Aesculapius, sometimes called Hepius, is a hero and god of medicine in Greek and Roman mythology and religion. His parents are Apollo and Arsine, or Coronis or of Apollo alone. He represents the healing aspect of medical arts and had several daughters.
They are Hygieia or ‘hygiene’ who is the goddess of cleanliness, Laso, the goddess of restoration from illness, Aceso, the goddess of the process of healing and Aegle, the goddess of good health. Another daughter is Panacea, who is the goddess of universal remedy plus several sons.
It is said the Centaur Chiron taught him Aesculapius the art of healing. He was later slain by Zeus, the king of the gods fearing he will render all men immortal. Learn more below.
Homer, in the Iliad, talks about Aesculapius as a skillful physician and father of two Greek doctors. He was later honored as a hero and worshipped as a deity. His cult began in Thessaly and spread to other parts of Greece.
Since it was believed that Aesculapius performed his healing in dreams, people adopted the practice of sleeping in his Epidaurus temples in south Greece. During 293 BC, his cult and worship spread to Rome.
Aesculapius is frequently portrayed dressed in a long cloak, standing, with a bare breast. His usual symbol is a staff with a snake coiled around it. Up until today, this staff is the only real symbol of medicine.
There is a similar yet unrelated caduceus emblem which has a winged staff and coiled serpents and is also commonly used as a medical emblem but has no medical relevance. It symbolizes the magic wand of Mercury or Hermes, the patron of trade and messenger of the gods that have no connection to medicine.
It is said when his mother Coronis was pregnant with him; she had an affair with Ischys. Apollo got this bad news through a raven which Apollo had sent to be her guardian. This news angered Apollo that he asked his sister Artemis, the goddess of hunting to shoot Coronis.
While Coronis was on her funeral pyre, Artemis cut her and removed Aesculapius, and that’s how he was born. It is also said that because of Artemis’ anger and fury, the raven which brought the bad news to Apollo turned black.
Upbringing and Education
After Aesculapius had been cut out, Apollo handed him to Chiron, a mighty centaur who helped raise him and teach him all he knew including sciences and healing. Chiron was regarded as the best teacher in the world and had many kids under his care.
Most of the boys under Chiron learnt warfare and athletics save for Aesculapius who studied science and healing lessons. He excelled in his education and became the best doctor at that time.
It is believed Aesculapius excelled partly because of his helpful nature. His name means ‘gentle nature’ an aspect which he extended even to animals. The myth says that he once found a sick snake which he healed, and in return, it licked his ears and gave him all its healing and resurrection knowledge.
Healing Gone Too far
Aesculapius healing powers grew by learning about healing properties in plants. Some legends say that his healing prowess grew too far that he could even resurrect the dead. He also learnt to avoid death using different cures as well as bring the dead back to life.
This prowess angered Zeus who threw a thunderbolt at him. Zeus feared that Aesculapius would make all men immortal and encroaching on his territory. Zeus believed people were meant to live, die and go into the underworld but not live, die and resurrect like Aesculapius was doing it.
Aesculapius was Apollo and Coronis son and a god of healing. He is believed to have mastered the art of healing from the knowledge he got after healing a snake. It licked his ears and imparted in him all his healing powers. Aesculapius learnt the basics of science and healing from Chiron, the greatest teacher in the world who raised him after his mother’s death.