Tuesday, October 04, 2011


Associated with: Greek mythology
Also known as: Asklepios
Earliest recorded mention: c. 8th century BCE
Major texts: The Iliad, Pythian and Nemean Odes, Bibliotheca 3 of Pseudo-Apollodorus

One of the more interesting aspects of the Greek & Roman belief system was that you didn't have to be divine to become a god (yes, I'll probably get to Caligula later). It's quite possible that Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, was a real human being, who made pioneering advances in medicine and was later remembered as a god, or at least godlike.

Some myths say that Asclepius was the son of Apollo and a human woman - either Arsinoe, an Egyptian princess, or Coronis, daughter of Phlegyas, king of the Lapiths. It strikes me that this was a convenient explanation for illegitimate births, especially among the nobility: a resourceful young woman could always claim that Zeus or Apollo or some other god had happened on her unawares, and had his way.

But Asclepius survives to this day as a symbol and patron of physicians, although I haven't found much that describes his specific practices. Pindar reported that he treated "all who came to him . . . plagues with sores of festering growths, some wounded by the stokes of weapons of bright bronze, of by the slinger's shot of stone, others with limbs ravaged by summer's fiery heat or by the winter's cold, to each for every various ill he made the remedy, and gave deliverance from pain, some with the gently songs of incantation others he cured with soothing draughts of medicines, or wrapped their limbs around with doctored salves, and some he made whole with the surgeon's knife."

Some legends say he had the power to raise the dead, which made Zeus so angry he destroyed Asclepius with a thunderbolt. The dead Asclepius became divine as a star in the constellation Ophiochus, the Serpent Bearer.

I'd like to know more about ancient Greek medical practices. Certainly until about 100 years ago, doctors did as much harm as good. My own great-grandmother died of puerperal fever after giving birth at home, because hospitals were considered too dirty and dangerous. But I actually have a friend who suffers from hemachromatosis, a relatively rare blood disorder whose only effective treatment remains — yes — bloodletting.

So today, as I recover from something that might have been a cold or the flu or something bacterial, I'll push fluids and take some Alka-Seltzer Flu formula, maybe catch a nap, and skip the doctor. For now.

1 comment:

Bea said...

Socrates' last words were "we owe a cock to Asclepius." Presumably he meant that he had been cured of the disease life, and therefore should make a sacrifice to Asclepius.