Asclepios, the God of Medicine

Beneath the Parthenon, on the southern cliffs of the Acropolis, is a sacred spring in a small cave. While details of its earliest use and deities are lost in antiquity, it is known that the spring became the focal point of a sanctuary to the god Asclepios by the 5th century BC.

Asclepios was the Greek god of medicine and healing. The son of Apollo and the nymph Coronis. Asclepios had five daughters, Aceso, Iaso, Panacea, Aglaea and Hygieia. He was worshipped throughout the Greek world but his most famous sanctuary was located in Epidaurus which is situated in the northeastern Peloponnese. The main attribute of Asclepius is a physician’s staff with an Asclepian snake wrapped around it; this is how he was distinguished in the art of healing, and his attribute still survives to this day as the symbol of the modern medical profession. The cock was also sacred to Asclepius and was the bird they sacrificed as his altar.

The mother of Asclepios, Coronis, was a mortal, the daughter of Phlegyas, a king of Thessaly. Coronis was unfaithful to Apollo, and Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister, killed her for her unfaithfulness. Coronis was placed upon a funeral pyre. (One version says that Apollo cast her into the fires of his own anger.) As her body started to burn, Apollo felt sorrow for his unborn son and snatched the child Asclepios from his mother’s corpse, saving him from death. Apollo then handed Asclepios to the Centaur Chiron who became his tutor and mentor.

Chiron taught Asclepios the art of healing. According to Pindar (Pythian Odes), Asclepios also acquired the knowledge of surgery, the use of drugs, love potions and incantations, and according to Apollodorus, Athena gave Asclepios a magic potion made from the blood of the Gorgon. Legend tells that the blood of the Gorgon has a different effect depending from which side the blood was taken. If taken from the right side of the Gorgon, it has a miraculous effect and is said to be able to bring the dead back to life, but taken from the left side it is a deadly poison.

With these gifts Asclepios exceeded the fringes of human knowledge. However, he offended the great god Zeus by accepting money in exchange for raising the dead. (In one version it was the goddess Artemis who implored Asclepios to resurrect Hippolytus, a favourite of hers.) In the eyes of Zeus, Asclepios’ action upset the natural order of the universe - a mere mortal helping man evade death. With one swift action, the great Zeus sent down a thunderbolt killing both men. (In some versions Zeus only killed Asclepios.)

Realising the good Asclepios had brought to man, the great Zeus made him into a god, placing him among the stars, transforming Asclepios into the constellation Ophiuchus (the serpent-bearer). The snake was used in the healing ritual; non-poisonous snakes were left in the dormitory where the sick slept overnight on the bare ground.

The cult of Asclepios became very popular during the 300s BCE and the cult centres (known as an Asclepieion) were used by priests to cure the sick. Invalids also came to the shrines of Asclepios to find cures for their ailments. The process of healing was known as incubation. The patient would spend the night in a dormitory. During the night they would supposedly be visited by the god in a dream. Priests would interpret the dreams and then recommend a remedy or give advice on how they could be cured with perhaps a recommended visit to the baths and gymnasiums. There were many centres and schools of medicine, from Trikkis in Thessaly to the island of Cos. It is believed that Hippocrates, a great doctor of antiquity, plied his trade on the island of Cos. It is also said that Hippocrates was a descendant of Asclepios.

The temples of Asclepios are always associated with sacred springs, whose waters carried the healing powers of the Earth spirits. Because it was believed that Asclepios effected cures of the sick in dreams, those patients seeking the god’s help first drank and bathed in the waters of his spring and then slept within the temple precincts. During dreams, Asclepios or his serpents would appear to the sick, giving them clues regarding their healing. Patients in Asclepeion shrines also participated in rituals involving snakes. Asclepios is frequently shown standing with a long wooden staff, around which is entwined a large snake.

This staff, symbolizing the tree of life, and its coiling snake represent the mysterious healing powers of the primal earth and are themselves remnants of pre-Grecian cults that worshipped the Earth. (A somewhat similar symbol, the caduceus, a winged staff with two twined serpents, is frequently but incorrectly used as a medical emblem. Without medical relevance, the caduceus instead represents the magic wand of Hermes, or Mercury, the messenger of the gods and the patron of trade.)

The sacred spring of Asclepios in Athens was converted into a Christian place of worship by the 6th century AD and rededicated to the Aghioi Anargyroi, or doctor saints. Below the cave and spring shrine are extensive ruins of other temples to Asklepios and also of Hygieia, the goddess of health.