If you get prescribed medicines from your doctor or pharmacy, it is often that you see a snake in one of the logos on the packaging. Even the World Health Organization uses a snake in its logo. But, doesn’t it seem rather contradictory to use a snake as a symbol for health? After all, some snake bites can actually be deadly or make you sick.
The snake is often accompanied with a staff: it curls around it. This logo idea has long been a symbol of medicine and the medical profession in general. If we want to know more about its origins, we have to turn to the story of Asclepius.
In the ancient world of the Greeks, Asclepius was worshiped as the god of healing. One of his healing rituals was based on the use of snakes. He used them to heal people or even resurrect them from the dead.
Legend has it that he was so successful with saving lives that the god of the underworld, Hades, wasn’t very happy with his existence. He actually feared that Asclepius was so good that his own job didn’t exist anymore if Aclepius continued his practices.
Asclepius in Greek mythology
In Greek mythology, Asclepius (in Greek, Asklepios) is known as the son of Apollo: the god of music and the sun. The mother of Asclepius went by the name of Koronis. However, he wasn’t fortunate enough to grow up with his mother.
READ MORE: Sun gods and goddesses
The mother of Asclepius was an actual princess. But, she was also a mortal woman. Maybe because she couldn’t relate to the life of an immortal god, Koronis actually fell in love with another mortal person while she was pregnant with Asclepius. Because Koronis was unfaithful to Apollo, Asclepius’ father ordered to kill her while she was still pregnant.
Artemis, Apollo’s twin sister, was given the task to perform Apollo’s request. Koronis was murdered by being burned alive. But, Apollo ordered to save his unborn child by cutting open the stomach of Koronis. One of the first known mentions to the cesarean section. Asclepius’ name is based on this very event, since the name translates to ‘to cut open’.
What is Asclepius the Greek god of?
Since his father was a mighty god, the son of Apollo was believed to have obtained godlike characteristics from his father. Apollo decided to give Asclepius the power of healing and secret knowledge on the use of medicinal plants and herbs. Through this, he was able to perform surgery, incantations, and perform novel medicinal ceremonies.
However, he had to be taught properly before he could help everyone with his powers. Also, just giving him a vast knowledge on the aforementioned topics doesn’t mean that you instantly become a god. But, we will return to that in a bit.
Asclepius’ Tutor: Chiron
Apollo was too busy with his everyday tasks, so he couldn’t take care of Asclepius himself. He searched for the right tutor and carer so that Asclepius was taught to apply his supernatural powers appropriately. The right tutor ended up being Chiron.
Chiron was not just a regular human being. He was actually a centaur. To refresh your mind, a centaur was a creature that was very prevalent in Greek mythology. Its head, arms, and torso are that of a human, while his legs and body are that of a horse. The centaur Chiron is actually seen as one of the most important centaurs in Greek mythology.
Chiron was believed to be immortal. Not just by chance, since the famous centaur is believed to be the very inventor of medicine. He would be able to heal anything, making him an immortal creature. Since Apollo gifted his son the knowledge of medicine and plants, he thought that the application of this knowledge was best taught by the inventor himself.
The Rod of Asclepius
As we already indicated in the introduction, the symbol that is used by the World Health Organization directly relates to our god of medicine. The staff with a serpent wrapped around it is actually the only true symbol of medicine. Let’s talk about why exactly that is the case.
The origin of the Rod of Asclepius is actually pretty unsure. In general there are two theories why the staff with a serpent became known as the single symbol for medicine. The first theory is referred to as the ‘worm theory’ and revolves around a treatment for worms. The other hypothesis relates to a biblical story.
The Worm Theory
So, the first theory about the Rod of Asclepius is known as the worm theory. This basically refers to the Ebers papyrus, which is a medical textbook from ancient Egypt. It covers a whole range of diseases, both mental and physical. It is believed to be written around 1500 B.C.
One of the chapters of the Ebers papyrus describes a treatment for worms. It specifically focussed on parasitic worms, like the Guinea worm. The parasites were rather common in ancient times, partly because hygiene measurements were a bit more suspicious back in the days. The worms would crawl around the victim’s body, just under the skin. Yikes.
The infection was treated by cutting a slit in the victim’s skin. The technique was to cut just before the worm’s path. The worms would crawl out the cut, after which the physician would curl the worm around a stick until the animal had been removed.
Because the treatment was in high demand, ancient physicians would advertise the service with a sign showing a worm wrapped around a stick. The aesthetics are definitely there, but a worm isn’t a serpent. The theory is therefore still contested by some.
The Biblical Hypothesis
The other hypothesis surrounding the logo revolves around a story out of the Bible. The story goes that Moses carried a bronze staff, around which a serpent was wound. The bronze serpent was believed to possess strong healing powers. The combination of the serpent and the staff were somewhat viewed as a magic wand, if you will.
The passage in the Bible describes that anyone who was sick must be bitten by the serpent. Its venom would heal anyone and any disease, making apparent its obvious relationship with healing and medicine.
But, in the light of new information, we hope that even the last practitioners of this method came to realize that it might not be the safest manner to heal your patients.
Is Asclepius a Snake?
The name Asclepius is believed to be derived from ‘askalabos’, which is Greek for ‘snake’. Therefore, one might wonder whether Asclepius himself was actually a snake.
But, although the very symbol for health and medicine does contain the staff with a snake, Asclepius himself is not believed to be a serpent. After all, he is believed to be an actual mortal man first and only after his death became worshiped as a god.
Rather, Asclepius was a serpent holder: he could use the healing powers of the snake to help the sick people. The two are therefore necessarily related, but not the same.
It is believed that Asclepius took part of his healing power from the serpent. Because of this, Asclepius, as a mortal man, was believed to be immortal because the serpent symbolizes rebirth and fertility.
As we will see in a bit, Asclepius became widely worshiped in several temples. However, some even believe that the people at the temples offered their vows not to Asclepius specifically, but to the serpent.
When Asclepius became the god of medicine, the snake became accompanied by the accessory of many gods: a rod.
It is nowadays pretty evident that the symbol of medicine directly relates to the Rod of Asclepius. However, it is still often confused with the Caduceus. The Caduceus is a symbol of commerce in Greek mythology. The symbol was related to Hermes, another one of the Greek gods.
The Caduceus is actually very similar to the Rod of Asclepius. However, the symbol of Hermes consists of a rod with intertwined serpents instead of just one. Greeks saw Hermes as a god of transition and boundaries. He was a protector of the patrons of commerce, ranging from travelers to herdsman, but also the protector of invention and trade.
So, the Caduceus actually served a very different purpose than that of the Rod of Asclepius. But they still both use serpents as their symbol. That’s quite odd it seems.
Well, the intertwined serpents that are characteristic for the Caduceus actually weren’t originally two serpents. They were actually two olive branches ending in two shoots, decorated with a couple of ribbons. Although some cultures definitely eat and trade snakes, an olive branch as the symbol of commerce is definitely more suited for trade in ancient Greece.
Contemporary Confusion Between the Rod of Asclepius with the Caduceus
So, we already concluded that the Rod of Asclepius is the symbol for medicine and health. Also, we discussed that it draws many similarities with the Caduceus of Hermes. Because they are so similar, they often still get confused when people refer to medicine and health.
The confusion already started around the 16th century and continued all over the world throughout the 17th and 18th century. The Caduceus was often used as a symbol for pharmacies and medicine. Nowadays, however, it is universally agreed that the Rod of Asclepius is the unequivocal symbol for medicine and healing.
In some instances, however, the symbol of Hermes is still used; albeit not correct for what it tries to represent.
Many prominent medical organizations in the United States still use the Caduceus as their symbol. The army of the United States even uses both symbols. The sign of the U.S. Army Medical Corps is the Caduceus while the U.S. Army Medical Department uses the Rod of Asclepius.
The End of Asclepius
Son of Apollo, tutored by Chiron, helped by a serpent that represents rebirth and fertility. Asclepius was definitely a man of many things. All of his associations are with health. Like we indicated before, some believed that he was therefore an immortal man.
But, he was still a mortal man. How far can a mortal man go into the realm of the immortals before it becomes a god? Or, do the gods even accept such a thing?
Walking a Thin Line
Indeed, Asclepius had a reputation of performing many miraculous cures. Not even that, even some other gods believed that Asclepius was able to make his patients immortal. Normally, this would be considered a good thing.
However, from the beginning of Greek mythology, there have been fights and wars amongst the Greek gods, one of the most famous being the Titanomachy. It was just a matter of time that another fight broke out over the immortality of Asclepius.
Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, was patiently waiting for the deceased to enter his underground realm. However, he became a bit impatient when he heard that a mortal man was reviving people back to life. Not only that, Zeus, the god of Thunder, also became worried. He was afraid that Asclepius’ practices disturbed the normality of things in nature.
When Hades came to Zeus, they jointly decided that it was time for Asclepius to die. Although it would be quite a significant occurrence for the ancient Greeks, the event itself was rather quick. Just one thunderbolt and the story of the mortal Asclepius came to an end.
For Zeus, a prominent figure, it was also a matter of order. As we already indicated, Asclepius was an actual mortal man. Mortal men cannot play with nature, Zeus believed. One cannot walk the bridge between the world of mortal men and the world of immortal gods.
Still, Zeus recognized the great value that he had offered to humanity, granting him into a constellation to live forever in the sky.
How Did Asclepius Become a God?
So, even though his father was believed to be a god, the motherless Asclepius is seen as someone that actually lived in ancient Greece. He was believed to be alive somewhere around 1200 B.C. During this time, he lived in the Greek province of Thesallië.
It might be helpful to have all the knowledge of medicine and being tutored by a centaur. Also, it might help that one of the other Gods has granted you a life in the skies. But, does that mean you are a god per definition? Although it might be somewhat true, it is not only the god in and of itself, but also the people that believe in the creature that makes a god.
Homer’s Epic Poem
So how did that process go? Well, Asclepius was first mentioned in the Iliad: one of the most well-known epic poems written by the poet Homer. It is known to mention many gods and legends of ancient Greece. It was published somewhere around 800 B.C. But, Asclepius was not yet referred to as gods or a demigod hero.
Instead, Asclepius was described as a very gifted physician who was the father of two important Greek doctors of the Trojan war, Machaon and Podalirius. Asclepius’ sons were of great value to the Greek army. Very talented doctors indeed, something which inspired the eventual following of Asclepius to worship him as a god.
From Mortal Man to a God
Two centuries later, somewhere in the sixth or fifth century B.C., Asclepius began to be honored by the Greek physicians. This was both due to his own healing powers, but also due to the importance of his two sons for the Greek army in the Trojan war.
This is really where he became the god of healing. The physicians believed that, although he was dead, Asclepius still had the power to help people get cured and release them from pain.
The ancient Greeks were actually so convinced of the prophetic powers of Asclepius that they erected a whole temple that was dedicated to their god of medicine. The temple is known as the Sanctuary of Asclepius. It is located at Epidaurus, an ancient city that is part of a small valley in the Peloponnesus area.
Located in the middle of nature, architects discovered the temple as part of a larger city. The city state, Epidaurus, houses several ancient monuments which are spread over two terraces. Due to its outstanding universal value, Epidaurus is now recognized as an UNESCO world heritage site.
A big part of Epidaurus is the Theater, renowned for its architectural proportions and perfect acoustics. But, the Theater is not necessarily related to medicine or healing. It was just for the entertainment of the ancient Greeks. Well, if you put it that way, it might actually be related to healing. Did the Greeks already know about music therapy before we started to research it?
Anyway, we know for sure that the other monuments at Epidaurus were built for the appraisal of healing practices. Outside of the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the Epidaurus houses the Temple of Artemis, the Tholos, the Enkoimeterion, and the Propylaia. Together, they form a vast assembly that illustrates the importance and power of healing gods in Greek mythology.
The Sanctuary of Asclepius is even today very significant because of its association with the history of medicine. It is seen as the very monument that provides evidence for the transition between divine healing to the science of medicine. But, the temple for Asclepius should not be seen as the start of this transition.
The place where the temple stands today was actually already in use thousands of years before. From about 2000 B.C., the place at Epidaurus was used as a site of ceremonial healing practices. Then, around 800 B.C. a new temple was built by the cult of Asclepius’ father, Apollo. Lastly, Asclepius’ cult erected a new temple around 600 B.C.
So, if we refer to the Sanctuary, we actually mean the two temples together that were built on a site that has long had medicinal value. The two temples are, thus, the Temple of Apollo Maleatas and the Temple of Asclepius.
Because the existence of the two cults saw some overlap, the importance of the Sanctuary grew quickly. This resulted in the fact that the practices that were performed by the cults spread quickly to the rest of the Greek world, making it the cradle of medicine.
One of Many
While it is the most important, the Sanctuary at Epidaurus is just one of the many healing temples that are related to Asclepius. Around the time that the temple at Epidaurus was erected, more medical schools all over Greece were named after the Greek god of medicine.
The sick and weak would be brought to these centers, hoping to be blessed with the healing process as applied by Asclepius. Being healed by only staying at one of the centers or temples? Yes indeed. Believers from all over Greece would stay overnight at the temple, expecting that the man of the hour would present himself in their dreams.
All activities at the many places where Asclepius was honored provide us with evidence of the earliest ideas surrounding Western holistic medicine. Physicians that were born long after Asclepius studied at these places. For example, Marcus Aurelius, Hippocrates, and Galen are known to have been educated at one of the temples of Asclepius.
Greeks or Romans?
Although we have been talking about Asclepius as a Greek god, he is also renowned in Roman mythology. Some of the scripts that have been saved from deterioration indicate that the symbols that generally refer to Asclepius were brought from Epidaurus to Rome. Specifically, they were brought there to bring relief during an episode of the plague.
The cult of Asclepius is therefore believed to be spread to Rome around 293 B.C. In the Roman adaptation, Asclepius is also identified with the god Vediovis. Vediovis, in Roman mythology, was portrayed as a healthy man holding many arrows and lightning bolts, while being accompanied by a goat.
READ MORE: Roman Gods and Goddesses
A Family of Heavenly Healers
It’s a bit hard to pin down, but after Asclepius became to be honored as a god, all of his nine children were also recognized for their healing powers. Actually, all of his daughters are seen as divinities that are related to wellbeing. All his sons, on the other hand, were seen as extraordinary healers.
But, Asclepius was not alone responsible for the legacy of his family. His wife, Epione, was also a big piece of the puzzle. She was known as the goddess of soothing, giving birth to eight of Aslepius’ nine children. Together, the two Greek gods were able to bring up a family of healers.
So, who were all his children and what were their functions? For starters, Laso and Telesphorus were the goddess and god of recuperation. Then, Hygieia was the goddess of cleanliness and Alglaea the goddess of good health. Panacea was the goddess of remedy. The last daughter, Aceso, was the goddess of healing.
Mechaon and Podalirius, as mentioned earlier, were gifted healers during the Trojan war. But, our Greek god of medicine did also bore a child with another woman: Aristodama. Although the odd one out, his last son Aratus would also become known as a magnificent healer.
Appearance of Asclepius
Hopefully the story of Asclepius makes some type of sense. But, we haven’t yet discussed how he looked or how he was portrayed.
Asclepius is frequently represented standing, with bare breast. Oftentimes he is depicted as a middle-aged man with a long tunic. He was accompanied by the medical emblem, the staff with a serpent coiled around it as we mentioned earlier. Because he was the head of a family of healers, it was not uncommon that he was portrayed with one of his divine daughters.
As should be clear by now, Asclepius became quite a prominent figure over time in Greece. Several sculptures surrounding healing art were dedicated to our ancient Greek god, as well as pottery or mosaics. Also, Asclepius and his rod were portrayed on several coins and other means of money.
A Mortal Immortal
It is not often that the story of a god begins as a mortal man. Well, it does happen every so often, but the story of Asclepius definitely speaks to our imagination. Also, it gives hope to anyone out there who aspires to become a god one day. Just make Zeus mad.
Especially because of his contemporary medical relevance, the story of Asclepius is fascinating. Although he is believed to live over 3200 years ago, the fact that his story lives on to this day indicates the astonishment that came to be known as his life.
Not just his story lives on, the fact that he is still closely related with the contemporary symbol of medicine is pretty inspiring. It is very probable that he and his serpent entwined staff will be the symbol of health for many years to come. Well, as long as the U.S. medical organizations won’t start claiming that the Caduceus is the actual symbol of medicine.