Study on the god Asclepius, physician to the Greeks

Almost all ancient cultures used a personification of healing through a doctor god with near-miraculous abilities. Among the Greeks of the classical period, it was Asclepius who held this function.

In addition to his simply exceptional healing abilities, legends present him as a prophetic being credited with great magical powers in general.

All over Greece, temples and altars were erected in his honor. Often, these places brought together their doctors and caregivers and served as a sort of hospitals of the time.

The most famous of these temples is at Epidaurus. We will talk about it later in this article but, in addition to being a tribute to the god Asclepius, this site occupied a central place in the lives of the Greeks of the time.

Given the importance that this god may have had, it is not surprising that a very specific Greek lucky charm was attributed to him. This is the staff of Asclepius (a copy of which you will find here in the form of a pendant).

We'll talk about it later, but know right now that this is a powerful symbol linked to medicine and healing.

Contents :

Description of the God Asclepius

A particular symbol: the staff of Asclepius

Archaeological traces linked to Asclepius

Aged stone bust of Asclepius, in black and white.

Description of the God Asclepius

Asclepius is therefore an important figure in Greek mythology.

He was the son of the god Apollo and the nymph Coronis. While pregnant, Coronis fell in love with a mortal and made him her lover. Jealous of this relationship, Apollo killed Coronis and, seeing her lying on her funeral pyre, he took pity on the unborn child and saved him.

The baby was named Asclepius. From an early age he was entrusted to Chiron, a learned centaur who taught him medicine.

In the end, young Asclepius learned so much that he managed to bring one of his patients back from the dead. Zeus, the king of the gods, began to fear that the immortality of the gods could be granted to mortals. He then made a difficult decision: that of killing Asclepius with a blow of his divine lightning.

Apollo requests that his son be placed in the sky and become a star called Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer.

In other versions of the myth, Asclepius does not actually die, but becomes a living god, founding healing centers throughout ancient Greece. According to this theory, this would have led to the cult of Asclepius and, more broadly, which would have pushed the Greeks to be so interested in medicine.

Despite his death, Asclepius was able to pass on part of his art. He indeed had two sons (Machaon and Podaleirios) as well as four daughters (Iaso, Panacea, Aceso and Aglaia).

In some traditions, he was married to Hygeia (or Hygie in its French version), another goddess linked to health. In others, Hygeia is rather described as his daughter, whom he had with the mortal Epione.

Whatever the case, it appears obvious that the descendants of the god Asclepius were numerous. They even have a name: they are the Asclepiades, his disciples who try to continue his work on mortal land.

The famous Greek physician Hippocrates is often described as part of this great lineage.

After having presented it to you in broad terms, we will now develop each of the major stages of the life of Asclepius.

A complicated ancestry

As we have just cited, Asclepius was born to a divine father in the person of the Greek god Apollo, and a mortal mother, Coronis of Thessaly (yes, the nymphs of Greek mythology are indeed mortal). So he is a demigod, what we could call a half-blood.

The story goes that while Coronis was pregnant with Asclepius, she took another lover, which angered Apollo.

To punish Coronis' infidelity, the god of beauty sent his sister Artemis the hunter to kill her. As Coronis burned on his funeral pyre, Apollo took pity on their unborn son and saved him from the flames. Some call it the first cesarean section in human history. So we already see a direct link with medicine…

However, there are other versions of this story!

Some tell us that Coronis would not have died this way, that she would have carried her pregnancy to term but that, ashamed of giving birth to a chatterbox, she abandoned the baby not far from the city of Epidaurus.

There, he was taken in by a goat and a dog who educated him like their little one. (It may seem so, but Greek mythology is full of this type of incredible anecdote. It's a safe bet that the meaning to be sought here is more symbolic than anything else).

Learning medicine

We therefore see thanks to this legend that the very birth of Asclepius was a heroic medical act, a divine intervention which saved a life.

By entrusting the child to the centaur Chiron, Apollo more or less directly offered him a destiny linked to the art of medicine and healing.

This was not lacking, and Asclepius became the greatest physician and surgeon that the Hellenic peninsula had ever known. With him, therapy and health in general reached unprecedented heights.

Despite a certain detachment from his father, Asclepius was indeed the son of the God Apollo. Among the values ​​and knowledge he passed on to him was the desire to heal and help the sick.

His instruction by Chiron gave him knowledge of the proper use of medicinal plants and herbs. As this centaur lived on Mount Pelion in Thessaly, this is also where mythology tells us the god Asclepius grew up and learned medicine.

Besides this, another legend tells us how the goddess Athena gave Asclepius the blood of Medusa as a gift. The blood coming from the veins of the left temple of Medusa's head (and yes, that's damn accurate) was seen as a scourge on humanity.

Anyone who came into contact with it would be cursed and die a horrible death. Asclepius managed to use it to heal men and even resurrect some of them.

A tragic ending

Asclepius had therefore become such an accomplished healer that he was able to bring one of his patients back from the dead.

Inevitably, this posed a huge threat to the forces that held the world. This therefore alarmed Zeus, the king of the gods. He believed that this type of skill could offer humanity something that the inhabitants of Olympus jealously guarded: immortality.

Not only was Zeus angry to see many of his old enemies, whom he had struck down with his lightning bolts, coming back to life, but his brother Hades, the king of the underworld, was complaining about the dwindling number of new arrivals.

Asclepius therefore met a tragic end when he was killed by a lightning bolt thrown by Zeus...

Some, however, see this as a good thing. Indeed, the balance of the world had thereby been preserved.

Asclepius' medical skills posed a real threat to the preservation of the established order between gods and mortals.

Furthermore, the spread of this type of knowledge necessarily meant that it would one day fall into the wrong hands and no one could have predicted what might have happened.

Angry that his son had been killed, Apollo decided to avenge her by killing the Cyclops who had helped Zeus by creating lightning for him. He was subsequently punished and had to serve Admetus, the king of Thessaly, for an entire year.

According to some traditions, the god Apollo requested that his son Asclepius be placed among the stars, something accepted by Zeus, thus transforming him from the ancient healer into the constellation of Ophiuchus (in French, we speak of the constellation of serpentine).

The powers of Asclepius

Despite rumors of his death, many people testified to the appearance or at least the intervention of Asclepius. This led many Greeks of the time to say that he was still alive in the form of a god.

Sanctuaries to his glory were therefore inherited almost everywhere in the country. Often, simply exceptional healings took place there, which pushed an ever-increasing number of men to respect the famous Asclepius.

If you are also interested in Greek mythology, take a look at our lucky charms from Greek and Roman cultures, you will not be disappointed.

In addition to an obvious link with medicine and healing, the god Asclepius had a special relationship with another art: that of clairvoyance and divination.

As the son of Apollo, he could sometimes obtain answers from his father through the intervention of oracles. This is also one of the means that allowed him to learn more about the secrets of herbs, medicines and the right treatments to give to the sick.

While placing blind faith in the power of doctors, most men know very little about life, death, and what they really are. Overall, their approach is rather superficial.

The disappearance of Asclepius showed the powerlessness of the living and the mortal in the face of the natural order and the forces of decomposition, destruction and death. Even the most skilled doctor cannot postpone death indefinitely, and in the end, the grim reaper always claims his dues.

Bas-relief of a staff of Asclepius with its serpent surrounding a branch.

A particular symbol: the staff of Asclepius

We have just spoken to you about the attributes of Asclepius and more particularly about a staff around which a sacred serpent is coiled. This is a very famous Greek lucky charm which has an unequivocal name: the staff of Asclepius.

You've probably seen it before. Indeed, the Asclepius staff is the official emblem of the medical profession throughout the world.

Yes, this symbol remains, even today, the one that doctors have chosen to represent their profession. Many caregivers and people who wish to show their respect wear this type of brooch showing the staff of Asclepius.

After reading the short description we have made of the life of this god of medicine, it is easy to understand what is more in this figure. The god Asclepius is a legendary healer, possesses enormous knowledge and always works for the good of men.

In short, he represents everything the ideal doctor should strive for.

The staff of Asclepius (also known as the rod of Asclepius) represents a piece of wood around which a snake is coiled. Often, it is brandished by Asclepius himself in scenes during which he demonstrates his talents for care and healing.

The snake: a real tool for the doctor

There are many theories as to how the staff and the serpent may have been associated with the practice of medicine. One of them is called the worm theory.

Historians have found an Egyptian papyrus dating from around 1500 BCE near the city of Luxor. Called the “ Ebers papyrus ”, this document constitutes one of the first medical treatises in the history of humanity.

It details a treatment for treating parasitic worms that involves opening the area of ​​the body where the worm is located and slowly removing it by wrapping it around a stick. (Let us be clear, we do not recommend this very archaic method to anyone.)

Healers of the time would then have advertised their services by hanging a sign representing a stick with a worm wrapped around it.

This theory may seem very trivial… and it is! It is therefore clearly not the most widespread theory. Please note, however, that it exists and that very serious specialists consider it plausible.

A biblical figure who goes beyond the borders of Greece

The second theory that we are going to present to you is linked to the biblical figure of Moses.

Indeed, this prophet is shown to us in the Bible carrying a bronze staff around which a sculpted serpent is coiled. If an Israelite was bitten by a poisonous snake, he only had to look at Moses' staff to be healed.

In another Old Testament passage, God sent “serpents of fire” to punish the Israelites who had spoken against Him and Moses. When they repented, God ordered his prophet to erect a pole with a bronze serpent on it, so that everyone who looked at it would survive the bites they had suffered during the trials.

Here are two interesting hypotheses as to the birth of the staff of Asclepius.

Symbol of renewal

However, most scholars believe that the use of a snake to create the staff of Asclepius is linked to the important place these animals occupied in certain healing rituals practiced by the followers of this Greek deity. Some sites dedicated to the god Asclepius even had specific areas in which snakes lived.

Specialists believe that, in addition to the use of reptiles in healing rituals, they also represent the close link between life and death, healing and illness.

Indeed, the venom of a snake is a dangerous poison that can kill... but it is also the ingredient in many remedies that can save lives!

Throughout history, doctors have used its venom in the preparation of medicine. Ancient peoples such as the Greeks and Egyptians were no exception to this rule.

Here is a theory, also entirely valid, as to the origin and meaning of the staff of Asclepius.

The international symbol of the order of doctors

Because of its association with health, the Rod of Asclepius became a symbol used by doctors around the world as a sign of recognition, and remains so today.

In fact, this Greek lucky charm appears on the logo of the World Health Organization. Additionally, many pharmacies use this symbol in their logos and on their signs.

Staff of Asclepius, caduceus of Hermes, brooch of Hygieia: if you are interested in the different symbols used by medical organizations, here is an article that should interest you.

Do not confuse the staff of Asclepius with the caduceus of Hermes!

The staff of Asclepius is often confused with the kerukeion (sometimes called the caduceus of Hermes, or the caduceus of Mercury). Here is a necklace that bears this symbol of the Greek god Hermes, so you can clearly see what it is about.

This confusion is understandable, because both of these Greek symbols show us serpents. The differences are, however, easy to find: the staff of Asclepius has one where the caduceus of Hermes has two. In addition, this second lucky charm has a pair of wings.

The confusion is even carried by certain official organizations. The United States Army Medical Department, for example, adopted the caduceus as its official symbol in 1902.

However, the god Hermes is not a healer, he rather plays the role of a messenger. This may be interesting but is clearly not appropriate for a medical order!

A cup of Hygieia, a statue of a Greek deity and a mythological protection amulet

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Archaeological traces linked to Asclepius

The cult of Asclepius began in the region of Thessaly (in the center of present-day Greek territory). However, it was also practiced in many other regions of ancient Greece.

You should know that certain myths tell us that the god Asclepius prefers to heal people while they sleep. The sick therefore often chose to sleep in the temples dedicated to him rather than simply passing through.

This led to a sort of “tourist” activity (of the time of course), which helped to develop towns and commerce all around these sacred sites.

Amphitheater of the sanctuary of Epidaurus in which tourists are located.

The sanctuary of Epidaurus

If there is one place that represents the cult dedicated to Asclepius, it is the sanctuary of Epidaurus (here is a link to the UNESCO site which presents this site to you in more detail). Founded in the 6th century BCE, it is sometimes known in classical literature as Asklepieion.

The sanctuary of Epidaurus was actually the greatest healing center in the ancient world. It was visited by citizens from all over Greece necessarily, but also not by many foreigners who had heard of the wonders that took place there.

Whether seeking relief from aches and pains, divine intervention, or medicine for a bedridden loved one, anyone could come to the priests of Asclepius to ask for their help.

The sanctuary itself was made up of several buildings which included the Great Temple (built around 380 BCE) and the Thymele (built around 330 BCE), a round marble building which had a mysterious underground labyrinth.

Some stories tell us that this labyrinth was filled with snakes. This is perhaps a myth meant to add to the aura of the god Asclepius. However, you should know that these animals were associated with him and symbolized (through their ability to molt) regeneration and renewal.

Additionally, snakes have a place with the prophetic abilities of this deity because, by living without the soil, they can know the hidden secrets buried beneath the earth. It is therefore entirely plausible that the followers of Asclepius did indeed fill their labyrinth with these dangerous animals.

In Epidaurus there were also the columns of Enkoimeterion, a place where patients, after having undergone several purification rituals, slept for a night waiting for dreams in which the god would appear to them and tell them the best way to heal.

The remedies were then self-administered or sometimes carried out by priests when the tasks were too technical or complex.

The sanctuary of Epidaurus also had a gigantic theater with a capacity of 6,000 seats which is, it should be noted, the best preserved classical theater in all of Greece, and which is still in use today.

Temple dedicated to the god Asclepius in ruins with its columns still standing.

Other places of worship dedicated to the god Asclepius

The place that we have just presented to you is undoubtedly the most important and the most emblematic when it comes to our famous god of medicine. Archaeologists have, however, found an impressive number of sites linked to Asclepius. Here are a few :

  • Situated just below the Acropolis on the western slope, another important sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius was in Athens. A legend from mythology tells us that a priest named Telemachos brought the god to the site in the form of a sacred serpent in the year 419 BCE.
  • The Greek historian Strabo also mentions the presence of a temple dedicated to Asclepius in the town of Tricca. According to some scholars, this is where the god was born. However, no archaeologist has yet been able to (re)discover the site.
  • The city of Messene has important remains attesting to the popularity of its sanctuary of Asclepius throughout the Hellenic period. Ruins separated chronologically by several centuries are in fact close to each other.
  • Other sacred sites were on the island of Kos where many apprentice doctors came from all over the ancient world to learn the healing arts.
  • The cult of Asclepius also took place in Pergamum during the 4th century BC, perhaps under the leadership of a patient cured in Epidaurus named Archias.
  • In 293 BCE, the Romans are said to have transported one of the sacred serpents from Epidaurus to the island of the Tiber in order to cure Rome of the plague.

Vase from Hellenic culture engraved with motifs typical of Antiquity.

The representation of Asclepius in the arts

In ancient Greek art, Asclepius was an important figure in sculpture, pottery, the creation of mosaics and even coins. Truly, this character occupied an important place in the imagination of the Ancient Greeks.

Dion, Kos, Athens and Rhodes: works of art representing him have been found in cities throughout Greece. This demonstrates a very real and lasting popularity over time.

Asclepius also appears in one of the most important literary works of our civilization, namely Homer's Iliad. He is described as a doctor of exceptional skill, himself the father of two other Greek doctors.

This description of a very mortal Asclepius leads specialists to think that it was only later that he was elevated to the rank of god by the ancient world.

In terms of his attributes, he is almost always depicted wearing a full beard, dressed in a simple himation (a loose robe worn by men at the time) and holding a staff around which a snake is coiled. He is sometimes accompanied by Hygeia or a dog lying at his feet. If you see it associated with a tree, it will always be a cypress, pine or olive tree.

All these elements are in reality symbols converging towards the same idea: the god Asclepius is a being of great wisdom but also of unfailing simplicity and proximity to the people.

Lucky charms featured in this article

Pendant of the Staff of Asclepius

Pendant of the Staff of Asclepius

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Brooch of the Staff of Asclepius

Brooch of the Staff of Asclepius

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Hermes Caduceus Necklace

Hermes Caduceus Necklace

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author picture(Cyril Gendarme)

Discover the author: Cyril Gendarme

Cyril Gendarme is a writer whose website "The Lucky Door" ("La Porte Du Bonheur" in French, his native language) has become a reference in the field of esotericism. Born in Belgium, Cyril has been attracted to the mysteries of the world since he was a child. When his interest in occultism was awakened, a particular subject caught his attention: lucky charms.

After years of study and in-depth research on esoteric traditions from around the world, Cyril decided to share his knowledge with the public through the internet. In 2019, he launched "The Lucky Door," a website dedicated to exploring lucky charms, magical symbols, and esoteric arts.

The Lucky Door is much more than just a showcase for those curious about magic, divination, or tradition. It is the result of Cyril's passion for researching and understanding the mysteries of the universe. Every piece of information available on the site testifies to his dedication to sharing his knowledge of the most hidden symbols and their unique powers.

In addition to his online work, Cyril regularly organizes workshops and conferences in different countries. His presence on social media is also highly appreciated, where he offers personalized advice and happily answers questions from his community.