The myth of Asclepius, or Aesculapius for the Romans, not only tells us about the god of medicine, but also about a whole family dedicated to the arts of healing. Although almost all the gods had some healing power, Asclepius was the one who best mastered this knowledge, to the point of having the power to raise the dead.
The myth of Asclepius is believed to be based on the legend of an Egyptian character named Imhotep. This character lived about 2,000 years before the myth of the Greek god took shape. He was a scholar who is considered the father of modern medicine and the first to practice this profession as such.
Imhotep was the author of an extensive drug formulary and, to our knowledge, the first human being to describe clinical cases from a rational rather than magical perspective.
He came to use opioids as anesthetics and made the first known anatomical descriptions. The myth of Asclepius is believed to have been inspired by this real-life character.
” Medicine is the art of fighting men to the death of today, to give them to them in a better state, a little later .”
The origin of the Asclepius myth
As is usual among the Greeks, there are several versions of the myth of Asclepius. The best known indicates that this character was the son of the god Apollo , sovereign of the sun and the arts, and of a mortal named Coronis or Coronis.
Coronis is described as a woman of great beauty. So beautiful was she that she stole the heart of the god Apollo, who fell at her feet when he saw her.
The story tells that they were united near a lake and that, to achieve this, the god had to turn into a swan. Coronis became pregnant.
After this, Apollo had to return to Delphi, but he ordered a white crow to take care of his wife while he was gone. However, taking advantage of the god’s absence, Coronis became a lover of a warrior named Isquis. The raven noticed and quickly flew to warn its master.
On the way he met a crow and it warned him that it was not a good idea to bring bad news, but the crow ignored it. Apollo was completely dismayed. In the midst of his anger, he cursed the bird and condemned it forever to wear black plumage. Since then it has been considered a “bird of ill omen”.
Asclepius, a brilliant child
The myth of Asclepius tells that Apollo went to where Coronis was and, full of anger, shot one of his arrows at her, piercing the woman’s chest. When he saw her die, the god repented and tried to revive her, but it was too late. Then he took her to the funeral pyre. Thus, when Coronis’ body was consumed by fire, Apollo decided to remove the son from her womb.
Such a son was Asclepius and Apollo decided to entrust his upbringing and education to Chiron, the healing centaur. In this way, the boy grew up under the guidance of a teacher who knew the healing arts thoroughly. Thus, from an early age, he became familiar with medicinal plants and treatment techniques.
Asclepius had so many healing abilities that he even learned to raise the dead. This aroused the wrath of Zeus, who thought it was dangerous to reverse the condition of mortals. So, using a cyclops, he sent lightning and killed Asclepius.
A revered god
Apollo, enraged by the murder of his son, killed the Cyclops who had executed Zeus’ plan. Then, using his powers, he got Asclepius to reach Olympus and become a god. Since then, many mortals began to worship him and implore his favor when they needed help with an illness.
Asclepius’ death also developed great virtues in the family he had left on Earth. In this way, his wife, Epíone, acquired the power to calm pain. His daughter, Higea, became the symbol of health prevention.
Panacea, another of his daughters, became synonymous with the treatment; Telesphorus became the symbol of convalescence and Machaon and Podalirio became the protectors of doctors and surgeons.
Later it was said that Hippocrates was a descendant of Asclepius ; the insignia of this god, a serpent entangled in a rod, became the universal symbol of medicine.
The myth of Chiron, the healer
The myth of Chiron is the myth of the great healer, both of the ills of the body and of the ills of the soul, thanks to his great ability to heal.