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Who is Asclepius?

Asclepius may not be the most familiar name in Greek mythology, but even today his symbol is still used as a sign of his field.

Asclepius was the first human physician according to Greek legend and was resurrected to become the god of medicine.

The son of Apollo, he had been trained as a boy by both his father and the centaur Chiron. By the time he reached adulthood, Asclepius was the most skilled physician in the world.

He traveled the world, healing people and learning more about his craft. Asclepius took part in some of Greek literature’s most famous adventures and earned the attention of both men and gods alike.

Eventually, however, the first physician crossed a line that no human should never approach. He violated fate and the will of the gods by bringing a man back from the dead.

Zeus, furious and afraid of what mankind might do with such power, struck the doctor dead. But intervention from his father saw Asclepius brought back to continued healing and educating as a god.

The Physician Asclepius

Asclepius was the son of Apollo and a mortal woman, most often called Coronis in surviving sources.

While Coronis was pregnant with Apollo’s child, she also had an affair with a mortal man. Apollo killed her lover for offending him, but did not blame Coronis for the man’s actions.

HIs twin sister Artemis, however, was well-known for punishing such immorality. She killed Coronis herself for betraying her brother, and Apollo was barely able to cut his unborn child from her body before Artemis placed it on a funeral pyre.

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Apollo raised Asclepius for a while in his own household, teaching him what he knew of healing and disease. When the boy was old enough to begin his formal education, the centaur Chiron was tutored him in medicine and rudimentary surgery.

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. The tutelage of both Chiron and Apollo made Asclepius the most well-trained human physician in the world when he was barely out of childhood.

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 world’s first physician and he traveled throughout Greece to improve the lives of its people. He joined expeditions such as the hunt for the Calydonian Boar and the voyage of the Argo as an adventuring physician.

As he traveled, he discovered new uses for herbs and how to use a snake’s own venom to reverse the effects of a bite. He also invented the splint to ensure that a broken bone healed properly.

Rumors spread that Asclepius had power over life and death because he was able to restore the health of people thought to be beyond saving.

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One story even said that Hades asked his brother Zeus to intervene when number of souls going to his realm decreased because of the physician’s work. Hades feared the underworld would eventually stop receiving new souls entirely because Asclepius would keep people from dying.

Other gods paid attention to him, as well. As the goddess of wisdom, Athena gave him a special gift to help him uncover new knowledge.

She gave Asclepius Gorgon’s blood, taken from the head of Medusa. Blood from her left side had the power to cause death, but blood from the right would cure any illness and even revive the deceased.

Asclepius meant to use the toxic blood to end the suffering of those he could not save, but he eventually gave into temptation and spared the life of one who was fated to die.

Zeus knew that such disruptive knowledge would be dangerous in the hands of men. He struck Asclepius down with a thunderbolt for using the life-giving blood.

To avenge the death of his son, Apollo killed the three Cyclopes who had forged Zeus’s thunderbolts. He was sent into penance for a year, but still pled his son’s case when he returned.

Zeus listened to Apollo and made Asclepius a god. He would continue to heal people, both directly and through the priests and doctors he trained, and continued to make medical discoveries for many years.

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The staff of Asclepius, intertwined with two snakes who revealed a healing herb to him, remains a symbol of the medical profession to this day.

My Modern Interpretation

Asclepius was not the only patron deity of a professional field in the Greek pantheon, but his position there was unique.

Hephaestus, for example, was the smith god and Athena was the patroness of weaving and other crafts. Both of these professions, however, had existed for thousands of years.

Medicine in ancient Greece was still a rudimentary art. As shown in the legends of Asclepius, it was a sometimes dubious mix of contemporary science, trial and error, and superstition.

The physicians of classical Greece, however, made huge strides in the practice of medicine and the understanding of the human body.

The story of Asclepius reflects the work of these real-world medical pioneers.

Like their patron god, doctors in ancient Greece learned new techniques through travel. Even if they did not journey throughout the world themselves, increased trade and relations with countries in Asia and Africa introduced techniques and herbs that were new to the people of Greece.

The Greek focus on education also led to the establishment of better medical training. A small amount of these was based in the temples of Asclepius, where religious ritual and basic medicine still mixed, but research and instruction was also carried out in the schools of the major cities.

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Asclepius had learned from both the god of healing and the wisest centaur in the world. This knowledge, previously hidden from humankind, was thought to be taught by direct intellectual descendants of the first physician.

The medical instruction in Greece became, for the first time in history, rooted in science and observation more than folklore and tradition. While medical science was still in its infancy, the legend of Asclepius shows how much the field progressed in the Greek world.

This is also obvious by the quick adoption of Asclepius as a god.

Homer included a few mentions of the character in his works, but neither he nor Hesiod made mention of the physician’s divinity. Within a few hundred years, however, the new god’s cult was widespread.

The cult of Asclepius seems to have grown as quickly as the field it represented. While physicians in Homer’s time did not have a specific god to call their own, in just a few generations medicine had grown in legitimacy and reach.

In Summary

Asclepius is generally described in Greek legends as the world’s first true physician.

He was a son of Apollo and, unusually, was raised by his father. From his father and the centaur Chiron he learned everything that was known about medicine and healing.

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As an adult, Asclepius traveled the world to learn even more than his father knew. He created new methods and made discoveries that led to almost miraculous recoveries in his patients.

When given Gorgon blood by Athena, however, Asclepius took his medical work to an intolerable extreme. He used the blood to bring a man back from the dead, in violation of fate and the will of the gods.

Zeus struck the physician with a thunderbolt and killed him, leading to retaliation from Apollo. Eventually, however, Zeus accepted Apollo’s petitions and brought Asclepius back to life.

As the god of medicine and physicians, Asclepius represented a relatively new profession. His cult grew quickly, mirroring the pace of medical progress of the time.

While medicine was still in its earliest stages in the classical world, the legend of Asclepius showed a new emphasis on healing as a science and physicians as trained professionals. The teachings of Asclepius were so foundational that his staff is still used as a symbol of medical expertise to this day.

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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