Asclepius was a Greek hero not for bravery in the battlefront but for slaying the monsters of disease and illness. He was their God of Healing Arts, physician extraordinaire.
Asclepius was the son of Apollo and Coronis. When Apollo suspected his wife of being unfaithful he killed her. When he realised that she was pregnant, he cut open her belly and took out the child. Caeserian in olden times!
That son was Asclepius. The motherless child was given to Chiron, one of the wisest centaurs, a man waist upwards and a horse otherwise. Chiron was good foster parent. He trains Asclepius in various arts. Asclepius takes a special interest to medicine and healing. That should make many Indian parents very glad.
Several cutscenes later and with mood music and slow-motion, he becomes a man and practises the craft he learnt so well. His fame spreads far and wide. He becomes more famous as a healer even above his father, Apollo and mentor Chiron. He cures many uncurable diseases. As you can imagine, Gods are watching with interest.
Someone overestimates Asclepius abilities and commands him to revive a dead person. Asclepius was put in a dungeon to come up with a solution. A snake comes in front of the brooding physician. In a moment of fury he strikes it with his rod and kills it. After sometime another snake comes in.
No, he does not hit again. Otherwise the story would be over. He sees the other snake place a herb on the dead snake. Lo and behold. It comes to life. He learns the secret of bringing people back from the dead.
All this makes people happy. When people are happy, some gods and politicians get worried. Hades, the God of the Underworld, goes complaining to Zeus that his customers — dead souls — are being robbed by Asclepius. Other Gods also feel that balance of life is getting lost. Time for Malthusian theory to kick in.
Zeus sends of his thunderbolt and kills Asclepius. As someone said when Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, ‘this comes of being too good.’
Apollo gets angry but he can’t take on Zeus, the supreme God, and he goes and kills cyclops who make thunderbolts to Zeus. But that is another story.
In images, you will see Asclepius shown carrying a rod with a snake entwined. That was the symbol, Rod of Asclepius, you will see in the middle of WHO logo. This is associated with healing and medicine.
What you might see as medical symbol of two snakes with wings is an incorrect understanding of mythology. It originated in the US in 1902. US Army medical corps was looking for a symbol and they chose one by a person who did not know Greek mythology well. That symbol they decided on belonged to Hermes, the messenger of gods and no way related to medicine. Anyway, the tradition continues to this day with Trump talking trash about WHO.
Interestingly, so many other medical organisations around the world mistakenly took the wrong symbol and used it in their logos. Europe to India to China and not just the US. What is funny is that they thought they were using a symbol with medical connotation. But the symbol they adopted was the symbol of Hermes who was the God of Commerce! Cynics would say that it was highly appropriate. A Freudian Slip!
Where is Hippocrates who is so well known as a Greek healer in of all this? Doctors are said to be bound by the Hippocratic Oath when they start practice. Only thing I remember in the oath but the most important is that it says ‘above all do not harm’ which is an excellent advice to inexperienced doctors.
Well, Hippocrates was a student in one the temples/schools of Asclepius. In fact, the oath begins with doctors reciting, I swear by Apollo, Asclepius, Hygieia, Panacea….’ invoking supreme doctors of Greek tradition.
And one last thing. Hygieia and Panacea were Asclepius’ daughters and great healers themselves. We have the hygiene form one and universal remedy from the other. He had few other children and they were great healers too. Even today we see many Indian families like that.
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All images used in the page are public domain and are from Wikimedia and used under Creative Commons Licence.