Myth of Asklepios

The bust in the waiting room and in my office is of Asklepios, the Greek god of healing. The ancient Greeks began worshipping him as long ago as 1500 BC. He was worshipped by the Greeks and Romans until about 300 to 400 BC when Christianity overtook the pagan religions of the area. The staff of Asklepios is still displayed all over the world, the one with a single snake coiled around it. It is seen on emergency vehicles, on emergency room doors, and as the logo for Blue Shield insurance companies.

Asklepios was not a human, but a mythic figure of the archetypal physician. His father was Apollo, the god of medicine and of logical reasoning. His mother was a woman. As a young boy, he was taught the art of medicine by Chiron the Centaur, who was half man and half horse. As a young man, Asklepios traveled the Greek countryside healing all those who came to him. As stories of his healing spread, thousands of people came to him for healing. He eventually became so skilled at healing, he brought a dead man back to life. Upon hearing this, Zeus, Asklepios’ grandfather, was outraged. Despite the fact that he had a god for a father, Asklepios was still half human. Zeus declared that only a god could bring back the dead. The punishment was swift and severe. Zeus threw one of his thunderbolts at Asklepios, killing him instantly. The thousands of people who had so revered Asklepios were horrified and grief-stricken. Zeus took pity on them by resurrecting Asklepios, making him a god. From that time on, the ancient Greeks went to the Temples of Asklepios for their healing.

His form of healing, unlike today’s sole focus on treating the body alone, was more holistic. People approached the Asklepian physicians with their ailments. The physicians would select those they thought would best benefit from the “cure”. After fasting, bathing, and praying, each supplicant was led to a sleeping chamber adjacent to the temple. The supplicants slept the night there, awaiting a dream in which Asklepios, with his staff and snake, appeared to heal them. Asklepios had three animal forms: the snake, dog, and rooster. The appearance of any of these three animals in the dreams was assumed to be Asklepios. The next day, the physicians listened to the dreams of the patients. Either the
patients were healed by their sacred encounters with Asklepios in the dream, or they were given instructions for their healing by Asklepios. The physicians interpreted the dreams so that the patients could understand what their healing would entail if they hadn’t already been healed. Payment of the physicians was often made in the form of a rooster.

On the Peloponnesian peninsula of Greece, near Corinth and Sparta, is the city of Epidauros. Here is found the remains of the largest Asklepian Temple in all of Greece. In the museum, there are testimonials from ancient times of profound healings that occurred then. Accounts of the disappearance of tumors, chronic pain conditions, infections, infertility, and other ailments are written on stone tablets. One can also see the surgical instruments that were sometimes used.

Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, was an Asklepian physician. His astute observations and reasoning (Apollonian traits) led him to develop the idea that illnesses may have their roots in poor nutrition, bad lifestyle habits, and mind/body imbalances. It was Hippocrates who formally created the concept of disease states with specific signs and symptoms. This central concept still serves as fundamental to modern medicine’s approach to healing. Hippocrates said “Food is your medicine”. This important idea is celebrated by modern schools of Naturopathy, which place great value on proper diet and the use of dietary supplements. Some chronic pain conditions, such as migraine headaches and chronic inflammation, can be ameliorated by the avoidance of aggravating foods and the use of healthy foods and supplements.

Finally, the great importance the ancient Greeks gave to dream healing is recapitulated in modern depth psychology established by Freud and Jung. Mind/body healing methods, such as hypnosis, guided imagery, meditation, and yoga, all can be viewed as expressing the ideals of Asklepian healing. The use of prayer on the preparations for healing and for the invocation of the god demonstrate the spiritual basis for healing that the Greeks fully embraced. Prayer still has a valuable place in modern times as well. The myth of Asklepios, the survival of his staff as a modern symbol of healing, and his ancient healing traditions continue to have relevance today for integrative, holistic healers and modern physicians alike.