Who was Asclepius?
Asclepius was most probably a skilled physician who practiced in Greece
around 1200BC (and described in Homer's Iliad). Eventually through myth and
legend he came to be worshipped as Asclepius, the (Greek) god of Healing.
Medical schools developed, which were usually connected to temples or
shrines called Asclepions (Asclepieia) dedicated to Asclepius. The Asclepion
became very important in Greek society. Patients believed they could be
cured by sleeping in them. They would visit, offering gifts and sacrifices
to the god, and be treated by priest healers (called the Asclepiadae). The
worship of Asclepius spread to Rome and continued as late as the sixth
The Asclepiadae were a large order of priest physicians who controlled the
sacred secrets of healing, which were passed from father to son. Harmless
Aesculapian snakes were kept in the combination hospital-temples built by
the ancient Greeks and, later, by the Romans in honor of the god. The snakes
are found not only in their original range of southern Europe, but also in
the various places in Germany and Austria where Roman temples had been
established. Escaped snakes survived and flourished.
Smooth, glossy, and slender, the snake has a uniformly brown back with a
streak of darker colour behind the eyes. The snake's belly is yellowish or
whitish and has ridged scales that catch easily on rough surfaces, making it
especially adapted for climbing trees. Scientific classification: The
Aesculapian snake belongs to the family Colubridae. It is classified as
Asclepius is the god of Healing. He is the son of Apollo and the nymph,
Coronis. While pregnant with Asclepius, Coronis secretly took a second,
mortal lover. When Apollo found out, he sent Artemis to kill her. While
burning on the funeral pyre, Apollo felt pity and rescued the unborn child
from the corpse. Asclepius was taught about medicine and healing by the wise
centaur, Cheiron, and became so skilled in it that he succeeded in bringing
one of his patients back from the dead. Zeus felt that the immortality of
the Gods was threatened and killed the healer with a thunderbolt. At
Apollo's request, Asclepius was placed among the stars as Ophiuchus, the
Meditrine, Hygeia and Panacea: The children of Asclepius included his
daughters Meditrina, Hygeia and Panacea who were symbols of medicine,
hygiene and healing (literally, "all healing") respectively. Two of the sons
of Asclepius appeared in Homer's Iliad as physicians in the Greek army (Machaon
The classic Hippocratice Oath is sworn "by Apollo the physician, by
Æsculapius, Hygeia, and Panacea"
In ancient times infection by parasitic worms was common. The filarial worm
Dracunculus medinensis aka "the fiery serpent", aka "the dragon of Medina"
aka "the guinea worm" crawled around the victim's body, just under the skin.
Physicians treated this infection by cutting a slit in the patient's skin,
just in front of the worm's path. As the worm crawled out the cut, the
physician carefully wound the pest around a stick until the entire animal
had been removed. It is believed that because this type of infection was so
common, physicians advertised their services by displaying a sign with the
worm on a stick.
From the early 16th century onwards, the staff of Asclepius and the caduceus
of Hermes were widely used as printers’ marks especially as frontispieces to
pharmacopoeias in the 17th and 18th centuries. Over time the rod and serpent
(the Asclepian staff) emerged as an independent symbol of medicine.
Despite the unequivocal claim of the staff of Asclepius to represent
medicine (and healing), the caduceus, a rod with two entwined serpents
topped by a pair of wings appears to be the more popular symbol of medicine
in the United States, probably due to simple confusion between the caduceus
and the staff of Asclepius, the true symbol of medicine. Many people use the
word caduceus to mean both of these emblems.
The rod of Asclepius symbolizes the healing arts by combining the serpent,
which in shedding its skin is a symbol of rebirth and fertility, with the
staff, a symbol of authority befitting the god of Medicine. The snake
wrapped around the staff is widely claimed to be a species of rat snake,
Elaphe longissima, also known as the Aesculapian or Asclepian snake. It is
native to south eastern Europe, Asia Minor, and some central European spa
regions, apparently brought there by Romans for their healing properties.
This "snake handler" is actually the demigod Asclepios/Aesculapius, the
Greek/Roman god of medicine, a son of Apollo who was taught the healing arts
by the centaur Chiron. Asclepius served aboard Argo as ship's doctor of
Jason (in the quest for the Golden Fleece) and became so good at healing
that he could bring people back from the dead. This made the underworld
ruler (Hades) complain to Zeus, who struck Asclepius with a bolt of
lightning but decided to honor him with a place in the sky, as Ophiuchus.
The Greeks identified Asclepius with the deified Egyptian doctor Imhotep
(27th century BC).
The Rod of Asclepius, symbol of medicine, is a single snake entwined around
a stick. Originally, the symbol may have depicted the treatment of
dracunculiasis (very common in the Ancient World) in which the long
parasitic worm was traditionally extracted through the patient's skin by
wrapping it around a stick over a period of days or weeks (because a faster
procedure might break the worm).
Any symbol involving a snake would seem natural for medicine: The snake is a
symbol of renewed life out of old shed skin, the perpetual renewal of life
evoked by the ouroboros symbol (a snake feeding on its own tail). A snake
around a walking stick is also an ancient symbol of supernatural powers
which can triumph over death, like medicine can (biblically, the symbol of
Moses' divine mission was his ability to change his walking stick into a
The large Ophiuchus constellation is one of the 88 modern constellations. It
was also one of the 48 traditional constellations listed by Ptolemy. In both
systems, it's one of only 13 zodiacal constellations. By definition, a
zodiacal constellation is a constellation which is crossed by the ecliptic
(the path traced by the Sun on the celestial sphere, which is so named
because that's where solar eclipses occur).
As a path charted against the background of fixed stars, the ecliptic is a
remarkably stable line (since it's tied to the orbital motion of the Earth,
not its wobbling spin). It does not vary with the relatively rapid
precession of equinoxes (whose period is roughly 25772 years). What does
vary is the location on the ecliptic of the so-called "gamma point" (the
position of the Sun at the vernal equinox).
Ophiuchus is the only zodiacal constellation which has not given its name to
one of the 12 signs of the zodiac associated with the 12 traditional equal
subdivisions of the solar year, which form the calendar used by astrologers.
However, some modern astrologers are advocating a reformed system with
uneven zodiacal signs, where Ophiuchus has found its place...
Astrological belief systems are not proper subjects for scientific
investigation. Nevertheless, we must point out that it's a plain error to
associate Ophiuchus with the caduceus symbol (two snakes around a winged
staff) since that symbol of Hermes (messenger of the gods) is associated
with commerce, not medicine.
Ophiuchus is indeed properly associated with the Staff of Asclepius symbol
(one snake around a plain stick) the correct symbol of the medical
profession, which is mythologically tied to the Ophiuchus constellation.
In 1910, the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association issued a
resolution stating that "the true ancestral symbol of healing art is the
knotty pine and the [single] serpent of Aesculapius".