In Latin Aesculapius, the god of medicine, he was the son of Apollo, but the stories about his birth differ considerably: generally, and especially in the account given by Pindar, it is said that Apollo loved Coronis, the daughter of the Thessalian king Phlegyas and fathered a son, but before the child was born, Coronis had yielded her love to a mortal, Ischys, the son of Elatus. Apollo, warned of her misdeed by a careless crow, or by his gift of divination, killed the faithless girl and just as her body was lying on the pyre and was on the point of being burnt, Apollo tore the child, still alive, from her womb and that is how Asclepius was born. According to another tradition, intended to explain why Asclepius was the great god of Epidaurus in the Peloponnese, Phlegyas who was a thief on a grand scale, came to the country to discover the wealth it contained and how he could appropriate it. His daughter accompanied him and during their travels was seduced by Apollo, and secretly gave birth to a son in Epidaurus, at the foot of Mount Myrtion. There she had abandoned him but a she-goat came to suckle the infant and a dog protected him. The shepherd Aresthanas who owned both animals found the child and was astounded by the brilliant light in which he was bathed. He knew full well that he was confronted by a mystery and did not dare to pick up the infant, who followed his divine destiny alone. Another version of the story makes Arsinoe, the daughter of Leucippus, the child's mother. This is the Messenian tradition which attempted to reconcile itself with the others by asserting that the child was Arsinoe's, but that he had been brought up by Coronis.

Asclepius was entrusted by his father to the Centaur Chiron, who taught him medicine and soon Asclepius developed exceptional skill in the art. He even discovered how to revive the dead. He was given the blood which had flowed in the Gorgon's veins by Athena, and while the blood from its left side spread a fatal poison, that from the right was beneficial, and Asclepius knew how to use it to restore the dead to life. By this method he revived many people, including Capaneus, Lycurgus (probably during the war against Thebes, where two characters of that name are recorded as victims), Glaucus, the son of Minos, and Hippolytus, the son of Theseus, the most frequently mentioned of all (see Phaedra). Zeus, confronted by resurrections on this scale feared that Asclepius might upset the natural order of things and struck him with a thunderbolt. To avenge him Apollo killed the Cyclopes. After his death Asclepius was changed into a constellation and became the plant serpentaria. Several late pieces of so-called evidence show Asclepius taking part in the Calydonian hunt and the Argonauts' expedition, but generally speaking he stands outside the legendary cycles.

He is said to have had two children, Podalirius and Machaon, whose names are found as early as the Iliad. The later forms of the legend give him a wife, Epione, and five daughters, Aceso, Iase, Panacea, Aglaea and Hygieia. The cult of Asclepius, which is vouched for at Tricea in Thessaly (where it may have originated) was centered on Epidaurus in the Peloponnese, where what can properly be called a school of medicine flourished. This was based primarily on magical practices but also laid the foundations for a more scientific form of medicine. This art was practiced by the Asclepiades or descendants of Asclepius, the best known of these being Hippocrates. The usual symbols of Asclepius were snakes twined round a staff, together with pine-cones, crowns of laurel and sometimes a nanny-goat or a dog.


Table of Sources:
- Homeric Hymn to Asclepius
- Pind. Pyth. 3, with schol. on 14; 96
- Hesiod Fragments 50; 51; 53; 58; 60 M-W
- Apollod. Bibl. 3, 10, 3ff.
- Diod. Sic. 4, 71; 5, 74
- Ovid, Met. 2, 535ff.
- Serv. on Virgil, Aen. 6, 617; 7, 761; 11, 259
- Hyg. Fab. 202; Astron. 2, 40
- Paus. 2, 26, 3ff.; 4, 3, 2; 4, 31, 12
- Hymn to Asclepius, Epidaurian inscription in Collitz/Bechtel, Samml. der gr. dial. Inschr. III, p. 162, no. 3342
- Cic. De Nat. Deor. 3, 22, 57
- Apoll. Rhod. Arg. 4, 526ff.
- Pseudo-Lact. Plac. on Euripides, Alc. 1
- Ovid, Fast. 5, 735ff.
- Arnobius, Adv. Nat. 1, 30; 36; 41; 4, 15

Asclepius, a figure from Greek myth, was the son of Apollo and Coronis. He was a mortal, raised by Chiron, the centaur. When he came of age, he left Chiron's cave to help the people of Greece with his vast knowledge of the healing arts. He built the first hospitals when he put beds for the sick in temples made to him. He carried around a staff with two serpents entwined around it, which today is still a symbol for the healing profession. These serpents knew the secrets of the earth, and they would tell him information about the ailments he treated. When the serpents could not reveal to him a cure, he would give the patient a magic elixir and listen to what they muttered in their sleep. They would sometimes reveal the cause and cure for what ailed them.

Asclepius had a wife and seven children. His sons became assistant physicians, and his daughters became nurses. His daughter Hygeia was credited for being the first to clean patients with soap and water.

Eventually, Asclepius became so proficient at his work that he could raise the dead. The gods tolerated this at first, but when he started accepting gold for performing this task, Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt. This made Apollo a bit angry, and he killed the Cyclopses that made Zeus' thunderbolts. So Zeus made Apollo be a slave on earth for a year. But in the end, Asclepius got his own constellation, and was remembered as the first doctor.

(Latinised version of Greek Aσκληπιος, Asklepios)

In the following, all names are given in the Greek form. Latinised versions are in {curly brackets}.

The worship of Asklepios {Asclepius} originated in Thessaly. According to Strabo1, the oldest and most famous Asclepian temple lay in this northern Greek region, in the city of Trikka. Strabo further states2 that Asklepios was born by the river Lethaios, which flows near Trikka.

In the Iliad3, Asklepios is named in connection with the two doctors Machaon and Podaleiros from Trikka, who are also called "sons of Asklepios". The Iliad also tells us4 that Asklepios had received instuction in the healing arts from the centaur Cheiron {Chiron}. Yet, nothing in the Iliad implies that Asklepios was regarded as a god in Homeric times, nor that he was the focus of any sort of cult of worship.

An ancient poem, Eoia, attributed to the Boiotian poet Hesiod, describes Asklepios as the son of the god Apollon {Apollo}. Only fragments have been preserved of this poem, but on the basis of this and later versions of the tale, the Thessalian myth can be reconstructed5 as follows:

"In the Boebeian lake, the lake of Phoibos {Phoebus}, a beautiful Lapithian maiden, Koronis {Coronis}, was bathing her feet. Phoibos saw her, and seized by passionate desire, he stepped close to her and plucked the fruit of love, unhesitant, as when he saw another Lapithian maiden, the huntress Kyrene {Cyrene}, on nearby Mount Pelion.

"Months passed, and the day came when Koronis was to go to her cousin Ischys, the husband selected for her by her father. She did not resist this selection, though she carried the token of heavenly love under her heart.

"Her friends gathered to sing the bridal hymn, and dance the nuptial dances. Then, the raven, scout of Apollon, brought news of this to him in his Delphic abode. Anguish and anger arose in him, and his divine rage was visited upon the messenger, whose white feathers were turned to black, the colour of sorrow, which still haunts men today.

"Swift was the god's vengeance. His arrow struck Ischys. The shots of Artemis laid Koronis and her guiltless friends low. The merciless one sat upon her throne in Pherai by the Boebeian lake, and aided her brother in his bitterness.

"And yet, when he saw his beloved upon the funeral pyre, Apollon took pity upon his unborn son. He, who had sent death, gave life, and carried the infant to Pelion, to the cave of the righteous centaur Cheiron. Under his care, Koronis' son Asklepios grew up, learned the virtues of the roots of the forest, all the gentle juices of the herbs, and many healing spells. As a grown man, he became a healer of reknown, blessing many who suffered illness and disease.

"In his arrogance, however, he broke the rules that bind man - he began to raise up the dead. Therefore, Zeus the Thunderer struck him with his thunderbolt, and he who had abridged the rights of Death was himself taken by it."

Though born of mortal woman, and himself dying in the end, Asklepios was thus of divine lineage, and he became known as a god of healing.

As Epidauros slowly grew to become the focus of the Asclepian cult, the Epidaurians were committed to claiming Epidauros as his birthplace. A number of sources much younger than Homer and Hesiod give the Epidaurian version of Asklepios' myth.


1 Strabo, IX.437

2 Strabo, XIV.647

3 The Iliad, II.731; IV.194; XI.518

4 The Iliad, IV.219. The centaurs lived in Thessaly, and Cheiron dwelt on Pelion.

5 U. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff: Isyllos von Epidauros, Philologische Untersuchungen, 9. Heft., p. 57ff (1886)

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