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Who Was the Goddess Hygieia?

She may have given her name to a word for cleanliness, but who was Hygieia really? Read on to learn about the Greek goddess of health!

The Greeks had many gods that could help cure diseases. Throughout their history, these became more numerous and specialized.

Apollo and Artemis could both cause and cure illnesses through divine means. Apollo’s son Asclepius, the patron of doctors, taught men how to cure disease without the gods’ powers.

But people knew that curing an illness was not the ideal. Better yet was to make sure that a person never became ill at all.

Hygieia was the Greek goddess of health. She not only encouraged a return to good health after illness, but also protected a person’s health so that they never fell ill to begin with.

The origins and worship of Hygieia shed light on what, exactly, health meant to the people of the ancient world. When medical knowledge was scarce, Hygieia protected health in all its forms.

Hygieia and Health

The goddess Hygieia was the deity of health. Her family was broadly responsible for wellness.

Hygieia was one of the daughters of Asclepius, the patron god of doctors. His father was Apollo, who was regarded as a healer and protector.

Asclepius had, according to legend, been born a mortal. After his death, he had been elevated to godhood in recognition of the service he had done for mankind.

As the patron of medicine, Asclepius’s children carried on his work. His mortal sons became physicians who spread his teachings and his divine children personified aspects of medical care.

Hygieia, whose name meant “health” in Ancient Greek, had four sisters according to most traditions. Aglaea personified the splendor of a healthy body, Panacea represented a universal medicine, Aceso was the goddess of the healing process, and Iaso oversaw the process of recovery and recuperation.

Of the five daughters of Asclepius, Hygieia was the most prominent. She was often pictured alongside her father.

While Asclepius represented recovery from illness or injury, Hygieia was more associated with its prevention. She was the goddess of continual good health, whose presence could mean that her father’s work as a doctor was unneeded.

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She was usually shown as a young woman in long robes. Many artists took care to show a kind expression on her face.

Hygieia’s primary attribute was a large snake, which was one of her father’s symbols as well. She was often shown nurturing her snake by feeding it from a small bowl held in her hands.

Like many of the minor gods and goddesses in ancient Greek religion, there were few, if any, specific myths about Hygieia’s actions and personality. She personified an ideal state, but did not have an individual identity in the same way the more prominent Olympians did.

This did not mean that Hygieia was not widely-venerated, however. Ancient writings prove that she was held in high esteem.

One lyric poet called her the “highest queen of Apollo’s golden throne.” Another said that she was the “most revered of the blessed ones among mortals.”

Hygieia had many temples throughout the Greek world. Often she shared these with her father, Asclepius, in a complex devoted to prayers for health and longevity.

Her shrines were also sometimes found in the temples of her grandfather, Apollo. He, too, was a healing god and it was thought that Hygieia served by his side in this function.

People believed that by invoking Hygieia, they could prevent illness before it happened. If a person was already ill, the goddess of health could restore them and keep them from having lingering issues.

For this reason, Hygieia was among the deities invoked in the Hippocratic Oath, a version of which doctors still swear to this day. Although medical professionals no longer make vows to Apollo, Asclepius, Panacea, and Hygieia, the ancient Greek beliefs about health and wellbeing continue to influence our world.

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My Modern Interpretation

Hygieia’s name, of course, lived on into the modern world. As the goddess who prevented illness, she gave her name to the modern concept of hygiene.

Because of this, she is sometimes interpreted as a goddess of cleanliness. This later use of her name, however, was not necessarily part of the Greek concept of health and the prevention of illnesses.

While the Greeks made many advances in medicine, hygiene as we think of it today was not a central part of medical care in the ancient world. With no understanding of germs and how diseases spread, it would not be until the modern era that sanitization became part of medical practice.

It is a mistake, however, to think that people of the past had no concept that hygiene was important. While they did not understand germs and viruses, observation showed that illnesses and infections were less common in cleaner environments.

Cleanliness, therefore, may have played some role in Hygieia’s function as the goddess of good health. It was not, however, central to her character.

Some of the earliest evidence for Hygieia’s cult is found in Athens, where the name was used from at least the 7th century BC. There, however, it appeared as an epithet for the city’s patron goddess, Athena.

According to Plutarch, Athena Hygieia had shown her favor toward the builders of the Parthenon when one of the best among them was badly injured. She appeared to Pericles in a dream and ordered a course of treatment that cured the injured man in a matter of days.

For centuries, health was one of the domains associated with Athena in Athens. Like many of the minor gods and goddesses, it took some time for Hygieia to develop into an independent character.

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Most historians believe that Hygieia’s cult did not begin to truly form until the 5th century BC. Before this, other deities had broadly held domain over issues of wellbeing.

In 430 BC, the Plague of Athens devastated the state. Roughly a quarter of the population of Athens succumbed to illness, including Pericles. Over the course of four years, the plague returned twice.

Modern scientists and historians have not been able to pinpoint the nature of the plague, with explanations ranging from typhus to Ebola. The people of the 5th century BC were even more in the dark about what was killing the people of Athens.

As they did for so many of their problems, the Athenians turned to oracles to learn what the gods had to say. They feared that the plague was a sign that Apollo, the god of healing, and Athena had abandoned them.

Not only did the plague seem to strike without regard for religious piety, but the temples were hit particularly hard. Refugees from both the illness and the Peloponnesian War had taken shelter in the temples, making them a hotbed for the spread of disease.

The oracle agreed that Apollo had sided with Sparta in the war between the two cities, but it offered hope with another deity. The message given during the Plague of Athens was the first time Hygieia appears to have been mentioned as an independent being rather than as an epithet for another goddess.

The great thinkers of the time such as Thucydides, however, had little regard for what they regarded as superstition. They applied the Hippocratic Method of medicine, relying on observation to determine treatment plans and to limit the disease’s spread.

Most people saw value in both divine appeal and medical practice during the Plague of Athens. As the disease retreated, the god of physicians and the goddess of health were both credited with saving Athens from total destruction.

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Both Asclepius and Hygieia rose in importance as protectors of physical health after the Plague of Athens. People prayed to Hygieia to prevent future illness and to Asclepius to cure existing diseases.

In some ways, the cults of Asclepius and Hygieia were offshoots of those of Apollo and Athena. As a healer and a protector, respectively, they represented more specialized versions of these gods’ powers.

Hygieia never completely lost her associate with Athena, however. The patroness of Athens was associated with mental acuity, so Hygieia also took on the domain of protecting mental health.

In Hygieia’s worship, the Greeks connected the idea of physical and mental wellbeing. Hygieia protected the mind as well as the body.

The Romans further expanded on the idea of health. While they adopted Hygieia as their own, they also connected her to a goddess who was not initially associated with wellbeing in the same way.

The Italian goddess Sirona was not a goddess of personal wellbeing, but of social health. She saw to the stability and prosperity of the community rather than any one person.

Over time, however, the idea of the health of the people and individual health became more closely tied together. Salus took on many of the attributes of Hygieia.

Salus was often shown in the same way as the Greek goddess of health. She was identified by the large serpent that she fed out of a patera, a vessel used in religious rites.

The two were so closely identified that they became interchangeable. Salus took on the role of the protector of individual health along with the iconography of the Greek goddess.

The role of Hygieia, therefore, expanded over time to include far more than the prevention of illnesses and injury. Her worship showed that health was a multi-faceted idea in the ancient world that included mental wellbeing and the health of society as a whole.

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In Summary

Hygieia was the ancient Greek goddess of health. While other deities were seen as healers, she prevented diseases and encouraged continued wellbeing.

Hygieia was one of the children of Asclepius, the patron god of doctors. Born as a mortal son of Apollo, he had been the first mortal physician to cure without using divine power.

Asclepius and his daughter were often shown together in art. They shared worshipers, as well, and many sites had temples and shrines dedicated to both the prevention of disease and the cures from it.

Hygieia adopted one of her father’s attributes, a large snake. She is most often identified by this animal and typically feeds it in art.

Initially, Hygieia was an epithet for Athena in the city of Athens. As the protector of the city, she was thought to protect from illness and misfortune as well.

After the Plague of Athens, however, the separate cults of Asclepius and Hygieia grew. The plague led to the development of more specialized cults for healing, health, and wellbeing.

Hygieia’s role as the guardian of good health extended beyond the prevention of physical ailments. Likely because of her early association with Athena, she was also the protector of mental health.

The Romans further expanded on Hygieia’s role. They associated her with an ancient Italian goddess named Salus, the guardian of social health and the wellbeing of the society.

In the modern world, Hygieia’s name is used to describe cleanliness and sanitation. While the idea of what prevents disease has evolved over time, the Greek goddess is still associated with maintaining good health and preventing the spread of illness.

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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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