Aesculapius: What’s in a name?

Aesculapius (or Asclepius) was, in Greek mythology, the god of healing and is first mentioned in the writings of Homer. According to fifth-century poet Pindar, Aesculapius’s father was Apollo, the physician to the gods, who reputedly had the power to start epidemics with an arrow from his bow. In contrast to his divine father, Aesculapius’s mother was a mortal, variously identified as Arsinoe,the third daughter of Leucippus and Philodice, or Coronis, a princess of Thessaly and daughter of King Phlegyas. Following his mother’s premature death, he was raised by Chiron, the centaur, and instructed in the art of herbal remedies. He used these to heal other mortals, and was said to be so successful as a healer that the underworld experienced a period of depopulation.

 

After restoring the life of a dead man, Hippolytos, Aesculapius was destroyed by a thunderbolt hurled by Zeus as punishment for transgressing the laws of nature. According to Hesiod in about 700 BC, Aesculapius had a wife called Epione and several daughters, including Hygeia, the goddess of health, and Panacea, the goddess of healing.

Following his death, Aesculapius was enrolled among the gods. The cult of Aesculapius probably originated in Thessaly and gradually spread southwards over many centuries. By the second century AD, he had even begun to eclipse some of the traditional Olympian deities and had many temples of healing dedicated in his honour. More than 100 such healing shrines were built throughout Greek lands, often in healthy locations, such as on hills or near springs, many containing baths, gymnasiums and dormitories for patients.

 

Many sick and infirm individuals, particularly from the educated classes, travelled to these temples when other treatments had failed.The chief temple was the Epidaurus. Built in a small valley in the Peloponnesus, approximately six miles from the town of Epidaurus, the Sanctuary of Asklepios was constructed circa 430 BC during a period of rapid urbanisation, civil strife and possible epidemic disease. It comprised a new Asclepian temple, a theatre with capacity for 12,000 people and a stadium for 20,000; today, the site is considered a masterpiece of Greek architecture.

 

The second shrine dedicated to Aesculapius was established on the slopes of the Acropolis a year later, another appeared in Pergamon around 370 BC, while that in Rome existed since at least 293 BC. Therapeutic regimes at the shrines tended towards prayers and incantations. Patients often received sedatives and were directed by Asclepiad priests to sleep in an adjoining temple; as a result, they are often described as the earliest hospitals. Messages sent to patients by Aesculapius in dreams were interpreted by priests to direct further cures. These might include dietary changes, bathing or exercise. Others claim to have initially been summoned to temples by Aesculapius in their dreams.

Successful cures were recorded by priests on votive tablets, which were reputedly the foundation of later Hippocratic medicine, which coincided with the expansion of the pan-Hellenic healing cult associated with Aesculapius. Even the island of Cos, the presumed home of Hippocrates had a functioning Asclepieion from about 420 BC.

 

The Ancient Greeks believed that all doctors were direct descendants of Aesculapius, the family of Hippocrates having therefore claimed descent from the god of medicine. While images of Aesculapius are quite common, he is most often symbolised by his healing staff, which is depicted as a single serpent encircling a branch. The snake was considered to be a symbol appropriate to medicine due toits ability to shed its skin, a process that highlighted the physician’s powers of renovation. In recent years, the staff of Aesculapius is regularly incorrectly referred to as a caduceus, the fabled wand carried by Hermes, the messenger of the gods, comprising two winged and entwined serpents. The French journal of military medicine famously perpetuated this confusion since its first publication in 1901 by being named Le Caducée. It has, nevertheless, become recognised as a symbol denoting the medical profession internationally, both in Europe and in North America.

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