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Greek Gods and Goddess: Aesculapius

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The worship of Aesculapius [at least under that name] was first established in Egypt, the fruitful parent of all varieties of superstition. The name is derived from the Oriental languages. Eusebius speaks of an Asclepios, or Aesculapius, an Egyptian, and a famous physician. He is well known as the God of the art of healing, and his Egyptian or Phoenician origin. Rev. Taylor. “Being honoured as a god in Phoenicia and Egypt, his worship passed into Greece, and was established first at Epidaurus, a city of Peloponnesus, bordering on the sea; where probably some colonies first settled: a circumstance sufficient to induce the Greeks to give out that this god was a native of Greece.” [Bell’s Pantheon, p. 27.]

The pass-over

So the Greeks adopted this god of Medicine into their pantheon as a son of Apollo, by either Coronis, or an Arsinoe daughter of Leucippus, Asclepius represents the healing aspect of all the medical arts; but the Greeks parcelled out his various functions by having him marry Epione, [soothing of pain] by whom he five daughters are Hygieia -“Hygiene”, the goddess and personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation, Iaso, the goddess of recuperation from illness, Aceso, the goddess of the healing process, Aglaea or Aegle, the goddess of the glow of good health, and Panacea, the goddess of universal remedy; and three sons, Machaon, Podaleirios (Podalirius), who were skilled surgeons and healers, and took part in the Trojan war, only Podaleirios survived it and Telesphorus, who was depicted as a dwarf, he represented ‘recovery from illness and often accompanied his sister Hegieia, but it is thought Telesphorus was originally a Celtic deity (see all these figures in SV, Encyclo, for more information). He shared with his father the epithet Paean “the Healer”. The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, remains a symbol of medicine today, and was the same as the staff that Moses made to cure snakebites, while the Hebrews were in the desert. Those physicians and attendants who served this god were known as Therapeutae of Asclepius. It is said that in return for some kindness rendered by Asclepius, a snake licked Asclepius's ears clean and taught him secret knowledge (to the Greeks snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection). The same thing, is recorded in the myths of various gods, it is even reported that Herakles- Hercules, had his ears licked by the snakes apparently sent to kill him, but they may have had another purpose in mind for Hercules was famed for his ability to converse with animals especially birds.

[I am of the opinion that it highly unlikely that Arsinoe was the wife of Aesculapius, her name signifies ‘male minded’, a character of that name is said to be one of the daughters of Minyas, she with her sisters is driven mad by Dionysus and later changed into a bird, another a daughter of Phegeus, cursed her father and brothers to die before the full moon after they killed her husband, and another purposely let her own son be killed in place of Orestes. Coronis is much the better match?


Coronis is said to signify crow or raven, but Coronis in the heavens is the ring of fire, or Berenices hair, which sits above Virgo, thus also associated with the Moon, thus Isis, and Mother of the saviour, Horus, Jesus, Aesculapius all birds of a feather. At Rome he was ‘Lord,’ 'Saviour, 'King,’ and 'Friend of Man,’ and what else should a god of healing be? Apollo cursed the crow, burned Coronis to death for illegitimate affair with Ischys, and claimed Aesculapius as his own son, then Cheiron taught him the art of healing. Oddly Aesculapius is reported to have had a fellow sibling, called Eriopis - ‘with lovely hair’ nothing more is said but surely it can only be the famed golden locks of Berenieces hair, the Coronis itself?

Embraced by Rome

Asclepius was eventually brought to Rome under this Latinized name. During the severe pestilence of 293BC., which had afflicted the city and country with prodigious mortality, the Sibylline Books had been construed as directing that Asclepius must be brought from Epidaurus, but; - It was believed that “Aesculapius was so expert in medicine, as not only to cure the sick, but even to raise the dead.” Ovid says he did this by Hyppolitus (and Julius says the same of Tyndarus); that Pluto cited him before the tribunal of Jupiter, and complained that his empire was considerably diminished, and in danger of becoming desolate, from the cures performed by Aesculapius; so that Jupiter, in wrath, slew him with a thunderbolt. Within a short time after his death, he was deified, and received divine honours. His worship was first established at Epidaurus, and soon after propagated throughout all Greece. The cock and serpent, were especially consecrated to him, and his divinity was recognized and honoured in the last words of the dying Socrates, “Remember that we owe a cock to Aesculapius.” At a time when the Romans were infested with the plague, having consulted their sacred books, they learned that, in order to be delivered from it, they were to go in quest of Aesculapius at Epidaurus; accordingly, an embassy was appointed of ten senators, at the head of whom was Qaintus Ogulnius; and the worship of Aesculapius was established at Rome, in 288BC, long before Christ. But the most remarkable coincidence is, that the worship of this god continued with scarcely diminished splendour, even for several hundred years after the establishment of Christianity. We have the best and most rationally attested account of a cure brought about by the influence of imagination in connection with his name, as late as the year 485AD.


[Epidaurus was independent of Argos and not included in Argolis until the time of the Romans. With its supporting territory, it formed the small territory called Epidauria. Reputed to be founded by or named for the Argolid Epidaurus, and to be the birthplace of Apollo’s son Asclepius, Epidaurus was known for its sanctuary situated about five miles from the town; the asclepeion at Epidaurus was the most celebrated healing centre of the Classical world, the place where ill people went in the hope of being cured. To find out the right cure for their ailments, they spent a night in the enkoimeteria, a big sleeping hall, which sleep was called incubation. In their dreams, the god himself would advise them what they had to do to regain their health. Within the sanctuary there was a guest house with 160 guestrooms.]

but the Consuls, being then fully occupied with a war, postponed the matter, ordering instead a supplication for one day and prayers to Asclepius, so that it was not until the following year that an embassy, headed by Qaintus Ogulnius, was sent to invite the deity in the form of a statue to Rome.

Aesculapius finally reaches Rome

Ovid relates that the embassy, on consulting the oracle at Delphi, were informed that Apollo was not needed to diminish the grief of the city, but that they should go to Epidaurus and with a good omen invite his son. This was done, but the priests hesitating to comply with the request, the divinity himself appeared to the commission during the night and promised to go in the form of the snake which encircled his staff. On the following day, to the surprise of the priests, the god appeared in the temple in all his serpent majesty, and descending to the beach, leaped on board the trireme, weighting it down with his great bulk and appropriating the comfortable quarters of Ogulnius. All went well until they approached the shores of Italy, when a storm arose, and the ship put into the harbour of Antium, where stood a sanctuary of Apollo. The serpent without warning left the galley to pay a visit of respect to his father, coiling himself in the top of a palm tree within the sacred precincts; and the embassy were in despair until, after three days, he came down of his own accord and again boarded the vessel, allowing it to proceed to Rome. Passing up the Tiber, the people on the banks welcomed the god and burned incense in his honour; but upon approaching the city, the serpent is said to have risen up and, resting his head against the mast, to have inspected the shores, after which, suddenly leaving the ship, he disappeared in the reeds of the Insula Tiberina. The embassy brought back the visible presence of the god, or his incarnation, “anguem in quo ipsum numen esse constabit,” the form in which it was customary to transfer the divinity in establishing a new sanctuary.

There was a legend that this Insula Tiberina had been formed by corn sown by Tarqnin in the Campus Martius (field of Mars), but which bad been cut and thrown into the river by the people and had lodged on the shallows, mounds being added later and the banks raised so that the surface was capable of sustaining buildings. The god having indicated his choice, the island, sometimes called the ‘Island of the Epidaurian serpent’ or the ‘Island of Aesculapius’ was selected as the site of his temple, which was dedicated on January 1291BC., and which contained statues of Hygieia and Telesphorus. In commemoration of the event, the festival of Aesculapius was fixed for that day, and subsequently, in 196BC., temples were built on the island, in compliance with vows, in honour of Jupiter (or Yeiovis) and Faunus. In 171BC., Lucretius decorated the Aesculapium with pictures taken in Greece as spoils of war, and toward the end of the Republic the island, which was about one thousand feet long by three hundred wide and reached by two bridges, the Ponte Cestio from the Ianiculum, and the Ponte Fabricio from the Campus Martius (LN., field of Mars), was made into the shape of a boat to celebrate the trireme which had brought the god to Rome, travertine blocks being placed for the prow and stern, while in Imperial times an obelisk in the shape of a mast stood in the centre of the island. Plutarch, who called it the ‘Sacred Island,’ said that it contained “temples of the gods and porticoes” and it is believed that practically all of it was devoted to the sick. Aesculapius had another temple in Rome believed to have been in connection with the baths of Diocletian.

Apollo displaced

The old di indigetes who had been displaced by Apollo were pushed still further into the background by the coming of Aesculapius, and even Apollo took second rank as an averter of disease. Nevertheless, writers of the later years of the Republic have little to say concerning Aesculapius and his cult, and it is believed that it played a modest part in the religion of this period. Those who appealed to the god were, for the most part, the humbler class of citizens who did not care to pay much (or could not) and the slaves. Many masters sought to escape the burden of slaves who had protracted illnesses by sending them to Aesculapius and then neglecting them; and this became such an abuse that a law was passed which freed all slaves who recovered after being sent to the sanctuary.

During the last centuries of the Republic, several foreign deities with healing cults came to Rome, where they assumed the name and attributes of Aesculapius; but his worship was the first to be derived from Greece and was the only genuine Greek foundation in the capital enjoying the authority of the Sibylline Books. From the moment of his arrival the god had been the divine protector of the city against pestilence and had applied his therapeutic powers to the individual, whence the Epidaurian Aesculapius had precedence and official recognition, and, continuing to be distinguished above all others claiming his name, he retained throughout his supremacy as a healer.

Asklepiads, or physician-priests, from Epidaurus accompanied the deity to Rome, where their habit of cultic secrecy, combined with the rule which forbade Romans to become priests of foreign worships, was conducive to the continuance of their rites unchanged. They brought the sacred serpents, non-venomous snakes which were allowed to wander as they pleased in the building, and dogs with them which were allowed to lick the wounds, so that the cultic practices were the same as in Greece, consisting of ritual purification and fasting, prayers, sacrifice, incubation, magic formulas, and the use of rational remedial measures with a general hygienic regimen. There remains no direct evidence of the use of incubation during the earlier centuries of the cult in Rome, but there can be no doubt that it was practiced there as in Greece, especially since prophetic oracles and divinely inspired dreams were known in the worship of the old native gods and could not fail to have been used at the Aesculapium, though positive evidence comes only with the Flavian period.

The Romans, susceptible to the marvellous, craved miracles, and cures suggestive of such wondrous powers of the divinity were freely noised abroad. In the eyes of the people Aesculapius possessed not only the mystic powers of a healer, but also of a preserver, saving in battle, protecting from murder and shipwreck, and finding lost articles. There was a general belief in the healing power of the hand and the sacredness of the altar, and the laying-on of hands was a common practice, as when the hand of a divinity wiped the pest away from the children of Valerius Maximus. The ‘Maffeian Inscriptions’ of the Insula Tiberina relate cures effected by applying the directions or oracles given in dreams - they were theurgic in character, and symbolic magic was associated with the chthonic ritual. The dreams and the visions of the nocturnal visitations of the god were interpreted by official coniectores as divine directions for means of cure by internal and external remedies, diet, regimen, and other methods common to the period; but although surgery was practiced by the lay practitioners of the city, as proved by surgical instruments and appliances of iron and bronze, some beautifully inlaid with silver, now deposited in museums, there is little evidence of its use at the Aesculapium.

Patients leaving the Aesculapium were required to pay when able, and many left donaria in gratitude for services, these being hung on the walls of the sanctuary. Along the approaches to the island were shops for the sale of votive offerings which have been disclosed by modern excavations on the embankment of the river at this point and found to contain large numbers of tokens – images, tablets, portraits, and anatomical models in bronze or terra-cotta. Some are of heroic size, others show a correct anatomy, and still others illustrate diseased conditions, these specimens being of almost every part of the human body, occasionally presenting sections of the trunk and internal organs, while a group of father, mother, and child suggests a thank offering for relief of sterility.

The Christian Era

Beginning with the Christian era, the cult of Aesculapius appears to have attracted a greater amount of attention, and from the better classes of Home, so that after the first century AD. it steadily gained influence until the time of Antoninus Pius, when there was a definite revival of interest in it. This Emperor caused a coin to be struck and inscribed to Aesculapius, commemorating the legend of his arrival in Rome and showing the serpent-god springing to the island with the river-deity Tiberinus half-rising from the water to receive him. From an inscription, it is learned that during the reign of Antoninus there was a college of Aesculapius and Health, composed of individuals who assembled on a certain day of the year, made sacrifices, received small gifts, and partook of a meal. The members were limited to sixty and sons succeeded to their fathers. The Aesculapium on the Insula Tiberina was probably more like a general public hospital than a sanctuary that would attract the better classes, and many of the wealthier people who desired the aid of the divinity besought him at other shrines. Herodian, the historian, relates that the Emperor Caracalla visited the shrine of Asclepius at Pergamon to obtain a cure by means of incubation, and the Emperor Julian asserted that Aesculapius, by indicating remedies, had repeatedly cured him of his maladies. Epidaurus became popular with the Romans and Antoninus improved the place, erecting a temple to the Epidotai, the 'benevolent gods,’ and building, just outside the sacred precinct, a refuge for lying-in women and the dying. Thus, Aesculapius eventually gained the confidence and veneration of the Roman people, who regarded him as the most beneficent of all gods, and he retained his pre-eminence as a divine healer until the pagan worships were suppressed, proving one of the most stubborn obstacles to Christianity. The Emperor Julian endeavoured to continue the cult, and Libanios praised Aesculapius; while at Rome he was ‘Lord,’ 'Saviour, 'King,’ and 'Friend of Man,’ and efforts were made to have his manifestations, marvels, and oracles prevail against the Christians. Not surprisingly as all such titles that were pinned onto Jesus had been long before given to many gods [LN., Both Bacchus, and Jupiter also, was distinguished by the epithet Our Saviour. Sir John Marsham had a coin of the Thasions on which was the inscription [… GK …], of Hercules the Saviour. -Bryant's Annot. vol. 2, p. 406. 195.] [LN., and J.H. Hill, in his ‘Astral worship’ relates the history of the Nile markers, If the water should rise to the designated height, it was called “the waters of life,” or “river of life;” and, ultimately, this form of the cross was adopted as the symbol of the life to come, or eternal life; and the ancient astrologers had it engraved upon stone, encircled with a hieroglyphical inscription to that effect, one of which was discovered in the ruins of the temple erected at Alexandria, and dedicated to “our Lord and Saviour Serapis.”

But, if the water failed to rise to the required height, and the horrors of starvation becoming the inevitable result, it was the custom of the people to nail to these cross’s symbolical personifications of the Demon of Famine. To indicate the sterility of the domain over which he reigned, he was represented by the figure of a lean and haggard man, with a crown of thorns upon his head; a reed cut from the river's bank was placed in his hands, as his unreal sceptre; and, considering the inhabitants of Judea as the most slavish and mean-spirited race in their knowledge, they placarded this figure with the inscription: “This is the King of the Jews.” Thus, to the ancient Egyptians, this sign of the cross was blessed or accursed as it was represented with, or without, this figure suspended upon it. [Serapis was basically formed from Osiris and Apis, but combined theirs and the attributes of Dionysus, he held a sceptre and a serpent at his feet, he and his temple in Babylon were consulted in the dying days of Alexandra the Great.]]

The Aesculapium on the Insula Tiberina was always the centre from which the propaganda of the cult spread until Aesculapius was recognized throughout the Roman world as a divine physician, devoted only to the physical welfare of suffering humanity. In this expansion throughout the Latin provinces the divinity was worshipped separately, frequently as the Greek Asclepios, once as ‘Deus Salutifer,’ and also with other deities; with Apollo, and sometimes with Hygieia, usually called Salus, Dea Salus, or Valetudo, and also ‘Bonse Valetudo sacrum’ and ‘Bonse Dete Hygiad.’ From Northern Africa to Caledonia, from the coast of Lusitania to the Black Sea and Syria, Aesculapius and Hygieia were invoked to conserve and re-establish health, and were usually represented in the familiar forms of Graeco-Roman art. In the larger part of the provinces their worship was in or near camps and their cult partook of a military character, while in Syria, Spain, and Britain votive inscriptions have been found in which he appears as a Roman officer. At Carthage, the temple that crowned Byrsa hill was ascribed to Aesculapius during the Empire, but doubtless it was dedicated to the Punic Eshmun, with whom the divinity was frequently confused?


Damascius, around 458 to 538? Was a pagan philosopher, stated that Asclepius in Beirut is neither a Greek or Egyptian, but some native Phoenician deity. For to Sadyk were born children who are interpreted as Dioscuri and Cabreiri; and in addition to these was born an eighth son, Esmunus, who is interpreted as Asclepius. Photois/Photius of Constantinople tells us that Asclepius of Beirut was fond of hunting and was harassed so much by a goddess Astronoe (Ashtart, Astarte, Ashtoreth, Astoreth,) that he castrated himself and died, but she named him Paeon=healer and restored him to life and made him a god. This has probably why the name Arsinoe was suggested for the wife of Aesculapius by the Greeks. A gold plaque showing Eshmun holding a snake entwined staff next to Hygieia, was found near a temple in Sidon and a coin of the Beirut c, 3rd century shows Eshmun standing between to snakes, I find just such a figure in Kircher’s Egyptian planisphere of the southern constellations straddling the signs of Virgo and Libra, and no doubt it represents the Snaketammer, or Snake charmer, Greek, Opheltes (benefactor) as Ophiuchus Vel Serpentarius, the serpent holder, who was associated with Aesculapius; king James the 1st described him as “a medicener after made a god,” but as Eshmun was a god of healing I think it is most likely that Eshmun and Asclepois and Aesculapius, were personifications of the same god.

Aesculapius almost archives domination of the western world? 

Aesculapius was also connected with many medicinal springs in the provinces, and inscriptions show that he was syncretized with local deities and associated with many Nymphs, who, presiding over springs having medicinal properties, were given appropriate epithets, ‘Medicse,’ ‘Salutares’ and ‘Salutifera’, and votive tablets with inscriptions have been found in Gaul, Britain, Spain, and the Danube provinces, showing that they were venerated and held in high esteem. Roman altars and other remains of the cult of Aesculapius and Hygieia have been uncovered in many provinces. In England the following relics have been unearthed: an elaborately carved altar to Aesculapius and Salus at Chester; a hooded figure of Telesphoros at Birdoswald in Cumberland [now known as Birdoswald Roman fort, is towards the western end of Hadrian’s Wall, is one of the best examples of persevered Roman forts, called Banna in Latin= spur, or tongue,]; two hooded figures of Telesphoros from the Castle Yard at Carlisle; sculptured figures of Aesculapius and Salus at Binchester. [Binchester is a small village in county Duram, but nearby is Binchester Roman Fort, called Vinovia or Vinovium]; an altar dedicated to Asclepius and Hygeia at Tunstall; and minor evidences at Lancaster. From its first occupancy by Aesculapius until the present day, upwards of twenty-two centuries, the Insula Tiberina has been an Insula Sacra for the sick at Rome.

In AD. 1000 Emperor Otho erected a hospital on the foundations of the ancient temple, and from that time the island and hospital have borne the name San Bartolomeo.

What is said to be the old Aesculapian well is a prominent feature of the altar-steps of the present church, first erected in the twelfth century and rebuilt in the seventeenth. About 120 feet deep, it has a circular curb of white marble carved with images of saints, and the Romans still use its waters for their medicinal properties. Excavations on the island in 1867 exposed layers of travertine rock which formed the prow of the island boat and disclosed the remains of a human bust and the symbols of the god, his staff and serpent, carved on the rock; but these characteristic old relics were later covered by the mud and shifting sands of the river.

Comment by Rev. Robert Taylor

With respect to the miracles ascribed to Aesculapius, and continuing to be performed for so many ages by the efficacy of faith in his name, and in answer to prayers offered up in his temple; the power and influence of imagination, in producing changes in the animal economy to an indefinite extent, is well known to physicians; and, without intending any injurious imposture, the most benevolent and intelligent medical men at this day avail themselves of the patient’s superstition, to aid and second the operations of medicine. A strongly excited expectation of relief will often produce such an improved tone of muscular action, and such a more vigorous flow of the animal spirits, as will be sufficient to throw off the obstructions in which the disease originated, and thus effect many extraordinary and otherwise unaccountable cures. A medical friend once succeeded in curing a poor man of chronic rheumatism, after he had followed the prescriptions of the ablest physicians without receiving the least benefit, by working upon his imagination to make sure of receiving a cure by taking seven teaspoonfuls of the decoction of a brickbat that should be found in a churchyard, the brickbat to be boiled for seven hours, in seven quarts of water; the essential conditions of the miracle being that its efficacy was not to be doubted; and the whole process to be kept an inviolable secret. This prescription he affected to translate out of the spider-leg text of a Greek folio. The cure was perfect. The primitive Christians were content never to call in question the miracles pretended by their Pagan adversaries, so they could get their own similar pretensions recognised. Their argument was one that was well contrived to evade all possibility of being determined: the, Pagan miracles were wrought by the power of demons, while theirs were to be ascribed to the True God.

Justin Martyr, in his Apology for the Christian Religion, addressed to the emperor Hadrian, seems to seek rather an excuse for the Christian miracles, than to consider them as resting on any grounds of evidence: - “As to our Jesus curing the lame, and the paralytic, and such as were cripples from their birth, this is little more than what you say of your Aesculapius.” [LN., Read more discussion on Aesculapius in chapter 20, of the works by Rev. Robert Taylor, ‘Aesculapius Jesus Christ’ in SV.]


Aesculapius was definitely a personification of the Egyptian gods Osiris and Horus, and others before them, who became ultimately Jesus, the king, healer, Lord, friend of mankind, that is why it was so hard for the churches to destroy his cults, just like Jesus he had captured the hearts and hopes of the entire western world?