Weekly Deity: Asclepius


Asclepius from Pergamum

Asclepius was one of the the Greek gods of healing.  He was very popular and shows up in a number of various texts, and statues of him were fairly common around Greece.

Attributes

As you can see from the picture on the left, Asclepius looks very similar in form to Zeus or Poseidon–bearded, probably around young middle age, muscular and tall.  He carried a staff and is generally shown with a snake twined around it, the snake being the animal associated with healing and healers.

Myths and Worship

There are few actual myths in which Asclepius is featured, but the details of his life are known.  He was considered to be the son of Apollo and a mortal woman Coronis.  His mother was unfaithful to Apollo and so was sentenced to death.  As her body was lain out on the funeral pyre to be burned, the god rescued his unborn son from the mother’s womb.  The baby Asclepius was sent to Chiron by Apollo, the wise centaur, to be educated and looked after.  Chiron taught Asclepius medicine and the arts of healing.

Asclepius married Epione, and they had six daughters and three sons: Hygieia, Meditrina, Panacea, Aceso, Iaso, Aglaea, Machaon, Podalierios, and Telesphoros.  As minor characters, his wife and children do not feature prominently in mythology.

The death of Asclepius came about by Zeus’s hand and Asclepius’ hubris.  There are various versions, but the most widely accepted one is that Asclepius raised Hippolytus from the dead, and then to add insult to injury he accepted gold for the deed.  Zeus struck Asclepius down with a thunderbolt and the man was killed.  However, because he was the son of Apollo and a great healer in his own right, Zeus placed Asclepius among the stars of heaven as the constellation Ophiuchus.

Light Side

As a healer, Asclepius had a great gift to heal and to bring life into the world.  He was credited with a great many things, and people would put a great deal of faith in the healing power they found in his temples and in his cult.  His Light side has a lot of positive energy that is obviously geared toward healing and the benefit of wellness of body and mind.

Dark Side

Like any other deity who can give life, Asclepius could also take it away.  His healing skills and medicines could be used to help the ill, but he could also do much more than that, he could raise the dead.  Considering his additional “powers”, it would be safe to assume that Asclepius was considered a very strong healer who could also just as strongly take life and health away.  The only thing that would stop him are his morals and ethics and the laws of his society that perhaps would govern healing actions.  This is part of Asclepius’ dark side: the ability to take away life.  His hubris is also on his dark side: if he hadn’t tried to act like a god while he was still mortal, would he have been killed?  Probably not, but he behaved in a manner unsuitable to a mortal, and so he was murdered by Zeus for his hubris.

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5 responses to “Weekly Deity: Asclepius

  1. Maybe Zeus took him out of mortal life so he could be more powerful/useful in the next. I have been calling on Asclepius this week for help and I feel he’s listened, so thank you Asclepius…

    • Hi C! It’s possible Zeus could have taken Asclepius so he could be more useful in the next life, but that would be a rather modern interpretation of the story. The ancient Greeks didn’t really believe in a “useful” afterlife, i.e., one in which people’s souls had a function, and they did not believe in reincarnation. Often their concept of the afterlife was very dim in that they though their souls did nothing for the rest of eternity. Heroes eventually earned the right to bask in happiness as thoughts of the afterlife evolved, and there eventually came to be the other area in which wicked people were sent for their crimes against the gods, but most people were convinced their soul would just sit in Hades for the rest of time and do nothing. Asclepius is a very interesting character though.

  2. I love these weekly deity articles! It seems to me however that Asclepius’s darker side was his arrogance: He raised someone from the dead (which is always a big no-no, especially for mortals) which is something the gods rarely did, and then he even accepted money for the act, meaning it was a motive of greed/gain and not passion or love (which has been a passable excuse in some myths for stupid acts.)

    All humans have the ability to take life and while Healers may have this ability more readily then others, it doesn’t seem to me to be more of an issue then other humans. I’d argue that morals being the only restraint against killing and ills being an overall human negative side.

  3. The first time I read this I misread it and thought that it said the he was married to Epona. Even after a couple of re-readings I was still mixed up, it wasn’t till re-read the Epona post that I realized my mistake. haha But it would have been interesting, had it been true.

    The whole snake and staff thing wouldn’t have a connection with the modern symbol of the doctors, would it?

    It seems like there is a lot of trust in these deities that have the power to give and take life, that their morals will restrain them. But what are morals to a deity? Would they have the same morals as the people who worship them or would they live by their “own code”, as it were, beholden only to a more powerful deity, such as Zeus in this case?

    • The modern symbol of doctors is the caduceus, which was carried by Hermes I believe.

      That’s exactly the question–the morals of the gods don’t exactly have to match with those the mortals use. It depends then on which mythology you use that would define what the “code” is for those deities to use when faced with ethical and moral questions. But also part of the role of the deities, for the Greeks at least, was not to conform to human morality but to serve as examples (note I said part of the role, not the whole role–some people want to say that the whole role for deities in Greek society was to serve as examples of what to do or not do, and that’s not the case). The gods were held to a different standard that entitled them to do what they want but within certain limits, which it seems were usually imposed by Zeus.

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