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Asclepius Ancient Greek / Roman God of Medicine with Serpent Medical Symbol Staff Coins

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Asclepius
Statue of Asklepios NAMA 263 (DerHexer).JPG
Asclepius with his serpent-entwined staff
God of medicine, healing, rejuvenation and physicians
Symbol A serpent-entwined staff
Consort Epione
Parents Apollo and Coronis
Children Hygieia (daughter)
Iaso (daughter)
Aceso (daughter)
Aglaea (daughter)
Panacea (daughter)
Meditrina (daughter)
Machaon (son)
Podaleirios (son)
Telesphoros (son)
Aratus (son)
Roman equivalent Aesculapius

Asclepius (/ćsˈklpiəs/; Greek: Ἀσκληπιός Asklēpiós [asklɛːpiós]; Latin Aesculapius) is the god of medicine and healing in ancient Greek religion. Asclepius represents the healing aspect of the medical arts; his daughters are Hygieia("Hygiene", the goddess/personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation), Iaso (the goddess of recuperation from illness), Aceso (the goddess of the healing process), Aglća/Ćgle (the goddess of beauty, splendor, glory, magnificence, and adornment), and Panacea (the goddess of universal remedy). He was associated with the Roman/Etruscan god Vediovis. He was one of Apollo's sons, sharing with Apollo the epithet Paean ("the Healer"). The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, remains a symbol of medicine today.

Etymology

The etymology of the name is unknown. In his revised version of Frisk's Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (Greek etymological dictionary), R.S.P. Beekes gives this summary of the different attempts:

"H. Grégoire (with R. Goossens and M. Mathieu) in Asklépios, Apollon Smintheus et Rudra 1949 (Mém. Acad. Roy. de Belgique. Cl. d. lettres. 2. sér. 45), explains the name as 'the mole-hero', connecting σκάλοψ, ἀσπάλαξ 'mole' and refers to the resemblance of the Tholos in Epidauros and the building of a mole. (Thus Puhvel, Comp. Mythol. 1987, 135.) But the variants of Asklepios and those of the word for 'mole' do not agree.
The name is typical for Pre-Greek words; apart from minor variations (β for π, αλ(α) for λα) we find α/αι (a well known variation; Fur. 335 - 339) followed by -γλαπ- or -σκλαπ-/-σχλαπ/β-, i.e. a voiced velar (without -σ-) or a voiceless velar (or anaspirated one: we know that there was no distinction between the three in the substr. language) with a -σ-. I think that the -σ- renders an original affricate, which (prob. as δ) was lost before the -γ- (in Greek the group -σγ- is rare, and certainly before another consonant); Beekes Pre-Greek.
Szemerényi's etymology (JHS 94, 1974, 155) from Hitt. assula(a)- 'well-being' and piya- 'give' cannot be correct, as it does not explain the velar."

One might add that even though Szemerényi's etymology (Hitt. asula- + piya-) does not account for the velar, it is perhaps inserted spontaneously in Greek due to the fact that the cluster -sl- was uncommon in Greek: So, *Aslāpios would become Asklāpios automatically.

Mythology

Birth

He was the son of Apollo and Coronis. His mother was killed for being unfaithful to Apollo and was laid out on a funeral pyre to be consumed, but the unborn child was rescued from her womb. Or, alternatively, his mother died in labor and was laid out on the pyre to be consumed, but his father rescued the child, cutting him from her womb. From this he received the name Asklepios, "to cut open." Apollo carried the baby to the centaur Chiron who raised Asclepius and instructed him in the art of medicine.

Wives and offspring

Asclepios with his daughter Hygieia

Asclepius was married to Epione, with whom he had six daughters: Hygieia, Meditrina (the serpent-bearer), Panacea, Aceso, Iaso, and Aglaea, and three sons: Machaon, Podaleirios and Telesphoros. He also sired a son, Aratus, with Aristodama. The names of his daughters each rather transparently reflect a certain subset of the overall theme of "good health".

At some point, Asclepius was among those who took part in the Calydonian Boar hunt.

Death

Zeus killed Asclepius with a thunderbolt because he raised Hippolytus from the dead and accepted gold for it. Other stories say that Asclepius was killed because after bringing people back from the dead, Hades thought that no more dead spirits would come to the underworld, so he asked his brother Zeus to remove him. This angered Apollo who in turn murdered the Cyclopes who had made the thunderbolts for Zeus. For this act, Zeus suspended Apollo from the night sky and commanded Apollo to serve Admetus, King of Thessaly for a year. Once the year had passed, Zeus brought Apollo back to Mount Olympus and revived the Cyclopes that made his thunderbolts. After Asclepius' death, Zeus placed his body among the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus ("the Serpent Holder").

Some sources also stated that Asclepius was later resurrected as a god by Zeus to prevent any further feuds with Apollo.

Sacred places and practices

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The most famous temple of Asclepius was at Epidaurus in north-eastern Peloponnese. Another famous healing temple (or asclepieion) was located on the island of Kos, where Hippocrates, the legendary "father of medicine", may have begun his career. Other asclepieia were situated in Trikala, Gortys (in Arcadia), and Pergamum in Asia.

In honor of Asclepius, a particular type of non-venomous snake was often used in healing rituals, and these snakes — the Aesculapian Snakes — slithered around freely on the floor in dormitories where the sick and injured slept. These snakes were introduced at the founding of each new temple of Asclepius throughout the classical world. From about 300 BC onwards, the cult of Asclepius grew very popular and pilgrims flocked to his healing temples (Asclepieia) to be cured of their ills. Ritual purification would be followed by offerings or sacrifices to the god (according to means), and the supplicant would then spend the night in the holiest part of the sanctuary - the abaton (or adyton). Any dreams or visions would be reported to a priest who would prescribe the appropriate therapy by a process of interpretation. Some healing temples also used sacred dogs to lick the wounds of sick petitioners.

The original Hippocratic Oath began with the invocation "I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods ..."

Some later religious movements claimed links to Asclepius. In the 2nd century AD the controversial miracle-worker Alexander claimed that his god Glycon, a snake with a "head of linen" was an incarnation of Asclepius. The Greek language rhetorician and satirist Lucian produced the work Alexander the False Prophet to denounce the swindler for future generations. He described Alexander as having a character "made up of lying, trickery, perjury, and malice; [it was] facile, audacious, venturesome, diligent in the execution of its schemes, plausible, convincing, masking as good, and wearing an appearance absolutely opposite to its purpose." Justin Martyr, a philosophical defender of Christianity who wrote around 160 AD claimed that the myth of Asclepius foreshadowed rather than served as a source for claims of Jesus's healing powers. In Rome, the College of Aesculapius and Hygia was an association(collegium) that served as a burial society and dining club that also participated in Imperial cult.

The botanical genus Asclepias (commonly known as milkweed) is named after him and includes the medicinal plant A. tuberosa or "Pleurisy root".

Asclepius was depicted on the reverse of the Greek 10,000 drachmas banknote of 1995-2001.

 

Popular culture

  • In the short story "The Two Temples" by Herman Melville, the narrator, hired by a lady as a personal physician, describes his job as "the post of private Ćsculapius and knightly companion."

Rod of Asclepius

In Greek mythology, the Rod of Asclepius (sometimes also spelled Asklepios or Aesculapius), also known as the asklepian, is a serpent-entwined rod wielded by the Greek god Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicine. The symbol has continued to be used in modern times, where it is associated with medicine and health care, yet frequently confused with the staff of the god Hermes, the caduceus. Theories have been proposed about the Greek origin of the symbol and its implications.

Greek mythology and Greek society

The Rod of Asclepius takes its name from the god Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicinal arts in Greek mythology. Asclepius's attributes, the snake and the staff, sometimes depicted separately in antiquity, are combined in this symbol.

The most famous temple of Asclepius was at Epidaurus in north-eastern Peloponnese. Another famous healing temple (or asclepieion) was located on the island of Kos, where Hippocrates, the legendary "father of medicine", may have begun his career. Other asclepieia were situated in Trikala, Gortys (in Arcadia), and Pergamum in Asia.

In honor of Asclepius, a particular type of non-venomous snake was often used in healing rituals, and these snakes — the Aesculapian Snakes — crawled around freely on the floor in dormitories where the sick and injured slept. These snakes were introduced at the founding of each new temple of Asclepius throughout the classical world. From about 300 BC onwards, the cult of Asclepius grew very popular and pilgrims flocked to his healing temples (Asclepieia) to be cured of their ills. Ritual purification would be followed by offerings or sacrifices to the god (according to means), and the supplicant would then spend the night in the holiest part of the sanctuary - the abaton (or adyton). Any dreams or visions would be reported to a priest who would prescribe the appropriate therapy by a process of interpretation. Some healing temples also used sacred dogs to lick the wounds of sick petitioners.

The original Hippocratic Oath began with the invocation "I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods ..."

The serpent and the staff appear to have been separate symbols that were combined at some point in the development of the Asclepian cult. The significance of the serpent has been interpreted in many ways; sometimes the shedding of skin and renewal is emphasized as symbolizing rejuvenation, while other assessments center on the serpent as a symbol that unites and expresses the dual nature of the work of the physician, who deals with life and death, sickness and health. The ambiguity of the serpent as a symbol, and the contradictions it is thought to represent, reflect the ambiguity of the use of drugs, which can help or harm, as reflected in the meaning of the term pharmakon, which meant "drug", "medicine" and "poison" in ancient Greek. Products deriving from the bodies of snakes were known to have medicinal properties in ancient times, and in ancient Greece, at least some were aware that snake venom that might be fatal if it entered the bloodstream could often be imbibed. Snake venom appears to have been 'prescribed' in some cases as a form of therapy.

The staff has also been variously interpreted. One view is that it, like the serpent, "conveyed notions of resurrection and healing", while another (not necessarily incompatible) is that the staff was a walking stick associated with itinerant physicians. Cornutus, a Greek philosopher probably active in the first century CE, in the Theologiae Graecae Compendium (Ch. 33) offers a view of the significance of both snake and staff:

Asclepius derived his name from healing soothingly and from deferring the withering that comes with death. For this reason, therefore, they give him a serpent as an attribute, indicating that those who avail themselves of medical science undergo a process similar to the serpent in that they, as it were, grow young again after illnesses and slough off old age; also because the serpent is a sign of attention, much of which is required in medical treatments. The staff also seems to be a symbol of some similar thing. For by means of this it is set before our minds that unless we are supported by such inventions as these, in so far as falling continually into sickness is concerned, stumbling along we would fall even sooner than necessary.

In any case the two symbols certainly merged in antiquity as representations of the snake coiled about the staff are common. It has been claimed that the snake wrapped around the staff was a species of rat snake, Elaphe longissima.

Theories

Some commentators have interpreted the symbol as a direct representation of traditional treatment of Dracunculus medinensis, the Guinea worm. The worm emerges from painful ulcerous blisters. The blisters burn, causing the patient to immerse the affected area in water to cool and soothe it. The worm senses the temperature change and discharges its larva into the water. The traditional treatment was to slowly pull the worm out of the wound over a period of hours to weeks and wind it around a stick.  The modern treatment may replace the stick with a piece of sterile gauze but is otherwise largely identical.

Some commentators have linked the symbol to the Nehushtan, a sacred object consisting of a serpent wrapped around a pole mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Numbers (Numbers 21:6-9). The section in the Book of Numbers reads as follows:

Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live." Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

Modern use

The emergency services' Star of Lifefeatures a rod of Asclepius

A number of organizations and services use the rod of Asclepius as their logo, or part of their logo. These include:

Confusion with the caduceus

The U.S. Army Medical CorpsBranch Plaque. In 1902 thecaduceus was added to the uniforms of Army medical officers.

It is relatively common, especially in the United States, to find the caduceus, with its two snakes and wings, used as a symbol of medicine instead of the correct Rod of Asclepius, with only a single snake. This usage is erroneous, popularised largely as a result of the adoption of the caduceus as its insignia by the U.S. Army Medical Corps in 1902 at the insistence of a single officer (though there are conflicting claims as to whether this was Capt. Frederick P. Reynolds or Col. John R. van Hoff).

The rod of Asclepius is the dominant symbol for professional healthcare associations in the United States. One survey found that 62% of professional healthcare associations used the rod of Asclepius as their symbol. The same survey found that 76% of commercial healthcare organizations used the Caduceus symbol. The author of the study suggests the difference exists because professional associations are more likely to have a real understanding of the two symbols, whereas commercial organizations are more likely to be concerned with the visual impact a symbol will have in selling their products.

The initial errors leading to its adoption and the continuing confusion it generates are well known to medical historians. The long-standing and abundantly attested historical associations of the caduceus with commerce, theft, deception, and deathare considered by many to be inappropriate in a symbol used by those engaged in the healing arts. This has occasioned significant criticism of the use of the caduceus in a medical context.

As god of the high-road and the market-place Hermes was perhaps above all else the patron of commerce and the fat purse: as a corollary, he was the special protector of the traveling salesman. As spokesman for the gods, he not only brought peace on earth (occasionally even the peace of death), but his silver-tongued eloquence could always make the worse appear the better cause. From this latter point of view, would not his symbol be suitable for certain Congressmen, all medical quacks, book agents and purveyors of vacuum cleaners, rather than for the straight-thinking, straight-speaking therapeutist? As conductor of the dead to their subterranean abode, his emblem would seem more appropriate on a hearse than on a physician's car.

—Stuart L. Tyson, "The Caduceus", in The Scientific Monthly

Standard representation

The rod of Asclepius has a representation on the Miscellaneous Symbols table of the Unicode Standard at U+2695 ().

See also

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