Asclepius: The Patron God of Doctors
Asclepius was the first doctor in the world according to Greek mythology, and the greatest of all time. A son of the healing god Apollo, he taught humans how to heal themselves.
Before Asclepius, the Greeks had no concept of medicine. As a heroic physician, he saved countless lives and improved the well-being of everyone in the world.
There were limits to how much the gods could allow one man to do, however. When Asclepius went too far and brought the dead back to life, he was punished harshly for breaking the laws of nature and infringing on the domain of the gods.
From his early days as a student of the gods to his eventual worship as an Olympian himself, here is the full story of Asclepius, the man who brought medicine to the world!
Asclepius was the son of Apollo and a mortal woman, most often named as Coronis.
When Coronis was pregnant with Apollo’s child, she had an affair with a mortal man named Ischys. When a white raven told the god of his lover’s infidelity, his anger was so great that it scorched the bird black, a color it retained ever since.
Apollo killed Ischys for the offense but did not lay the blame on Coronis.
Artemis was less forgiving, however. Apollo’s twin sister killed Coronis herself for betraying her brother.
The goddess prepared a funeral pyre, but had not yet lit the fire when Apollo rushed to the site. He cut out Coronis’s unborn child to save him from death as well.
Later traditions from Delphi claimed that Coronis had not been killed. She gave birth in the temple of Apollo there, with the god using his divine healing skills to ease her labor pains.
Apollo kept the child and mourned his involvement in the mother’s death. Unlike many children of the gods, the young Asclepius was raised for a time in his divine father’s household.
Apollo was the god of many things, and one of his major functions was as the god of healing. He taught his young son the fundamentals of healing.
When he reached the age to begin his formal education, Asclepius again found himself in the hands of a master of medicine. The wise centaur Chiron was his tutor in many subjects, including the use of medicine and the basics of surgery.
Asclepius was the first human to learn healing from Apollo and Chiron. Under the centaur’s tutelage, he learned how to dress wounds, set broken bones, make salves from herbs, and treat the many diseases that plagued mankind.
When he reached adulthood, Asclepius left the care of Apollo and Chiron and made his own way in the world. Having learned from both the god of healing and the centaur physician, his knowledge of medicine was the greatest in the world.
At the time, humans had few choices for the treatment of disease and injury. Those who could reach Chiron for care were fortunate, but most had little option but to pray for Apollo’s intervention.
Asclepius was the first human to possess knowledge of medicine. He was the world’s first physician and travelled throughout Greece to ply his trade.
The doctor accompanied many of the most famous heroes of Greece, both as a heroic figure himself and presumably to act as their physician in case of injury. Various sources name him among the members of the hunting party that tracked the Calydonian Boar and as one of Jason’s crew aboard the Argo.
As he traveled, he learned even more about medicine. He discovered new uses for herbs and was the innovator of using venom itself to reverse the effects of a snakebite.
He also perfected, or according to some invented, the use of splints to ensure that a broken bone healed properly.
The first physician soon gained a reputation for restoring health to people that were considered hopelessly ill. Rumors spread that these people were so close to death that Asclepius must have had power over life and death to keep them from passing on.
One story even said that Hades asked his brother Zeus to intervene in the doctor’s amazing work. The number of souls going to his realm had decreased so sharply thanks to the healing skills of Asclepius that Hades feared the underworld would eventually cease to receive new souls entirely.
Asclepius himself did not hold the power over life and death, but he attracted a patron that did.
Athena learned of the physician’s skills. As the goddess of wisdom, she took an interest in helping him to learn and discover even more.
Athena had in her possession a substance that she knew would be of interest to a scholar in matters of life and health. She possessed the blood of the Gorgon Medusa.
The monster’s blood had amazing properties. When taken from one side of her body it could bring about instantaneous death, but from the other it could restore life.
Asclepius was meant to study the blood, and perhaps use the toxic portion of it to ease the suffering of those he could not cure. But he was tempted to do more.
As a surgeon Asklepios (Asclepius) became so skilled in his profession that he not only saved lived but even revived the dead; for he had received from Athena the blood that had coursed through the Gorgon’s veins, the left-side portion of which he used to destroy people, but that on the right he used for their preservation, which is how he could revive those who had died. Zeus was afraid that men might learn the art of medicine from Asklepios and help each other out, so he hit him with a thunderbolt. This angered Apollon, who slew the Kyklopes (Cyclopes), for they designed the thunderbolt for Zeus.
-Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 121 (trans. Aldrich)
Pseudo-Apollodorus claimed that Zeus struck the physician with lightening simply because he feared that the Gorgon’s blood could someday be used to revive those that death had already claimed. But other stories had Asclepius give into temptation first.
The identity of the deceased varied between tellings, but many authors claim that Asclepius used the blood’s power of revival to resurrect a dead king. He had done so not out of pity or for a great cause, but after being bribed with a great sum of gold.
Zeus had allowed Asclepius to practice the healing arts and teach mankind how to improve their health. But allowing a mortal man to have the power to bring someone back from the dead was against all the laws of the gods and nature.
Both Asclepius and his recently-revived patient were killed instantly by a bolt of lightning.
Apollo did not take his father’s action lightly, however. Asclepius was his beloved son, and he avenged him by killing the three Cyclopes who had created Zeus’s thunderbolts during their war against the Titans.
Apollo was banished from Olympus and ordered to serve as a worker in the employ of a human for a period of one year. Upon his return from servitude, he was forgiven for the murders of the Cyclopes, but he had not forgotten about the death of his son.
Apollo implored Zeus to restore his son, both for his own sake and for the good of Zeus’s human subjects. Zeus obliged, recognizing that Asclepius was a good man who could use his gifts for the benefit of men and gods alike.
The king of the gods lifted the physician to Mount Olympus where he was welcomed as a new god. Asclepius had lost his life, but for his skills and service to mankind had gained a new immortal existence.
Asclepius had been married in life. His mortal sons Machaon and Podalirius learned the art of medicine from their father and became great healers in their own right.
According to one legend, Machaon even used his abilities to repay Chiron for his role in the education of Asclepius. When the centaur was struck by a poisoned arrow, Machaon sucked the poison out of the wound and dressed it with healing salves.
Both sons fought in the Trojan War. Podalirius saved the life of Philodictes, who was bitten by a snake, by both applying salves and saying prayers to his deified father.
Machaon was killed in the final year of the war, fulfilling a prophecy that he would be buried beneath the soil of Asia instead of near his home in Greece.
Podalirius remained in Asia Minor after the war had ended, spreading his father’s teachings and religious cult to the people there.
While the sons of Asclepius lived mortal lives, the women of the family were revered as goddesses.
His wife Epione, whose name meant “soothing,” personified the act of care given by healers. This care could be given by professional physicians like her husband or by family and loved ones who nursed the sick back to health.
Their five daughters all personified aspects of medicine as well. They were:
- Aceso – She was the personification of the healing process itself.
- Aglaea – Her name meant “splendor” and was thought to refer to either the amazing nature of the healthy human body or the honor that should be paid to all skilled physicians.
- Iaso – She was the goddess of recuperation and recovery.
- Hygeia – The goddess of cleanliness, the Greeks understood her importance in preventing disease and infection.
- Panacea – Her name is still used today with its original definition, “cure-all.” She typically represented the idea of a medicine that could be used to cure all maladies or heal all injuries, an aspiration of all practitioners of ancient medicine.
Asclepius was said to have had one more son, although the character of Telesphoros is generally recognized as a later addition from Celtic religion. Representations of him are rarely found in Greece, but are more common in Anatolia and the regions bordering the Danube River.
He was a dwarf with a cowled hood who typically accompanied his sister Hygeia. He represented the completion of the healing process and full recovery.
As a god, the most recognizable attribute of Asclepius was his staff.
According to one legend about its unique form, Asclepius had found himself in prison shortly before his death.
He was hesitating over his decision to bring someone back from the dead and had been locked away to pressure him into agreeing. While sitting in prison, a snake found its way into his cell.
Asclepius was deeply troubled and distracted, so he began striking the snake with his staff. He killed it before it was able to escape.
Some time later a second snake came into his cell. This one carried an herb in its mouth.
The second snake slithered over to the body of the first and paid the herb down upon its head. Moments later the dead serpent came back to life and both slid out of the chamber.
In this version of the story Asclepius used the herb, rather than the blood of Medusa, to bring the dead king back from the grave.
His symbol was of the two snakes wrapped around his staff. Although the resurrection of the king cost him his mortal life, the snakes had lead to his greatest achievement as a physician.
The symbol of Asclepius’s staff as adopted by his followers in addition to being used as an attribute of the god. Illiterate Greeks could identify a trained physician by the symbol of the snakes around the staff.
That symbol is still used in medicine today. Although frequently confused with the similar symbol of Hermes, modern medicine still owes the iconography of the two snakes winding around a staff to the ancient story of the first doctor.
While Asclepius had changed the way the Greeks practiced medicine, it was still a rudimentary art in the anxiety world.
The Greeks and the cultures they came into contact with constantly expanded their knowledge of the human body and healing medicines. Physicians in the ancient world, however, still relied as much on prayer and superstition to cure their patients as they did science.
Even the sons of Asclepius themselves invoked their father’s name when treating their injured comrades at Troy.
Hospitals were a thing of the far-off future for ancient Greeks. Instead, the best chance a person had for treatment was to visit a temple.
The asclepion, or healing temple, was dedicated to the god Asclepius. When a physician was not available or could not provide treatment, the temple provided hope for direct intercession.
Physicians with training were also rare in ancient Greece, and expensive to hire. While only the wealthy could have access to a true doctor, all were welcomed at the temples of healing.
These temples became immensely popular, attracting pilgrims from hundreds of miles away who hoped for a cure to a disease or recovery from an injury.
Those seeking aid from the god Asclepius presented themselves at the temple where they were ritually purified. This served not only a religious function, but also a practical one as belief in Hygeia proved that there was an understanding that disease and infection could spread with a lack of sanitation.
Offerings to the gods would be given according to the pilgrim’s means. Even the poor who could afford only a small sacrifice could present their gift.
These offerings were given not just to the physician god, but to any deity who would listen. Apollo also had the gift of healing, while other gods had a special concern for different worshippers and their needs.
Worshippers would then spent the night in the temple. It was believed that prophecy could be revealed in dreams, so sleeping in the temple increased the chances of having a dream that would influence one’s health.
Those sleeping in the temple were not alone, though. In honor of his sacred symbol, non-venomous snakes were allowed to freely move about the temples of Asclepius.
Those wishing to receive the god’s aid would have to endure a night of having snakes slither around and even over them as they tried to sleep.
Some were also licked by dogs. Special dogs were housed at some temples who licked at the wounds of the injured and ill.
In the morning, each petitioner would be seen by a priest. While these priests were not physicians, their devotion to Asclepius and his teachings gave them more knowledge of health and healing than more laypeople would possess.
The priest looked at more than the person’s physical condition. They interpreted their dreams to help them prescribe healing herbs, salves, or specific prayers that might cure the person’s malady.
The combination of religion and medical science was used by both the priests of Asclepius and the doctors that trained in his arts. Many of these physicians, including the famous Hippocrates, began their studies in the temples.
The oath written by Hippocrates, swearing to do no harm and diligently help every patient, is still recited by newly graduated doctors today. The original Hippocratic Oath, however, began with an invocation to Asclepius, his father Apollo, and his daughters Hygeia and Panacea.
In conclusion, the character of Asclepius was one that was both mortal and divine.
He was born as a mortal son of Apollo. His mother was killed after cheating on the god, but Apollo took a personal role in his son’s upbringing.
Apollo was the god of miraculous healing and taught his son from an early age about divine medicine. Asclepius was then sent to study under the centaur Chiron who taught him about practical medicine, including the uses of herbs and salves in healing.
With both the divine knowledge of Apollo and the practical wisdom of Chiron, Asclepius became a greater physician than either of them. He learned even more as he traveled the world curing the sick, treating wounds, and teaching others about his discoveries.
When Athena gave him the blood of Medusa, however, Asclepius’s skill advanced too far for Zeus to allow. He used it to bring a dead person back to life, violating natural law and infringing on the realm of Hades.
Zeus killed Asclepius with a bolt of lightning for his crime, but Apollo took revenge by killing the Cyclopes who had fashioned the god’s thunderbolts. Apollo was banished from Olympus, but was eventually forgiven and allowed to return.
He petitioned Zeus to return Asclepius. In recognition of both his skills and his position as Apollo’s beloved son, Asclepius was made a god and became the patron of medicine and physicians.
His symbol, two snakes entwined around a staff, is used to this day in medicine. His daughters represented ideas of medicine that still hold true, as well.
Ancient medicine was still largely rooted in superstition, however, and temples of Asclepius were places where practical medicine and religion mixed. This mix, however, made medical treatment, such as it was at the time, available to people who would otherwise not have access to it.
Asclepius is credited both as the first true physician and the patron god who guided the practice of medicine. Modern medicine still owes many of its terms, symbols, and oaths to the ancient Greek god of doctors.