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How Asclepius Got His Symbol

Snakes often appear in Greek legends as death-bringing monsters. So why were they also associated with mythology’s greatest healer?

According to legend, Asclepius was the Greek god of healing and medicine. He was born as a mortal son of Apollo and struck down by Zeus for violating natural law by resurrecting the dead.

After Apollo sought revenge, Zeus eventually agreed to have mercy on the great doctor. He made Asclepius an immortal god.

As the god of medicine, Asclepius represented the preservation of life and the betterment of people’s health. He was seen as a skilled, wise, and helpful deity.

Despite this, he was closely associated with creatures that are typically seen in many cultures as untrustworthy or even evil. In his legends, art, and worship, Asclepius was symbolized by snakes.

The Greeks, however, had a very good reason for linking the god of healing and an animal often identified with monsters. As creatures that blurred the line between life and death, snakes had secret knowledge that they could share with the Greek god of healing.

Asclepius and Snakes

The Greek god of healing was the son of Apollo and a mortal woman who died before his birth. Because of the love his father had for him and his great works in life, Asclepius was eventually granted immortality.

He became the Greek god of healing and the patron of physicians. Having studied under both his father and the wise centaur Chiron, Asclepius was so skilled that he virtually created the practice of medicine.

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As a god of healing and medicine, it might seem surprising that Asclepius is closely identified with snakes.

Like many other cultures, the ancient Greeks typically associated snakes with death and the Underworld. Their symbolism seems to be at odds with the healing skills of Asclepius.

His most famous attribute, for example, is his rod. It is still used as a symbol of medicine in much of the world.

According to legend, Asclepius was imprisoned in a Cretan dungeon after the death of Glaucus. While there, he saw a snake make its way across the floor.

Wondering how he could resurrect Glaucus as commanded, Asclepius absentmindedly struck the snake with his staff. A short time later, he saw a second snake enter his prison cell.

This snake carried an herb in its mouth, which it placed in the jaws of the serpent that Asclepius had crushed. The first snake came back to life, showing the physician how to similarly restore Glaucus and win his own freedom.

The rod of Asclepius with its intertwining snakes became a recognizable symbol for physicians throughout the Mediterranean.

According to another version of the story, the snake did not show Asclepius the herb that could grant resurrection. Instead, it coiled itself up his body and whispered the plant’s name in his ear.

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Snakes were so central to the cult of Asclepius that they were considered essential for his temples. When a new temple was founded, part of its establishment was the introduction of a breed of non-venomous snake.

These snakes lived in and around the temple, moving through it freely. They were used in some healing rituals along with dogs, another animal often associated with the afterlife.

The association continued well into the Roman era. In the 2nd century AD, a mystic named Alexander who claimed to work miracles said that his snake god Glycon, which was probably derived from a local Macedonian practice, was an incarnation of Asclepius the healer.

So how did the Greek god of healing become so associated with an Underworld creature?

My Modern Interpretation

The importance of snakes in association with Asclepius served many functions.

One of these was to create a more immediate connection between the god of healing and his father. While Apollo did not often use snakes as a symbol, they were closely associated with his mythology.

One of the most important sacred sites in Apollo’s worship was at Delphi. The oracle there was said to speak with the god’s authority and was renowned throughout the world for the truth of her prophecies.

Delphi had been gifted to Apollo from his grandmother, Phoebe. To win control of the temple, however, Apollo and his sister had to defeat one of the greatest snakes of legend, Python.

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Asclepius did not have to fight an enormous snake to gain his powers, but the inclusion of snakes in his iconography helped to link him to his father’s power over foretelling and influencing the future.

The legends of Asclepius also illustrate the unique powers that the ancient Greeks believed serpents possessed.

Because they lived below ground, snakes traveled between the Underworld and the world of living men. This gave them knowledge about death and destiny that was beyond that of any living person.

The snake that whispered in the ear of Asclepius in one legend was therefore a provider of secret information about life and death. The Greek god of healing used knowledge only known to underground creatures, those of the world of the dead, to almost miraculously extend people’s lives.

Snakes were known as Underworld creatures for more than just the holes they lived in. Their behavior also made them symbols of renewed life.

The Greeks knew that snakes hibernate during the winter, entering a state that seemed death-like. When they awoke in warm weather it seemed as though they had risen from the dead, making them the ideal animal to instruct Asclepius on the subject.

By seeming to return from the dead, snakes embodied the supposed skills of Asclepius.

The Sons of Zeus

In the legend of Glaucus, Asclepius resurrected a person who had already died, the final act against the natural order that caused Zeus to smite him. Even before that, however, the first physician had earned a reputation for blurring the line between life and death.

Asclepius was so skilled that he kept people alive who would have otherwise almost certainly died. As he taught his students what he knew, they too extended the overall life expectancy of the Greek people.

According to one source, the practice of medicine established by Asclepius had such a huge impact that Hades complained to Zeus about Apollo’s son. He feared that if Asclepius continued to heal people, the realm of the dead would stop receiving new souls entirely.

The Greek god of healing was associated with an Underworld creature not because he himself was a chthonic being, but because he worked on the margins of life and death. The medical skills of Asclepius were perfectly symbolized by the snake, an animal that similarly exists between the lands of the living and the dead.

In Summary

Asclepius was the Greek god of healing. He was a mortal son of Apollo who was eventually made immortal after a lifetime spent perfecting the art and science of medicine.

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While they are often portrayed as Underworld creatures and signs of evil in Greek mythology, Asclepius was closely associated with snakes. They played a major role in his mythology, symbolism, and the practices of his temples.

According to legend, a pair of snakes revealed secret knowledge to Asclepius that allowed him to resurrect the dead. These snakes, wrapped around the healer’s staff, remain a symbol of medicine around the world.

Snakes were brought in whenever a new temple was established in honor of the Greek god of healing. They were used in rituals to cure injuries and diseases.

The use of snakes in the iconography of Asclepius linked him to the mythology of his father, Apollo. It also had a deeper symbolic meaning.

Snakes were associated with the Underworld both because they lived underground and because their hibernation made it seem as though they rose from the dead in the spring. They were thus seen as creatures that had secret knowledge from the realm of the dead.

Although they were sometimes seen as monstrous because of this Underworld connection, this also made them the perfect symbol for a god that kept people from dying. The nearly miraculous medicine introduced by Asclepius made the line between life and death less clear than it had been before.

My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.

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