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Year : 2002  |  Volume : 3  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 8 Table of Contents     

Myth & Symbolism in Medicine - A Aesculapius: God of Healing


Date of Web Publication22-Jun-2010

Correspondence Address:
Rachel Hajar

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How to cite this article:
Hajar R. Myth & Symbolism in Medicine - A Aesculapius: God of Healing. Heart Views 2002;3:8

How to cite this URL:
Hajar R. Myth & Symbolism in Medicine - A Aesculapius: God of Healing. Heart Views [serial online] 2002 [cited 2023 Sep 22];3:8. Available from: https://www.heartviews.org/text.asp?2002/3/1/8/64460

[Additional file 1]Aesculapius was the Greeks' legendary god of medicine. Homer called him "blameless physician." His attribute is a staff with a single snake coiled around it and is the ancient symbol of medicine.

In classical antiquity, temples dedicated to him were common throughout the Mediterranean, attracting patients in hopes of miraculous cures. Shrines and temples of healing known as Asclepieia were erected throughout Greece where the sick would come to worship and seek cures for their ills. Sick patients would sleep in the Asclepieia. In their dreams, Aesculapius would reveal to them how they could be cured. In the dream, he was accompanied by his daughter, the goddess Hygeia (goddess of healing) and by a serpent, which followed him wherever he went. The serpent would lick the patient's wounds and in the morning, the patient would awaken healed. Snakes seem to have played an important part of the healing ritual and were held to be the sacred servants of Aesculapius.

Aesculapius bears a resemblance to the Egyptian Imhotep (c. 3500 BC), inventor of the pyramids. Both were mortals who later became gods of medicine. Throughout antiquity followers of these two legendary physicians practiced in temples, ministering to the sick. Both gods healed, with the physicians' or priests' help, while the patient was asleep. It is said that Aesculapius had his origins in the Egyptian Imhotep.

   Aesculapius' Birth And Death Are Highly Symbolic Top

   His birth Top

In Greek myth, Aesculapius was the son of Apollo who was the god of agriculture and of light and truth. Apollo taught humans the art of healing.

Legend says that Apollo fell in love with Coronis, a beautiful mortal maiden. However, she was unfaithful. It is said that the news was brought to him by his bird, the raven, then pure white with beautiful snowy plumage. Apollo, in a fit of rage, unjustly punished the faithful bird-messenger by turning his feathers black. Some say that the god killed her himself; others that he got his sister, Artemis, to shoot her unerring arrows at Coronis.

As Apollo watched the maiden placed on the funeral pyre and the flames roar up, he discovered that she was pregnant with his child. Grief-stricken and filled with remorse, he snatched the unborn child from his dying lover's womb. He took the infant to Chiron, the wise and kindly old Centaur, to bring up in his cave and told him to call the child Aesculapius.

The birth of Aesculapius from the womb of his dying mother symbolizes the ability of the physician to seize life from death. Aesculapius is often depicted holding a surgical knife or even performing surgery. These early images demonstrate the existence of invasive life-saving procedures such as surgery, long before modern science and technology.

   His death Top

Chiron was the teacher and foster father to many Greek heroes, among them Hercules and Achilles but Aesculapius was the dearest to Chiron. He taught him the arts of healing. Aesculapius became very skilled in surgery and the use of medicinal plants that he "prevented the death of many." Men sang his praises:

A gentle craftsman who drove pain away,

Soother of cruel pangs, a joy to men,

Bringing them golden health.

However, Aesculapius ventured to transgress the laws of nature by bringing the dead back to life. And the myths do mention the names of those said to have been raised from death by him.

Zeus, the Greek King of Gods and Men, fearing that he might render all men immortal, killed Aesculapius with a thunderbolt. Zeus resented Aesculapius because he was worshipped on earth as a demigod. He had discovered how to make men potential rivals to the gods and threatened their power.

But the poet Pindar (c.520 - 442 BC) claims that even Aesculapius was "seduced by a splendid fee of gold. . . to bring back from death one who already was its lawful prey." Needless to say, the Pindarian version of the myth has many critics, among them Plato: "But we refuse to believe. . . if he was the son of a god, he was not avaricious. . . and if he was greedy of gain he was not the son of a god." Pindar's interpretation of the myth of Aesculapius is most frequently cited as a warning to physicians to avoid putting material gain above the duty to serve a patient's best interests

   Aesculapius: Role model Top

The story of Aesculapius demonstrates the inherent nature of the physician - to expand the art of healing ultimately to defy death, a tradition, which continues into modern medicine. Physicians today are accused of "playing god" by defying the natural boundaries of life and death, of artificially prolonging life. Nevertheless, modern medicine has saved countless lives; we have the ability to delay death or to literally seize life from the jaws of death, which is in keeping with the best Asklepian tradition. The public views the medical profession with ambivalence: Hostility and admiration. As human beings we are unable to reconcile conflicting desires and beliefs within ourselves about our own mortality. This is the root of the conflict between the medical profession and the public.

Human beings throughout the ages expect physicians to practice their craft without regard for the social status of their patients, personal risk, or financial gain. Aesculapius, depicted in myth as physician-hero and later as physician-god, represented the ideal physician to whom people in ancient times turned for healing and relief of suffering. Thomas Carlyle, the 19th century English philosopher stated: It is in and through symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously, lives, works, and has his being. As physicians, we should emulate the example of Aesculapius by negotiating the inherent contradictions of human nature and understanding the powers and limitations of our profession.[2]

   References Top

1.Edelteins EJ. Aesculapius: a collection and interpretation of testimonies.New York, NY:Arno Press Inc; 1975.  Back to cited text no. 1      
2.Bailey JE. Aesculapius:ancient hero of medical caring. Ann Intern Med. 1996;124:257 - 263.  Back to cited text no. 2      


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