Hygeia is a Greek goddess associated with health, cleanliness, and sanitation. She is often depicted as a young woman holding a serpent or a bowl and a cup and is one of the daughters of Asclepius, the god of medicine, and his wife Epione, who is the goddess of soothing pain.
She was considered to be a personification of health and the prevention of illness, focusing on the maintenance of a healthy lifestyle and the prevention of disease through proper hygiene, diet, and exercise. In some myths, she is also seen as a goddess of recuperation and the restoration of health.
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Who Was Hygeia?
In Greek mythology, Hygeia is the goddess of good health, cleanliness, and sanitation. She is one of the daughters of Asclepius, the god of medicine, and his wife Epione, the goddess of soothing pain.
Hygeia’s name is derived from the Greek word “hygieia,” which means “good health” or “well-being.” Her role in mythology is closely associated with promoting health and preventing illness and she is often depicted as a young woman holding a serpent or a bowl and a cup. The serpent, a symbol of renewal and healing, is intertwined with her symbolism, and it is sometimes depicted as drinking from the cup held by Hygeia.
Hygeia’s significance grew along with the worship of her father, Asclepius, in ancient Greece. Asclepius was revered as a god of healing and medicine, and his sanctuaries, known as Asclepieions, were places where people sought physical and spiritual healing through rituals, offerings, and dreams. Hygeia’s presence in these sanctuaries emphasized the importance of prevention, cleanliness, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle to avoid illness.
Asclepius and Hygeia were often depicted together, symbolizing the balance between treatment and prevention in maintaining good health. The worship of Hygeia and Asclepius was not limited to Greece, it spread to other regions and cultures as well.
Apart from Hygeia Asclepius and his wife Epione had four other daughters: Aceso, Aglaea, Iaso, and Panacea (who also happened to be the Greek goddess of universal remedy).
All five children were deeply connected to the practices of Apollo, the Greek god of basically everything related to life in the fast lane; music, healing, and archery. Asclepius was Apollo’s son, and Hygeia was his grandchild.
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. 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 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. The most famous is 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?
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.
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
The 430BC Plague of Athens was 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.
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
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 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.
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:
- 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
Besides the Rod of Asclepius being 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 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.
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.