Sunday, 19 April 2020

Aesculapius – God of Medicine

"A sick child brought into the temple of Aesculapius" by Waterhouse (1877)
Mythological origins of Aesculapius
In the Roman tradition Aesculapius is the God of medicine. Myth proclaims him as the son of the God of healing (Apollo); the father of the Goddess of good health (Salus);* a favourite of the Goddess of skilfulness (Minerva, who gifted him the blood of Medusa, which could restore the dead to life), and as a child he was said to have been a student of Chiron – a centaur renowned for his wisdom and skill as a doctor. There are a number of stories associated with Aesculapius, most of them Greek in origin, like the God himself. In The Nature of the Gods Cicero (1st century BC) tells us:
“As for the sundry figures called Aesculapius, the first is the son of Apollo and is worshipped by the Arcadians; he is said to have invented the probe, and to have been the first to use splints for healing. The second is that [he is] the brother of Mercury mark two. The story goes that he was struck by lightning, and that he is buried at Cynosura. The third, the son of Arsippus and Arsinoe, was reportedly a pioneer in the application of purgatives and the extraction of teeth. His tomb and grove are open to inspection in Arcadia [3.57]”.
In the same work Cicero informs us that Aesculapius was not born to Godhead, but was one of those “men who conferred outstanding benefits [and so] were translated to heaven through their fame and our gratitude … These men were duly regarded as Gods because their souls survived to enjoy eternal life, for they were both outstandingly good and immortal”. Other examples of men who became Gods include Hercules, Liber, Romulus and the brothers Castor and Pollux (Cicero, 2.62). The most popular story of the apotheosis of Aesculapius describes how he brought back to life Hippolytus, who had been killed in a chariot crash; Jupiter then struck Aesculapius dead in retaliation for disrupting the natural order.
“Hippolytus, after [being] … torn apart by stampeding horses … came again to the heavenly stars, and the upper air beneath the sky, recalled by Apollo’s herbs and Diana’s love. Then the all-powerful father, indignant that any mortal should rise from the shadows to the light of life, hurled Aesculapius, Apollo’s son, the discoverer of such skill and healing, down to the Stygian waves [Virgil, The Aeneid, 7.641-782]”.
Subsequently, Aesculapius became both a God and a constellation, the Ophiouchos – which literally means “serpent bearer”. Snakes are part of the origin myth surrounding medicine, as Ovid describes in his version of the story above.
“[Hippolytus] had given up his life, much to Diana’s outrage. ‘There’s no reason for grief’ says the son of Coronis [ie, Aesculapius] ‘for I shall give back life without wound to the dutiful young man, and the grim Fates will yield to my skill’. At once he brings out herbs from ivory boxes, they had been of use before to the Manes [ghost] of Glaucus [a prince of Crete], at the time when the augur resorted to herbs he had observed, and a snake used help given by a snake [the augur Polyidus witnessed a snake bring another snake back to life after giving it a certain herb]. Three times he touched his chest, three times he said healing words. The young man [Hippolytus] lifted his head from the ground where it lay [Ovid, Fasti, 21 June]”.
It is also the case that snakes were a symbol of renewal in classical antiquity, and thus fittingly sacred to Aesculapius (Shelton at 367).

Aesculapius’ cult in Rome
The cult of Aesculapius was officially brought to Rome in the 290s BCE. Livy (1st century CE) gives us the background:
“a plague … devastated both the city and the countryside. It was now a calamity more like a portent, and the [Sibylline] books were consulted to discover what end or remedy the Gods might offer for the misfortune. The advice discovered in the books was that Aesculapius should be summoned to Rome from Epidaurus [the centre of his cult in Greece]; but nothing was done about it in that year because the consuls were engaged with … war, except that a one-day supplicatio [collective prayer performed on behalf of the citizen body] to Aesculapius was held [Livy, cited in Warrior at 87]”.
An anonymous historian (possibly Aurelius Victor) from around the 4th century CE continues the story:
“Because of a plague, and on the advice of the Sibylline books, the Romans sent ten envoys under the command of Quintus Ogulnius to bring Aesculapius from Epidaurus. When they had arrived at Epidaurus and were admiring the huge statue of the God, a snake, which inspired respect rather than terror, slithered out of the temple, and to the amazement of all headed right through the middle of the city to the Roman ship were it coiled up in Ogulnius’ cabin … When the ship was sailing up the Tiber, carrying the snake to Rome, the snake jumped onto an island. A temple was built there and the plague subsided with remarkable speed [A Book about Famous Men (anonymous), cited in Shelton at 367-8]”.
Contemporary French scholar Robert Turcan describes what we believe went on in the Roman sanctuary of Aesculapius.
“… people would come to sleep in order to receive the God’s instructions in their dreams – a typically Greek procedure. This ‘incubation’ was performed under porticoes set up near the temple to receive the sick. Aesculapius was thanked with ex-voto offerings, found in their hundreds near the Fabrician bridge … They were of terracotta, marble, bronze, silver or even gold, depending on the means of the faithful whose prayers had been granted, but chiefly of clay, the majority of the clientele of the island in the Tiber being of humble estate. There were feet, hands, breasts, intestines, viscera in an open torso, genital organs, eyes, ears, mouths … Above all, it was necessary to demonstrate gratitude by way of an inscribed tablet bearing the account of the miraculous treatment. Sometimes several edifying cures were grouped into one detailed report: 
‘At that time, the God gave an oracle to a blind man … he was to go to the sacred altar, prostrate himself before it, next go from right to left and place his five fingers on the altar; he must then take his hand away and put it on his eyes. And he saw, in the presence of the crowd, who congratulated him …' 
'Lucius suffered from a pain in his side. And he was cured, and publicly gave thanks to the God, and the crowd congratulated him.' 
'Julianus was losing blood; everyone despaired for him. The God gave him an oracle: he was to come and take some pine cones from the altar, and eat them mixed with honey for a period of three days. And he was cured, and publicly gave thanks to the God before the crowd’ [at 107-108]”.
It is also known that, in emulation of the original cult in Greece, the priests kept snakes and dogs (Beard et al at 69). Fittingly, the sanctuary of Aesculapius was located outside the pomerium, which marked the religious perimeter of Rome, for by tradition the worship of foreign Gods should not occur within the sacred boundary (Beard et al 1 at 180). Just how foreign the worship of Aesculapius really was, at least at first, to the Romans is unclear.
“The Latin form of the God’s name may well have been established before the 290s BC, or at least it derives from an older form of the Greek name, given the extent of Roman contact with Greece in the archaic period, this may suggest that the God, as well as the rituals associated with him, was known to the Romans already [Beard et al at 69-70]”.
Moreover, archeological findings suggest that rites that we know were associated with Aesculapius were being practiced around a hundred years earlier than when his cult was officially brought to Rome.
“Several sites have now produced substantial deposits of votive offerings dating back to at least the fourth century BC, which consist of primarily small terracotta models of parts of the human body; this suggests that there were a number of sanctuaries soon after the beginning of the Republic to which individuals went when seeking cures for their diseases: at these sanctuaries they presumably dedicated terracottas of the afflicted part. This implies … that individuals turned to the Gods directly in search of support with their everyday problems of health and disease [Beard et al at 12-13]”.
We can assume the worship of Aesculapius was completely normalised by the 1st century BCE / CE as Ovid mentions the foundation date of Aesculapius' temple in his Fasti:
“… on this day the Fathers dedicated two temples. The island the river hems in with divided waters received the son of Phoebus [Apollo] and the nymph Coronis [ie, Aesculapius]. Jupiter has a share: one place took them both, and the temple of the grandson is joined to that of his mighty grandfather [Ovid, Fasti, 1 January]”.
“Augustus’ private physician, Antonius Musa, who had pulled him through a serious illness [in 23 BCE], was honoured with a statue, brought by public inscription and set up beside Aesculapius [Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, 2.59]”.
By the mid 1st century CE the sanctuary of Aesculapius in Rome was so well known that:
“Finding that a number of sick or worn-out slaves had been abandoned by their owners on the Island of Aesculapius, to avoid the trouble of giving them proper medical attention, Claudius freed them all and ruled that none who got well again should return to the control of his former owner; furthermore, that any owner who made away with a sick slave for the same mean reason should be charged with murder [Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, 5.25]”.
As the Roman empire expanded so too did the veneration of Aesculapius. For example, in the 2nd century CE Apuleius, a native of the Roman province of Numidia, was known to have been a devotee of Aesculapius; and in the 3rd century Diocletian’s newly built palace in the province of Dalmatia included a temple to the God (Kamm at 166).

In Roman religion Aesculapius is the God of medicine, associated with overcoming ill health through the use of “artful remedies” and “strong herbs” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 15.623-5). A white cockerel was the usual sacrificial animal used in his rites (Scheid at 81), and supplicants would stay overnight in his temples in the hope of receiving his instructions for divine remedies via their dreams. When they successfully overcame their ailments they would typically thank Aesculapius by, inter alia, offering a representation of the bodily part so cured. But while Aesculapius was indeed regarded as a patron God of doctors (Scheid at 155) it would be remiss to suggest that all Romans accepted the magical approach to medicine that the cult surrounding Aesculapius sometimes implied. Cicero gives voice to skepticism in his On Divination:
“What would be the sense in the sick seeking relief from an interpreter of dreams rather than from a physician? Or do you think that Aesculapius and Serapis [a Greco-Egyptian deity associated with healing] have the power to prescribe a cure for our bodily ills through the medium of a dream … or think you that though Minerva will prescribe physic in a dream without the aid of a physician, yet that the Muses will not employ dreams to impart a knowledge of reading, writing, and of other arts? If knowledge of a remedy for disease were conveyed by means of dreams, knowledge of the arts just mentioned would also be given by dreams. But since knowledge of these arts is not so conveyed neither is the knowledge of medicine. The theory that the medical art was imparted by means of dreams having been disproved, the basis of a belief in dreams is utterly destroyed [2.59]”.
In On the Nature of the Gods Cicero makes the case even more plainly:
“When I see a host of sick people restored to health I do not regard Aesculapius as their benefactor, but Hippocrates [3.91]”.
Hippocrates was an ancient Greek physician traditionally regarded as the father of medicine. However, many Romans seemed to have doubted the efficacy of mortal doctors too. In the 1st century CE the poet Martial joked that:
“You are now a gladiator, although until recently you were an ophthalmologist. You did the same thing as a doctor that you now do as a gladiator [Martial, Epigrams, cited in Shelton at 89]”.
Pliny the Elder (1st century CE) laid bare the situation:
“Of all the Greek sciences, only medicine has not yet gained wide interest among us sober and serious-minded Romans. Very few of our citizens are attracted even by its considerable monetary rewards, and those who are immediately begin to act like Greeks. In fact, medical writers, unless they write in Greek, are not accepted as authorities even by the ignorant … people tend to trust advice about their own health less if they understand the language in which it is spoken. Medicine is the only profession, by Jove, where any man off the street gains our immediate trust if he professes to be a doctor; and yet surely no lie could be more dangerous. But we don’t worry about that; each one of us is lulled by the sweet hope of being healed. And we don’t even have laws against the ignorance which endangers our lives. Doctors risk our lives while they are learning; their experiments lead to deaths; and yet for doctors, and only doctors, there is no penalty for killing a man. In fact, they pass on the blame, reproach the deceased for his lack of moderation and his self-indulgence [Pliny the Elder, Natural History, cited in Shelton at 89]”.
In such an environment I think I would rather rely on dreams sent from Aesculapius.

"Temple of Aesculapius at pond in the Villa Borghese" Artist unknown (18th century)
* As well as others.


Beard, North and Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History, Cambridge
Cicero, On Divination,
Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, Oxford World's Classics
Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Penguin Reference
Kamm, The Romans: An Introduction, Routledge 
Ovid, Fasti, Oxford World's Classics (directly quoted above)
Ovid, Fasti, Penguin Classics 
Ovid, Metamorphoses, Norton
Scheid, An Introduction to Roman Religion, Indiana University Press
Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History, Oxford
Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Penguin Classics
Turcan, The Gods of Ancient Rome, Routledge
Virgil, The Aeneid, 
Warrior, Roman Religion: A Sourcebook, Focus

Written by M' Sentia Figula (aka Freki), find me at neo polytheist and

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