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Asclepius – a fragment of mosaic bathroom in Kyustendil, Bulgaria.

The Rod of Asclepius and Zeus’s Fear of Immortality

Asclepius was a demi-god son of Apollo who developed such incredible powers of healing under the tuition of both his father and the centaur Chiron, that even Zeus felt threatened that he might achieve immortality for mankind. His legendary abilities were such that the Rod of Asclepius symbol remains a symbol of health and medicine around the world to this day. 

Rod of Asclepius

The Rod of Asclepius (known also as the Staff of Asclepius) was a rod or staff with an entwined serpent believed to have been wielded by Asclepius, the Graeco-Roman god of healing and medicine. Whilst this object belongs to Greek mythology, it has continued to be used till this day, as a symbol of medicine and healthcare. The Rod of Asclepius is often confused with the kerukeion, the staff of the god Hermes (the Romans referred to this god as Mercury, and his staff as a caduceus). This confusion is understandable, as both staffs have serpents, though the Rod of Asclepius has one, whilst the caduceus has two, along with a pair of wings.

Rod of Asclepius symbol of healing and medicine. (CC BY-SA 3.0/CC0)

Rod of Asclepius symbol of healing and medicine. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 /CC0)

Apollo’s Illegitimate Son

According to Classical mythology, Asclepius was the god of healing and medicine. His father was the god Apollo, and his mother was Coronis. The story goes that whilst Coronis was pregnant with Asclepius, she took another lover, which angered Apollo. To punish the unfaithful Coronis, the god sent his sister, Artemis to kill her. Whilst Coronis was being cremated on the funeral pyre, Apollo took pity on their unborn son, and rescued him from the flames. In another version of the tale, Coronis abandoned the baby Asclepius near Epidaurus, where he was looked after by a goat and a dog, as she was ashamed by his illegitimacy.

From left to right: Apollo (of the Apollo Lykeios type), Chiron, and Asclepius. (Public Domain)

From left to right: Apollo (of the Apollo Lykeios type), Chiron, and Asclepius. ( Public Domain )

The Threat of Immortality

In any case, Asclepius was raised by Apollo, who taught him the art of healing. Additionally, he was tutored by Chiron, the wise centaur who inhabited Mount Pelion. Asclepius became such an accomplished healer that he was able to bring one of his patients back form the dead. This alarmed Zeus, who felt that Asclepius’ skills could potentially grant mankind immortality, which would be a threat to the gods.

Asclepius (center) arrives in Kos and is greeted by Hippocrates (left) and a citizen (right), mosaic, 2nd–3rd century AD. (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Asclepius (center) arrives in Kos and is greeted by Hippocrates (left) and a citizen (right), mosaic, 2nd–3rd century AD. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Thus, Zeus struck Asclepius down with a thunderbolt. In order to avenge the death of his son, Apollo killed the Cyclops who made this thunderbolt, and therefore was punished by Zeus to serve Admetus, a king of Pheres in Thessaly. According to the Romans, Apollo requested that Asclepius be placed amongst the stars, which was granted by Zeus, thus turning him into the constellation Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer.

Statue of Asclepius, exhibited in the Museum of Epidaurus Theatre. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Statue of Asclepius, exhibited in the Museum of Epidaurus Theatre. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Serpent and Staff

There are two main theories that provide an explanation as to why the Rod of Asclepius has a serpent entwined around it. The first of these is the so-called ‘worm theory’, which is based on a technique used to remove parasitic worms that is found in the Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical document dating around the middle of the 2 nd millennium BC. In order to treat an infection by a parasitic worm, a physician would cut a slit in the patient’s skin, just in front of the worm’s path. As the worm made its way out of the cut, the physician would wind it up around a stick, until it was removed from the patient’s body. The ‘end product’ would have resembled the Rod of Asclepius.

The other theory is of a Biblical nature. In the Old Testament, God had sent ‘fiery serpents’ to punish the Israelites who had spoken against Him and Moses. When they repented, God commanded Moses to erect a pole with a bronze serpent on it, so that all who looked upon it would not die from the bites.

Moses and the Brazen Serpent, Sebastien Bourdon, 1653-4 (Public Domain)

Moses and the Brazen Serpent, Sebastien Bourdon, 1653-4 ( Public Domain )

The Lasting Symbolism of the Rod of Asclepius

Due to its association with healing, the Rod of Asclepius has become a medical symbol, and remains as such till today. For example, the Rod of Asclepius is featured on the logo of the World Health Organisation. In addition, many pharmacies have this symbol displayed on their frontispiece.

The flag of the World Health Organization, with a rod of Asclepius. (Public Domain)

The flag of the World Health Organization, with a rod of Asclepius. ( Public Domain )

Lastly, it may be said that the Rod of Asclepius is frequently confused with the kerukeion / caduceus of Hermes / Mercury. Whilst the two staves are similar, the latter has two, instead of one serpent entwined around it. Whilst Hermes was not a god of healing, it has been claimed that his association with medicine came about due to alchemy, which included the art of healing. In more recent times, 1902, to be more exact, the caduceus was adopted as the insignia for the Medical Department of the United States Army, thus contributing to its popularity as a medical symbol today.

Top image: Asclepius – a fragment of mosaic bathroom in Kyustendil, Bulgaria. ( Public Domain )

By: Wu Mingren

References

Ancient-Symbols.com, 2018. Rod of Asclepius. [Online]
Available at: https://www.ancient-symbols.com/symbols-directory/rod_of_ascilepius.html

Blayney, K., 2015. The Caduceus vs the Staff of Asclepius (Asklepian). [Online]
Available at: http://drblayney.com/Asclepius.html

Mythologian.net, 2012. Staff/Rod of Asclepius as a Medical Symbol – The Symbol of Medicine and Its Meaning. [Online]
Available at: http://mythologian.net/staff-rod-asclepius-medical-symbol-symbol-medicine-meaning/

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018. Asclepius. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Asclepius

Comments

You do realise your referring to Minoan Wanax or Deities throughout this article?
Zeus was born and died in Crete a Wanax (current leader, held in greater esteem than even their deities, but with limited lifespan). The three of four Minoan deities relevant (the organised ones, governing cycles) relevant to this are the twins, later called Artemis and Apollo, the brings of light (SUN light and MOON light, respectively): life and death to each gender when referring to humans. They are shown sometimes releasing arrows, bring death to wild and domesticated animals respective, however, had the same function with humans by gender, ALL life. The other being mother EARTH, the so-called snake goddess is an embodiment, referring to her unmoving position about her axis: pointing towards Thuban (the ‘snake’ star and Pole) and based on an older belief system that the Egyptians, Minoans and most cultures in the region held, based upon the cycles of life, ultimately time, that theologies have wished to suppress to propagate their own doctrine.
Snakes are not all bad, the non-venomous variety being kept as pets to eat rodents, they shed their skin to be reborn, a new cycle. The Minoans keep them, possible the venomous variety too and possibly for a practical reason, for treatment of ailments. Venom slows the heart (in moderation), attack cancer in the blood/bone and can be used as an anti-venom when digested by an animal and the recipient eaten, say the liver, to become ‘immortal’ (from at least snake bites). The youthful desire recipes to remain the same being noted, what’s actually changed, ladies want to delay wrinkles (animal fat) and men don’t want to go bold, on a wider basis. Nothing, but are largely irrelevant!
Why people presume that ancients know nothing about the more important ailments is hugely misleading, people want the sick to recover and want to avoid illness themselves. They have and will do for time immoral. The ancients seem to have been quite good at addressing irrelevant and more pressing matters too: skull surgery to relieve pressure on the brain, mouldy bread to create penicillin (a known recipe), what does come through in review of the written archive is the sympathy for the patient’s afflictions, the care and importance of the precise blend of the ingredients and their preparation, the need for hygiene and explains where the Hypocritic Oath came from. They didn’t have Florence Nightingale doing the stats (if you think she was a nurse then you would be right, but you miss her genius). Or did they?
The London Medical Papyri is referring to the authority of the source, the first paragraph probably misunderstood, I doubtful it’s magic, just things others don’t understand (I read this as: I’m a practitioner of the art of Artemis (female)). Further statements refer to the priests of Apollo. I would love to read a translation in it’s entirety. Modern medicine has more to do with clinical trials to treat an ailment endlessly for economic reasons, an ancient treatment at least attempted to cure it. Which is the better? The modern practitioners have little or nothing to with a cure, that they themselves You do realise your referring to Minoan Wanax or deities throughout this article?
Zeus was born and died in Crete, likely a Wanax (current leader, held in greater esteem than even their deities, but with limited lifespan). The three of four Minoan deities relevant (the organised ones, governing cycles) relevant to this are the twins, later called Artemis and Apollo, the brings of light (SUN light and MOON light, respectively): life and death to each gender when referring to humans. They are shown sometimes releasing arrows, bring death to wild and domesticated animals respective, however, had the same function with humans by their gender and to ALL life. The other being mother EARTH, the so called snake goddess is an embodiment -referring to her unmoving position about her axis: pointing towards Thuban (the ‘snake’ star and Pole) and based on an older belief system that the Egyptians, Minoans and most cultures in the region held, based upon the cycles of life, ultimately time, that theologies have wished to suppress to propagate their own doctrine.
Snakes are not all bad, the non-venomous variety being kept as pets to eat rodents, they shed their skin to be reborn, a new cycle. The Minoans keep them, possible the venomous variety too and possibly for a practical reason, for treatment of ailments. Venom slows the heart (in moderation), attack cancer in the blood/bone and can be used as an anti-venom when digested by an animal and the recipient eaten, say the liver, to become ‘immortal’ (from at least snake bites). The youthful desire recipes to remain the same, being noted, what’s actually changed, ladies want to delay wrinkles (animal fat) and men don’t want to go bold, on a wider basis. Nothing, but are largely irrelevant!
Why people presume that ancients know nothing about the more important ailments is hugely misleading, people want the sick to recover and want to avoid illness themselves. They have and will do for time immoral. The ancients seem have been quite good at addressing irrelevant and more pressing matters too: skull surgery to relieve pressure on the brain, mouldy bread to create penicillin (a known recipe), what does come through in review of the written archive is the sympathy for the patient’s afflictions, the care and importance of the precise blend of the ingredients and their preparation, the need for hygiene and explains where the Hypocritic Oath came from. They didn’t have Florence Nightingale doing the stats (if you think she was a nurse then you would be right, but you miss her genius). Or did they?
The London Medical Papyri is referring to the authority of the source, the first paragraph probably misunderstood, I doubtful it’s majic, just things others don’t understand (I read this as: I’m a practitioner of the art of Artemis (female). Further statements refer to the priests of Apollo, that suggests practicians were assigned to their own sex. I would love to read a translation in it’s entirety! Modern medicine has more to do with endless treatment of an ailment for economic reasons, an ancient treatment at least attempted to cure it. Which is better? Another lost art.

Opps. Confined by a text box.

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