. Furious at the death of his son, Apollo retaliated by murdering the Cyclopes, the titan craftsmen who fashioned Zeus' thunderbolts. According to Euripides' play, Alkestis, Apollo, as reparation for his sinful conduct, was then forced into the servitude of Admetus for nine years.
However, after the Sky God realized Asclepius' importance to the world of humans, he placed the god of medicine in the sky as the constellation Ophiuchus.
Consorts and offspring
Asclepius was married to Epione, with whom he had six daughters: Hygieia, Meditrina (the serpent-bearer), Panacea, Aceso, Iaso, and Aglaea, and three sons: Machaon, Telesphoros, and Podalirius. He also bore a son, Aratus, with Aristodama. The names of his daughters each rather transparently reflect a certain subset of the overall theme of "good health."
Though Asclepius' divinity was, at least in the mythic corpus, never definitively attested to, he remained a consistently popular deity who was the recipient of numerous types of worship and veneration. This ubiquitous respect can likely be correlated to his affiliation with health and healing, which (then as now) represents the fundamental human concern with maintaining corporeal integrity. Another notable element of this cult was that, unlike the majority of Hellenic observances, it was both non-political (that is, not tied to the material and spiritual wellbeing of a particular deme or polis) and voluntary. Indeed, participation in these practices was almost always undertaken electively by individuals who specifically required the aid of the physician god.
Asclepius' most famous sanctuary (asclepieion) was in Epidaurus in the Northeastern Peloponnese. Other famous temples dedicated to the god could be found on the island of Kos (where Hippocrates may have begun his medical career), and in Athens, Rhodes, Lebena (Crete), Pergamon in Asia Minor, and Corinth. Describing these sites, Dillon notes:
The Asklepieia were spreading through the Greek world at the same time that medicine was developing. Nevertheless, doctors and the god do not seem to have been in competition, and the development of Hippocratic medicine did not mean the end of temple healing in the Greek world. The god was allowed his clients without any condemnation by doctors; on the contrary Asklepios was the patron of doctors at all times.
While these sites often shared architectural similarities with the majority of Greek temples and sanctuaries, they had a dramatically larger range of functions (all of which were tied to the god's medical specialty)—in many cases serving as clinics, dormitories, and repositories of votive offerings, in addition to providing an altar and other apparatuses of an organized cult.
Devotion to the Asclepius, which (as mentioned above) was often motivated health problems, took one of several related forms in classical Greek society.
First, the Athenians celebrated a yearly festival dedicated to the god, which took place each year on the 17th and 18th of Boedromion. Called the Epidauria in honor of the locus of the healing god's cult, it included all of the typical elements of a Hellenic festival (including a procession, offerings, and a banquet dedicated to the deity). Six months later, they also celebrated a second festival, the Asclepieia, which featured many of the same elements. Both festivals were occasions for pilgrimage to the city, as they were seen as efficacious means of addressing health concerns.
However, likely due to the time-sensitive nature of medical misfortunes, the most common form of devotion was through pilgrimage to a local Asclepieion (a temple of Asclepius). When a devotee reached the temple, he or she would retire to a structure called the abaton, where they would spend the night hoping to be visited in their dreams by the god and cured. Upon waking, they would reveal their dreams to a priest and prescribed a cure, often a visit to the baths or a gymnasium. Additionally, the temple priests would, at times, perform healing rituals—many utilizing sacred animals (including snakes and dogs). For instance, non-venomous snakes were left to crawl on the floor in dormitories where the sick and injured slept.
In the inscriptions found at Epidaurus, there are several instances of patients being cured by snakes (Ephemris Arch. 1883, p. 215 1. 115 ;id. 1855, p. 22, 1. 117, 130). Similarly Plutus was cured of his blindness by the licking of the tongue of the sacred snakes which lived in the temple of Asclepius (Arist. PI. 730-740). They were regarded with veneration and were fed by the worshipers (Paus. ii. 11, 8) and were thought to be the embodiment of the god (Paus. ii. 10 ; Aurelius Victor de viris illustribus xxii. 1; Valerius Maximus i. 8, 2 etc.).
Once a cure had been effected, it was customary to offer Asclepius a of thanksgiving offer. These took numerous forms, from animal sacrifices and wreaths, to engraved tablets describing the illness and its cure and terra cotta votives depicting the afflicted area.
The excavations conducted at this temple site reveal that patients who came to the Asclepium for treatment often left votive offerings to the god as an expression of their gratitude for healing. The form of these votive offerings … were terra-cotta representations of individual body parts. Large numbers of clay replicas of hands and feet, arms and legs, breasts and genitals, eyes and ears, and heads were found in the ruins of the temple.
The sentiments prompting this type of worship are eloquently summarized by Aristides, a famed orator who survived some notable medical misfortunes:
Truly just as the seers, initiated into the service of the gods who have given their name to their specialty, I have knowledge from the gods themselves. Through their aid, contrary to the likelihood of the circumstances, I am alive, having escaped at different times through various kinds of consolation and advice on the part of the god [Asclepius] from things which no doctor knew what to call, to say nothing of cure, nor had seen befall human nature.
Given the prominence of the (demi)god and his universal appeal as a promoter of health and well-being, it is not surprising that the classical corpus contains numerous invocations to Asclepius. Intriguingly, one finds examples of these religious utterances in the words attributed to two of the preeminent figures of the classical Hellenistic period: Hippocrates (the founder of modern medicine) and Socrates. Specifically, the original Hippocratic Oath begins with the invocation "I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods." In a like manner, the famous last words of Socrates also make reference to the god: "Crito, we owe a cock to Æsculapius [Asclepius]; pay it, therefore; and do not neglect it." While varying theories have been suggested as to the meaning of this oblique utterance, it seems reasonable to follow Minadeo's interpretation—especially when noting that the previous sections of the dialogue describe the philosopher's various other pious preparations for his execution:
I suggest, therefore, that at the dialogue's close Asclepius is quite naturally singled out as a chief representative of those gods whom one must leave behind at death and that Socrates' last words are a simple but due expression of pious gratitude for the therapeia—the care—which the god has accorded him during his long life.
In one intriguing resonance, Saint Paul's sermon to the people of Corinth (site of a famed Asclepieion) seems to have been based upon images from the worship of the god of health. The biblical passage in question reads as follows:
The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
…God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it (1 Corinthians 12:12-19, 24-26. NIV).
Commenting on it, Hill notes:
This Corinthian source may well be the Temple of Asclepius dedicated to the son of Apollo and the Greek god of healing. The Asclepian healing cult was widespread in the ancient Mediterranean world and was extremely popular in the city of Corinth…. Paul, no doubt, was familiar with the practices of the Asclepium … and this emphasis on the individual dismembered body parts, in contrast to the whole person, is probably at least a contributory influence on the thought and language of Paul who refers to such dismembered parts in 1 Cor 12:14-25.
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- www.indoeuropean.nl, Greek Etymology Database.
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- Bible Gateway, accessed at New International Version of the Bible. Retrieved June 22, 2007.
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- Theoi Project—Asclepius: information from original Greek and Roman sources, images from classical art.
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