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.
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 )
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.
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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 )
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 )
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.
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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
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Available at: https://www.ancient-symbols.com/symbols-directory/rod_of_ascilepius.html
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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