Mythology Mondays: Asclepius

Every Monday, I highlight a different Greek myth that has woven its way into the Turning Creek series. The first book, Lightning in the Dark, is out now. If you pay close attention to the details, you will see where some of the elements and history of the series originated.

Asclepius was the son of Apollo and the princess Koronis. His mother died in labor before Asclepius was born. Apollo placed Koronis on her funeral pyre, then, in his grief, cut the still living child from her womb. Thus, the child was named Asclepius, which means to cut open.

The baby was given to the centaur, Kheiron, who was the oldest and wisest of all the centaurs and an immortal god himself. He was skilled in medicine and taught all he knew to Asclepius. In time, the boy grew into a skilled man of medicine who could bring people back from the dead.

Asclepius was married to Epione and sired five daughters whose names reflect health and medicine: Hygieia (hygiene), Panacea (universal remedy), Aceso (healing), Iaso (recuperation), and Aglaea (beauty). He also had three sons named Machaon, Podaleirios and Telesphoros. Machaon and Podaleirios followed in their father’s footsteps and were famous surgeons in their own right. Telesphoros was a dwarf who is always depicted in statues as having a hood over his head. He represented recovery from illness and frequently accompanied his sister, Hygieia. Like many other Greek myths, Asclepius had trouble with fidelity and sired a son out of wedlock, named Aratus, with Aristodama.

Zeus found Asclepius’s skill of bringing souls back from the dead to be unnatural and punished him by striking him dead with a lightning bolt. He was placed among the stars as the constellation Ophiochus, the serpent holder. I’m not sure being made a constellation makes up for being killed, but this was often the consolation prize for myths when Zeus decided they had served their purpose.

While Asclepius does not often appear on reliefs, he is frequently found in sculptures as a bearded man with a serpent entwined staff. A non-venomous Mediterranean snake, called Aesculapian snake is named for Asclepius.

In classical times, a cult formed around the myth of Asclepius. Temples of healing were built in his name and often non-venomous snakes were used in the healing rituals or left to live in the temple itself. Pilgrims would travel many miles to be healed in these temples by men of medicine who followed Asclepius. Followers of Asclepius took oaths to treat the ill with equality.

The original Hippocratic oath taken by doctors began, “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods …” The symbol of Asclepius, a serpent entwined staff, was the original medical caduceus. Today, the staff is often entwined by two snakes and topped by wings.

This is the logo of the American Medical Association and features the staff of Asclepius.
This is the logo of the American Medical Association and features the staff of Asclepius.

The resident doctor in Turning Creek is Lee Williams, a Remnant and follower of Asclepius. His unique skills sometimes get him into trouble.

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