The Myth of Asclepius

Asclepius  was the ancient Greek god of medicine. He was one among a family pantheon of healers. His father, Apollo, was a healing god and his daughters included Hygieia (personifying hygiene), Iaso (associated with recuperation) and Panacea (embodying all-cure medicine). 

His two sons, Podaleirius, a physician, and Mchaon, a surgeon, were respected doctors in the Trojan War. The great poet Homer referred to Asclepius in the Iliad as “the blameless physician”.The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, remains a symbol of medicine today.

 According to the legend, Asclepius was the son of Apollo and Coronis, one of his many lovers. Learning that Coronis was unfaithful, Apollo ordered her to be killed. As Coronis, pregnant with Asclepius, laid on the funeral pyre, Apollo had the child rescued (This was the first legendary reported case of postpartum Caesarean section).

Asclepius taken from The Womb of Coronis. Wood carving, 1549 edition of Alessandro Benedetti’s De Re Medica.

Asclepius (child), being taught by Chiron the centaur.

 Apollo placed Asclepius under the tutorship of Chiron, the wise centaur (half man and half horse beast). Asclepius was a gifted and studious student. He soon acquired the great art of healing and became an outstanding healer. In the picture below, he can be seen attending to a thorn in the foot of Venus. Asclepius was so adept at his art that he not only cured the sick, but could also raise people from the dead.

Asclepius attending to a thorn in the foot of Venus. Sir Edward John Poynter 1880, Tate Gallery, London.

Asclepius reviving Hippolytus. Claude Lorraine, (1604– 1682) French Baroque Painter.