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Asclepius in Greek Mythology

Updated on August 22, 2016
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

The name of Asclepius is one which features in many stories from Ancient Greece and Rome, including Bibliotheca and Metamorphoses, with Asclepius being regarded as the god of medicine.

The link to medicine has resonated through the years, and in the traditional version of the Hippocratic Oath sees Asclepius mentioned in the opening lines.

The Birth of Asclepius

Asclepius, though regarded as the god of medicine, was born a demi-god. Asclepius was the son of Apollo, and the mortal Coronis, the daughter of the Thessalonian king Phlegyas, king of the Lapiths.

Whilst pregnant with the child of Apollo, Coronis fell in love with Ischys, a son of Elatus. News of Coronis’ unfaithfulness reached Apollo via a white crow, and according to Ovid, the god was so angry, that he burnt the feathers of the crow so that they became black.

News of the betrayal also reached Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister, and it was the goddess who struck down the princess. Before Coronis could be burnt on a funeral pyre, Apollo came along, and cut his unborn son from her womb; the name Asclepius can be translated as “to cut open”.

Asclepius given to Chiron

Dutch 16th Century after Hendrik Goltzius PD-art-100
Dutch 16th Century after Hendrik Goltzius PD-art-100 | Source

The Training of Asclepius

Apollo passed over his son to the centaur Chiron for training. Chiron was the wisest and most civilised of all of the centaurs, and many noted heroes of Greek mythology would be tutored by him.

Chiron focused the training and teaching of Asclepius on healing and medicine. Soon, Asclepius had learnt all that Chiron could teach him, but the son of Apollo continued to strive for more knowledge, and had soon discovered new potions and new ways of undertaking surgery.

Asclepius was said to have been aided in his studying by a snake. In gratitude for an act of kindness, a snake licked clean the ears of Asclepius, providing him with knowledge that had previously been hidden from man. The licking clean of ears by snakes was a common theme for those who had the gift of foresight, and to the ancient Greeks, divination and healing were intertwined.

Family LIfe

After leaving the care of Chiron, Asclepius would get married to Epione, the goddess of soothing of pain. Though regarded as a goddess, no lineage for Epione is given in ancient texts.

Asclepius would subsequently become father to five daughters, Aceso, goddess of healing process, Aglaea, goddess of beauty, Hygieia, goddess of cleanliness, Iaso, goddess of recuperation, and Panacea, goddess of universal remedy.

Additionally, Asclepius would become father to four sons; three with Epione, these being Machaon, Podaleirios, and Telesphoros, and a fourth, Aratus, with Aristodama.

Machaon and Podaleirios would become noted healers themselves, and would be counted amongst the Achaean forces at Troy. Indeed, the pair would heal Philoctetes when the hero arrived at Troy.

Aesculapius and Hygieia

Aesculapius and Hygieia. Engraving by R. Morghen - Wellcome Images CC-BY-4.0
Aesculapius and Hygieia. Engraving by R. Morghen - Wellcome Images CC-BY-4.0 | Source

Asclepius the Hero

Asclepius was himself occasionally referred to as a hero, and Hyginus, in Fabulae 30, would name the healer amongst the Argonauts and also the hunters of the Calydonian Boar, although Asclepius’ name doesn’t appear on most lists of Argonauts and hunters.

Rather than a hero, Asclepius would make his name as a healer, and would cure many that he encountered of their sicknesses and injuries. The good work that Asclepius undertook brought him to the attention of the goddess Athena. To aid his work Athena presented him with a potion derived from the blood of Medusa; Athena having been presented with the head of the Gorgon by Perseus.

The potion was extremely powerful, and when used properly would even allow the dead to be resurrected.

The Skill of Asclepius

The skill of Asclepius though, would end up doing him more harm than good, as eventually he was successful in resurrecting the dead.

Amongst those named as being brought back to life were Capaneus of Thebes, Glaucus, son of King Minos, Lycurgus, son of Pronax, and most famously, Hippolytus, the son of Theseus.

Zeus was now angered by the actions of Asclepius, partially because it was he who had killed Capaneus in the first place, but also because Asclepius was now infringing on the dominion of the god. The deceased were expected to reside for eternity in the realm of Hades; and the fact that Hippolytus was resurrected at the behest of the goddess Artemis meant little.

So, Zeus threw down one of his lightning bolts, killing Asclepius.

Asclepius Overcoming Death

Drawing attributed to J.-C. Bordier du Bignon, 1822 PD-art-100
Drawing attributed to J.-C. Bordier du Bignon, 1822 PD-art-100 | Source

Aftermath

The death of his son so enraged Apollo, that he himself would kill the Cyclopes, the trusted weapon makers of Zeus; this act would see Apollo banished from Mount Olympus for a period of time.

Zeus though would recognise that Asclepius had done for mankind, and so whilst the constellation Ophiuchus was created in his honour, some stories have Asclepius resurrected as a god of Mount Olympus, in the same way that Heracles would later be made a god. Even though a full fledged god, Asclepius was nevertheless instructed that he should not resurrect anyone without Zeus permission.

The Rod of Asclepius

Pathoschild Released into PD
Pathoschild Released into PD | Source

Asclepius into Modernity

Asclepius was widely worshipped across Greece, with sanctuaries and temples dedicated to him. It was the temple on the island of Kos that was said to have inspired Hippocrates to take up the medical profession, with Hippocrates being the father of modern medicine.

The link between Asclepius and Hippocrates would continue into the modern day, as the text of the traditional Hippocratic Oath shows –



I swear by Apollo the physician, and Asclepius the surgeon, likewise Hygeia and Panacea, and call all the gods and goddesses to witness, that I will observe and keep this underwritten oath, to the utmost of my power and judgment.

A common symbol of the medical profession today is the Rod of Asclepius, a physician’s staff with a snake encircling it; this staff was an attribute of Asclepius in antiquity.

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