Asklepios of Ephesus

Asclepios of Ephesus

While the healing god Asclepius is not a major player in Greek mythology, he is a pivotal one. Counted as one of the Argonauts, Asclepius came into contact with many of the major Greek heroes. Asclepius was also a causal figure in a drama played out between Apollo, Death, Zeus, the Cyclops, and Hercules. This story comes to us through Euripides’ tragedy.

Hospital Sign on the Domitian Square of Ephesus
Hospital Sign on the Domitian Square of Ephesus

Apollo (the brother of the virginal goddess Artemis) was no more chaste than any of the other (male) gods. His lovers and would-be lovers included Marpessa, Coronis, Daphne (one who got away by having herself transformed into a tree), Arsinoe, Cassandra (who paid for her scorn with the gift of prophecy no one believed), Cyrene, Melia, Eudne, Thero, Psamathe, Philonis, Chrysothemis, Hyacinthos, and Cyparissos. As a result of their union with Apollo, most of the women produced sons. One of these sons was Asclepius. The mother is debated. She may have been Coronis or Arsinoe, but whoever the mother was, she didn’t live long enough to give birth to her healing godson.

Apollo was a jealous god who was mightily displeased when a crow revealed that his lover was to marry a mortal, so he punished the messenger by changing the color of the formerly white bird to the now more familiar black. Apollo also punished his lover by burning her, although some say it was Artemis who actually disposed of the “faithless” Coronis (or Arsinoe). Before Coronis was completely incinerated, Apollo rescued the unborn infant from the flames. A similar event occurred when Zeus rescued the unborn Dionysus from Semele and sewed up the fetus in his thigh.

The poor, newborn Asclepius needed someone to bring him up, so Apollo thought of the wise centaur Chiron (Cheiron) who seems to have been around forever — or at least since the time of Apollo’s father, Zeus. Chiron roamed the countryside of Crete while the king of the gods was growing up, hiding from his own father. Chiron trained several of the great Greek heroes (Achilles, Actaeon, Aristaeus, Jason, Medus, Patroclus, and Peleus) and willingly undertook the education of Asclepius. Apollo was also a god of healing, but it wasn’t he, but Chiron who taught the god’s son Asclepius the healing arts. Athena also helped. She gave Asclepius the precious blood of the Gorgon Medusa.

Staff of Asclepios
Staff of Asclepios

Asclepius hadn’t been killed immediately after leaving the centaur’s school. He had had time to engage in various heroic endeavors, including fathering his share of children. His progeny would and did carry on the healing arts. Sons Machaon and Podalirius led 30 Greek ships to Troy from the city of Eurytos. It is unclear which of the two brothers healed Philoctetes during the Trojan War. Asclepius’ daughter is Hygeia (connected with our word hygiene), goddess of health.

Other children of Asclepius are Janiscus, Alexenor, Aratus, Hygieia, Aegle, Iaso, and Panacea. You may find the name Asclepius spelled Asklepios or Aesculapius (in Latin) and Asklepios (also, in Greek). The best known of the roughly 200 Greek shrines and temples of Asclepius were Epidaurus, Cos, and Pergamum. These were places of healing with sanatoria, dream therapy, snakes, regimes of diet and exercise, and baths. The name of such a shrine to Asclepius is asclepieion/asklepieion (pl. asclepieia). Hippocrates is thought to have studied at Cos and Galen at Pergamum.

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