Hygeia: The Greek Goddess of Health

Did you think the ancient Greeks smelled like baked cheese all the time?

Well, think again because the population revered the idea of cleanliness. After all, sanitation meant the onset of good health. This is reflected in the pages of Greek mythology, where every god practiced the art of keeping oneself clean as much as possible. Besides Zeus, of course, he had way too much libido. 

The universal remedy to disease is good hygiene, which stands true in modern days as much as it did in ancient times. As such, there always needs to be some sort of personification for health and medicine. A figure that commands the spirits of good healthcare and a totem to pay tribute to.

In Greek mythology, this was Hygeia, the goddess of cleanliness and health. 

Who was Hygeia?

Coming fresh out of a global pandemic that ravaged the world, you must be familiar with maintaining good hygiene. Ever stopped to think where the word actually came from? You guessed it right! “Hygiene” comes from the Greek goddess of cleanliness herself. 

As the goddess of hygiene, Hygeia was responsible for preventing disease and ensuring good health amongst the women and men of ancient Greece. Worship of Hygeia revealed the more reverent side of the Greeks towards healing and medicine. 

Meet Hydeia’s Family

As a child, Hygeia was forced to pursue her family business: healthcare. This heroic beginning led her towards strengthening her familial talents and bringing the best of them to both mortals and deities alike. 

Believe it or not, Hygeia wasn’t born out of Zeus’ will to impregnate random women; she was delivered to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine. Asclepius’s wife was Epione, who bore him five daughters: Aceso, Aglaea, Hygeia, Iaso, and Panacea (who also happened to be the Greek goddess of universal remedy).  

All five of these children were deeply connected to the practices of Apollo, the Greek god of basically everything related to life in the fast lane; music, healing, archery, you name it. 

And why wouldn’t they be?

Asclepius was Apollo’s son, and Hygeia was his grandchild. 

READ MORE: Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Greece

Hygeia in Roman Mythology

After the Roman Conquest of Greece, their cultures and mythologies mashed up to create one epic pantheon of deities with different names. Yes, Zeus became Jupiter, Hera became Juno, and Hades became Pluto.

But most importantly, Hygeia became Salus. 

Salus simply meant “welfare” in Latin. Aptly named because the Romans built a temple in her name called “Salus Publica Populi Romani,” which roughly translates to “the public welfare of the Roman people.”

Besides being dispatched to eternal community service, Hygeia was also linked to Valetudos, the Roman goddess of health. 

So many deities connected to health are a defining feature of Greek and Roman society and the rest of the ancient world. This adds to the concept of good health being a vital part of life itself. 

Hygeia’s Symbols

Hygeia was defined through a myriad of different objects. In fact, countless medical organizations still use one of her most famous symbols today.

Her father was Asclepius, which meant that she, too, had inherited a considerable chunk of his symbols. You might have seen the famous illustration of a large snake curling around the staff. It is called the Caduceus, the Rod of Asclepius, and the bringer of good health. 

But how does it make sense to associate a snake with physical health? After all, don’t they inject venom into their foes when startled? Aren’t they natural predators? Don’t they coil around their prey and eat them whole?

Great questions. 5 points to House Slytherin. 

Aside from that, snakes were also associated with immortality because they shed skin every now and then. It stood as some sort of a physiological rebirth. Snakes could easily change from one form to another with quick velocity, from disease to immediate self-recovery. 

And the staff, well, they simply look cool. Also, Moses used the staff to heal people bitten by venomous serpents. Pair the snake and the staff together, and you’ve got the spirit of Hygeia summed in one logo. Talk about business branding. 

Hygeia’s Portrayal

You’d expect the goddess of cleanliness to have some clean drip.

And she did have both. Quite literally. 

Hygeia was portrayed precisely reflecting the residents of ancient Athens and Rome. This normalization established the idea of good health being prevalent throughout both cultures. 

Most of Hygeia’s statues depicted her as being wrapped by a large snake and drinking from a bowl on her right palm. The bowl, no doubt, contained water or some sort of medical concoction to promote the healing process. 

One statue also portrayed her with a jar stuck in a motion of pouring water below. This can also stand as symbolism for granting suitable means of sanitation. 

The Plague of Athens

2020 sucked. 

Do you know what else sucked? The 430BC Plague of Athens, a devastating epidemic that eradicated around 100,000 people. 

Like the COVID-19 pandemic, the Athenian plague was a life-changing event for the ancient world. In terms of culture, it brought a pantheon of whole new figures into Greek mythology, and also played an important role in the Peloponnesian War, helping Sparta achieve victory. 

The plague induced severe illnesses within its victims; high fever, chills, diarrhea, constipation, and muscle pain were some of the many symptoms. Due to the plague being highly contagious, it meant that those who tended to the weak were the most vulnerable to the epidemic. 

This catastrophic event resulted in a total breakdown of Athenian society, causing an imbalance of economy, powers, and an overall inability to establish control within the population.

As you might’ve guessed, maintaining good hygiene and cleanliness within these conditions proved futile. Its absence worsened the situation as more and more people continued to carry the plague and succumb to its ravages. 

As Athens continued to corrode to the plague, the importance of personifying the concept of good health began to be taken seriously. 

And then came Hygeia, the beacon of hope in those dark times. Hygeia’s introduction into Athenian culture meant she was recognized as an individual goddess. This led to the establishment of her cult by the Oracle of Delphi

Worship of Hygeia

After Hygeia’s grand entry into the Athenian realm, she and her sisters soon turned out to be fan favorites. Notably, the goddesses of health and universal remedy worked together to metaphorically search for ways to prevent other illnesses for the good people of ancient Greece.

The goddesses soon became an integral part of Greek accounts and myths. Hygeia was primarily worshiped in Corinth, Cos, Pergamon, and Epidaurus. However, her presence was also found within the halls of the ancient city of Aizanoi.

Hygeia and The Parthenon

One exciting story surrounding Hygeia is also one of her most famous ones.

It concerns the construction of the Parthenon, the absolutely godlike temple dedicated to Athena, the Greek goddess of war and practicality. Though it was ironic (as war brings about destruction), Hygeia was also associated with Athena herself. 

But on the other hand, Hygeia was really there to prevent illnesses from ever occurring. Athena was there to ensure peace. So in some sense, they were working towards the same goal. Suddenly, a collaboration between the two makes complete sense. 

The story was written by none other than Plutarch himself.

He mentions that while the Parthenon was being built, Hygeia herself aided in its construction from the back end by providing good morale and preventing any sicknesses. However, a worker who was pro at his job suddenly slipped from the rafters and seriously injured himself.

The supervisor in charge at the time was none other than Pericles, the famous Greek politician. Incredibly troubled about almost losing his best builder to vertigo, Pericles sat pretty in his chambers, entirely confused about what to do.

Plutarch mentions this was precisely when Hygeia appeared to his forlorn man and helped him out by providing him with a “course of treatment” for the injured builder. Pericles gladly accepted this gift and immediately executed the treatment on the builder. After his recovery, Pericles ordered a bronze statue of Athena-Hygeia to be built within the Parthenon itself. 

The statue was a work of art. Its beauty was amplified even more when Phydias, the master Greek sculptor, coated it in gold and inscribed his name under it. 

As such, the statue of Hygeia and the goddess herself were forever honored within the halls of the Parthenon.

Sanitation in Ancient Greece

If we are talking about Hygeia, we must speak of sanitation in the cities of ancient Greece.

Athens might have fallen after the devastating plague. Still, the sanitation systems of the Greeks and, later, the Romans continued to flourish. Though it was not perfect, various methods of implementing cleanliness were definitely a good start.

For starters, latrines were an immediate hit in town. In fact, the Greeks and Romans used these holes in the ground to flex their status by simply relieving themselves inside these communal poop graves. 

Regardless of how the air smelled around these claustrophobic confines, at least they were putting in the effort to ensure proper sanitation and, in turn, the onset of good physical health. 

Asclepius’ Sanctuaries and Hygeia

Asclepius’ presence within Greek mythology as a significant healing power evolved to the point where he was thought to have untraditional capabilities. His talents continued to grow out of the box; in fact, he had supposedly achieved the ability to revive the dead. This caused the Olympian gods to grow envious and daddy Zeus to strike him with a lightning bolt to warn him of his place.

Hygeia, too, was closely associated with the Greek god of medicine. As his daughter, she was responsible for expanding upon her father’s work. Due to a sudden interest in maintaining good hygiene after the plague, Hygeia and (mainly) Asclepius were dedicated to certain sanctuaries and sanatoriums to carry on their torch.

Most of these sacred centers revolved mainly around clean, running water. They were primarily located beside torrents of rivers and water bodies. These sanctuaries provided healthcare facilities and medicinal benefits to ordinary people.

They were also known as “Asclepieions,” devoted entirely to Asclepius and Hygeia. As you might’ve guessed, these Asclepieons served as impactful medical guidance, diagnosis, and healing sites. A myriad of sanctuaries such as this existed in the ancient Hellenic world. 

Almost all the Hellenic settlements boasted an Asclepion. This shows how seriously the Greeks considered health and continued to practice good hygiene.

Hygeia’s Counterparts

Ensuring proper health is an integral part of any society. 

Hence, the personification of the concept is found in plenty in all corners of the world. Hygeia’s counterparts in other sources are all embodiments of the same idea. Every culture figured it out eventually. 

And every culture made its own myths and stories.

Here are some of Hygeia’s colleagues in other pantheons.

Obaluaye, the god of healing in African mythology

Sekhmet, the goddess of medicine in Egyptian mythology

Haoma, the Persian god of health

Zywie, the goddess of healing and health in Slavic mythology

Maximon, the heroic god of health in Aztec mythology

Eir, the Norse god of medicinal operations

Hygeia’s Legacy

Besides the Rod of Asclepius is a defining visage of modern healthcare, another symbol remains dominant. The Bowl of Hygeia is one such icon that can be seen almost anywhere with any connection to pharmaceuticals.

In fact, Hygeia and her bowl can be seen used as a logo by pharmacies and medical organizations throughout almost all of Europe. Though it is sometimes remixed with Asclepius’ star python, the message of ensuring proper healthcare remains prevalent. 

As a result, Hygeia and her legacy are fortified not through the advent of pop culture but by the more essential and psychological science of global healthcare. Hygeia knows how to sort out her priorities; you wouldn’t see her on the silver screen, but we bet you’d see her screen all sorts of diseases and turning on the killswitch for them.

Conclusion

Hygeia is a goddess who has sunk so deep into the pages of Greek mythology that her role within its stories remains minimal. However, instead of partaking in great wars and slaying giants and gods, she chooses to remain lowkey and focus on the more significant bits of life.

She is an elemental deity of ancient Greece, one that emphasizes the healing process and preventing diseases. While other gods remain occupied with wars and fantasies, Hygeia and her sisters focus on the science of health rather than myths. 

As we slowly come out of a global pandemic, we could do well to respect healthcare professionals worldwide. After all, Hygeia isn’t just some random deity from the past. She is the personification of cleanliness and the killer of illnesses. She lives inside all the healthcare professionals on this planet, and her spirit lives on through these heroes. 

Also, Hygeia and her impact on modernity can’t be underestimated. After all, if it wasn’t for her introduction into the ancient Greek world as an immediate need for maintaining hygiene, we probably wouldn’t have had flushing toilets. 

Read that twice or thrice and think about how that would feel. 

References:

https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/people/cp97864/hygeia

Compton, M. T. (2002-07-01). “The Association of Hygieia with Asklepios in Graeco-Roman Asklepieion Medicine”. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences.

https://www.iwapublishing.com/news/brief-history-water-and-health-ancient-civilizations-modern-times 

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