Greek Hero

Asclepius

Asclepius, son of Apollo, was the most important of the Greek hero-physicians. So skilled that he could even heal the dead, Asclepius was killed by the gods, only to ultimately become a god himself.

By Avi KapachLast updated on Nov. 20th, 2021
  • Was Asclepius a god or a hero?

    Asclepius was one of the few mortals of Greek mythology who was worshipped as both a hero and a god.

  • Who were Asclepius’ parents?

    Asclepius was usually said to have been the son of Apollo, the god of art and divination, and a mortal woman named Coronis.

  • How did Asclepius die?

    In the common tradition, Zeus killed Asclepius with a lightning bolt after he brought a dead patient back to life; by curing death, Asclepius had dangerously infringed upon the powers of the gods.

Asclepius, the son of Apollo and a mortal woman, was one of only a handful of figures in Greek mythology who was worshipped as a hero as well as a god. Like many other important mythological figures, Asclepius was not born under the best of conditions: in the common tradition, he had to be cut out of his dead mother’s womb when she was already on the funeral pyre. 

Asclepius grew up to be a renowned physician, so skilled that he even had a cure for death. But his talents (especially his ability to raise the dead) threatened the order of the cosmos, leading Zeus to kill him with a lightning bolt.

In time, the Greeks came to regard Asclepius as one of their most important gods—the god of medicine and healing. He received worship in temples and cult centers throughout the ancient Mediterranean. A benevolent god, he was thought to appear to the sick in dreams with instructions on how they could cure themselves of their ailments.

Etymology

The etymology of the name “Asclepius” (Greek Ἀσκληπιός, translit. Asklēpios) remains unknown. Some have connected it to the Hittite roots aššula(a)- (“well-being”) and pai/pi- (“to give”). Others have suggested a connection with the Greek words aiglē and aglaos, meaning “glorious” (often found in epithets of Asclepius’ father, Apollo). Finally, some have pointed out that Asclepius’ name contains elements typical of Pre-Greek names (a/ai followed by -glap- or -sklap-/schklap/b-) and may thus have been Pre-Greek in origin (Robert Beekes reconstructs the original form of the name as *(a)-sʸklap-).1

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek

    Asclepius

    Ἀσκληπιός (translit. Asklēpios)

  • Phonetic
    IPA

    [uh-SKLEE-pee-uhs]

    /əˈskli pi əs/

Alternate Names

In ancient Greece, Asclepius’ name existed in a number of different variants. The most common form was Ἀσκληπιός (Asklēpios), but other attested forms include the Doric and Aeolian Ἀσκλαπιός (Asklapios) and the Boeotian Ἀσχλαπιός or Αἰσχλαβιός (Aschlapios or Aischlabios).

In one little-known tradition, recorded by the Byzantine scholar and poet John Tzetzes, Asclepius’ name was originally Hepius and was only changed to Asclepius after he cured the Epidaurian king Ascles.2

The Romans, who adopted the worship of Asclepius relatively early, Latinized his name as Aesculapius (which remains a common alternate spelling).

Titles and Epithets

Asclepius had a large number of epithets in the ancient world, an indication of his significance as a hero and god. Some of his most important and familiar epithets include iatros (“healer”), amymōn (“peerless”), and sōtēr (“savior”). Asclepius was also sometimes addressed as paian, a distinctive title usually used to call on a god as healer (and most often associated with Asclepius’ father, Apollo).

Attributes and Iconography

As both hero and god, Asclepius represented the supreme physician. He was worshipped by the Greeks as the god of medicine and healing.

In his iconography, Asclepius was usually depicted as a mature man with a beard and long, curly hair, wearing a cloak that wrapped over one shoulder and left his broad chest exposed. He was typically shown standing, but in one of his most famous ancient representations—the chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of him from Epidaurus—he was seated on a throne.3

Asclepius statue Epidaurus reconstruction

Reconstruction showing what the chryselephantine (gold and ivory) statue of Asclepius at Epidaurus may have looked like. Drawing by Alphonse Defrasse, from Henri Lechat's Epidaure, restauration et description des principaux monuments du sanctuaire d'Asclépios (1895).

Wellcome Collection / Public Domain

Asclepius’ most important symbols or attributes were the staff and the snake. The snake was often coiled around the staff, forming the famous “Rod of Asclepius.” Occasionally, he was also represented with a dog.4

The Roman author Hyginus gives a mythical account of how Asclepius came to be associated with the snake:

When [Asclepius] was commanded to restore Glaucus, and was confined in a secret prison, while meditating what he should do, staff in hand, a snake is said to have crept on to his staff. Distracted in mind, [Asclepius] killed it, striking it again and again with his staff as it tried to flee. Later, it is said, another snake came there, bringing an herb in its mouth, and placed it on its head. When it had done this, both fled from the place. Where upon [Asclepius], using the same herb, brought Glaucus, too, back to life.5

In reality, it is more likely that the snake became Asclepius’ symbol because of the creature’s supposed healing properties. Snakes were often found in temples of Asclepius,6 and it was even said that Asclepius sometimes took the form of a serpent in his “epiphanies” (his appearances to mortals).7

Family

Asclepius’ father was Apollo, the Olympian god associated with healing, prophecy, and the arts.8 His mother, however, was less certain. According to the best-known version, Asclepius’ mother was a mortal woman from Thessaly named Coronis.9 But in other versions, she was a Messenian woman named Arsinoe.10 There was also supposedly a Phoenician version in which Asclepius was fathered by Apollo without a mother.11

Asclepius married a woman named Epione.12 Together they had several children, most of them somehow representative of their father’s role as healer: the daughters were Hygieia (“Health”), Aegle (“Splendor”), Iaso (“Healer”), Aceso (“Cure”), and Panacea (“Cure-All”),13 while the sons were Machaon and Podalirius (the army physicians of the Greeks who fought in the Trojan War).14 Asclepius was sometimes also said to have fathered a son named Aratus by another woman, Aristodama.15

Asclepius and hygieia relief

Marble relief of Asclepius and his daughter Hygieia, the personification of health. From Thermae (late 5th century BCE). Istanbul Archaeological Museums, Istanbul, Turkey.

Prioryman / CC BY-SA 3.0

Family Tree

  • Parents
    father
    mother
    • Coronis
  • Consorts
    wife
    lover
    • Epione
    • Aristodama
  • Children
    sons
    daughters
    • Machaon
    • Podalirius
    • Aratus
    • Hygieia
    • Iaso
    • Aegle
    • Aceso
    • Panacea

Mythology

Origins

The mythology of Asclepius’ origins is rather tangled. From an early date, there were two different genealogies in circulation: in one, Asclepius was the son of Apollo and Coronis, daughter of the Thessalian Phlegyas; in another, he was the son of Apollo and Arsinoe, daughter of the Messenian Leucippus. Thus, both Thessaly (in northern Greece) and Messenia (in southern Greece) laid claim to Asclepius, though the Thessalian version was probably more widely accepted.

Regardless of the genealogy, the myth of Asclepius’ birth seems to have generally been the same. Coronis (or Arsinoe) was loved by Apollo and became pregnant with Asclepius. But Coronis/Arsinoe ultimately married a mortal named Ischys. When Apollo heard about the marriage from a raven, he punished the bird for his ill tidings by turning him black. Then he (or his sister Artemis) killed Coronis/Arsinoe. 

When Coronis/Arsinoe lay upon the funeral pyre, Apollo (or his brother Hermes) saved his son by cutting open the dead girl’s womb and snatching him away. Asclepius was then raised by the wise centaur Chiron.16

birth of asclepius beneditti

Woodcut depicting the birth of Asclepius, from Alessandro Beneditti's De Re Medica (1549).

Research Gate / Public Domain

In a later version of the myth, Asclepius was again the son of Apollo and Coronis. This time, however, Coronis gave birth to the child while traveling with her father and subsequently abandoned him in the city of Epidaurus (in central Greece). There, the baby was suckled by a goat and guarded by a dog before being found and raised by a shepherd named Arethanas.17

Dadd Asclepius discovered by shepherds

The Infant Aesculapius (Asclepius) Discovered by Shepherds on a Mountain by Richard Dadd (1851).

Wellcome Collection / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Asclepius and the Art of Medicine

Asclepius grew up to become a remarkably talented physician. According to Pindar,

those who came to him afflicted with congenital sores, or with their limbs wounded by gray bronze or by a far-hurled stone, or with their bodies wasting away from summer's fire or winter's cold, he released and delivered all of them from their different pains, tending some of them with gentle incantations, others with soothing potions, or by wrapping remedies all around their limbs, and others he set right with surgery.18

Asclepius eventually became so skilled in the art of medicine that he could even cure death. According to one tradition, he was ordered to restore the life of Glaucus, the son of the powerful King Minos, and was locked up in a dungeon until he complied. 

While in the dungeon, Asclepius saw a snake and promptly killed it. Later, he spied another snake entering the dungeon carrying an herb. When this snake put the herb in the mouth of the dead snake, the deceased creature came back to life. Upon seeing this, Asclepius used the herb to bring Glaucus back from the dead.19

According to a different tradition, it was the goddess Athena who gave Asclepius what he needed to raise the dead: the blood of the Gorgon Medusa. Asclepius realized that while the blood from the left side of the monster was poisonous, the blood from the right side was a powerful panacea that could cure death.20

In some traditions, Asclepius was one of the Argonauts21 and participated in the Calydonian Boar Hunt.22

Death and Deification

Asclepius’ astonishing abilities eventually provoked the anger of the gods. By raising the dead (including Glaucus, Theseus’ son Hippolytus, and the Spartan king Tyndareus, according to various sources), Asclepius became guilty of violating the natural order of the cosmos. Fearing that there would soon be nobody left in the Underworld, Zeus killed Asclepius with a lightning bolt.23

Hippolytus saved from death tempesta 1606

Illustration of Asclepius resurrecting the dead Hippolytus by Antonio Tempesta (1606). From edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

Enraged, Asclepius’ father Apollo lashed out. He did not dare to attack the all-powerful Zeus directly, so he took out his anger on the Cyclopes (or, in some versions, their sons), who were responsible for fashioning the lightning bolt Zeus had used to strike down Asclepius.24 Zeus, in turn, punished Apollo by forcing him to become the slave of the mortal Admetus.

Asclepius, however, did not remain dead for long. Indeed, the Greeks worshipped him as a god (not just a hero), suggesting that at some point he was resurrected, made immortal, and deified.25

Worship

Asclepius was worshipped throughout the ancient Mediterranean, not only as a hero but also as a god. Generally, Greek heroes were tied to one specific location. But from an early date, Asclepius had two local myths connecting him with two locations: Tricca (in Thessaly) and Messenia. This ambiguity may have contributed to the speed at which Asclepius came to be regarded as an important god.

Temples

There were hundreds of temples of Asclepius (called Asclepiaea, or Asclepiaeon in the singular) in the ancient world. One of the oldest ones was in Tricca, regarded locally as the place where the god had been born.26 There was another impressive (but likely more recent) temple of Asclepius at Messenia, which a rival local tradition also claimed as the site of the god’s birth.27

The cult of Asclepius began rapidly expanding during the fifth century BCE. It was during this time that the two most important ancient cults of Asclepius were established on the Aegean island of Cos and in the central Greek city of Epidaurus.

Both Cos and Epidaurus boasted a great Asclepiaeon. Cos was also home to a school of physicians known as the Asclepiadae.28 Hippocrates, the most famous physician of ancient Greece, was a member.

The Asclepiaeon of Epidaurus became particularly renowned. It was surrounded by a sacred complex and a grove in which it was forbidden for anyone to die or be born.29

Temple of Asclepius, Epidaurus

Ruins of the Temple of Asclepius in Epidaurus.

Zde / CC BY-SA 4.0

The cult of Asclepius continued to spread throughout Greece, with special help from Epidaurus.30 Asclepius thus came to Sicyon,31 Aegina,32 Tegea,33 and Athens, where he was worshipped first at the harbor of the Piraeus and then, by the end of the fifth century BCE, on the slopes of the Acropolis.34

The cult also spread to other, more distant sites, including Pergamum and Smyrna in modern-day Turkey and even Italy. The Asclepiaeon of Rome, established in 293 BCE, became quite important. Suffering from a severe plague, the Romans had been instructed by an oracle to import the cult of Asclepius from Epidaurus. A great temple was built on Tiber Island after the sacred snake of Asclepius, brought by boat from Epidaurus, chose it as its new home.35

Asclepiaea temples tended to share certain features. For example, they were usually located outside of the main town, often in a valley or by the seashore.36 Like the temples of other gods, Asclepiaea also included a statue or “cult image” of Asclepius, situated in a prominent place; particularly famous was the giant chryselephantine cult image in the Asclepiaeon of Epidaurus.37 Most Asclepiaea also had a sacred snake who lived in the sanctuary, and some, like the one at Epidaurus, had a sacred dog.

The central feature of the Asclepiaea was an incubation room (called an enkoimētērion in Greek). Sick worshippers could sleep in this special room in the hope that Asclepius would appear to them and cure them, or tell them in a dream how they could cure themselves. Those who had been cured in this way would dedicate a tablet or stele in which they described how the god had helped them and gave thanks. Many such tablets still survive, detailing some remarkable illnesses and cures.38

Finally, Asclepius was frequently worshipped together with the other members of his healing family: his father Apollo, his sons Machaon and Podalirius, and his daughters (especially Hygieia).

Festivals and Holidays

The festival of Asclepius, called the Asclepiaea, was celebrated wherever there was an Asclepiaeon (a temple of Asclepius). The Asclepiaea of Epidaurus, held every fifth year, were particularly important. These included athletic as well as musical competitions.39

Athens, which had another important sanctuary of Asclepius, celebrated both an Asclepiaea (twice per year) and an Epidauria (to commemorate the day when Asclepius was brought to Athens from Epidaurus).40

On feast days and in his various temples, Asclepius received different types of sacrifices. These included standard burnt sacrifices,41 but also hair sacrifices to him or his daughter Hygieia.42

Pop Culture

Asclepius is largely absent from modern pop culture; today, Olympian gods such as Zeus, Poseidon, and Athena or warrior-heroes such as Heracles and Achilles are much more familiar to the general public. But Asclepius is still occasionally mentioned in some contemporary adaptations of Greek mythology, such as the 1990s TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians franchise.

The “Rod of Asclepius” (sometimes called the “Staff of Asclepius”)—the symbol of Asclepius’ snake-entwined staff—has become a popular logo for many medical services and organizations, including the World Health Organization. Unfortunately, the Rod of Asclepius is sometimes confused with the caduceus, a wand entwined with two snakes (not just one) and used by the god Hermes to convey the souls of the dead to the Underworld.

WHO flag

Flag of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Further Reading

Primary Sources

Greek

  • Homer: In the Iliad (eighth century BCE), Asclepius is named as the father of Machaon and Podalirius, the army physicians of the Greeks.

  • Hesiod: There are important references to Asclepius’ genealogy and myth in the fragmentary Catalogue of Women (seventh or sixth century BCE).

  • Homeric Hymns: The brief sixteenth Homeric Hymn (probably sixth or fifth century BCE) is dedicated to Asclepius.

  • Isyllus: The Hymn to Asclepius, probably composed around the third century BCE, describes the birth of Asclepius.

  • Diodorus of Sicily: The Library of History, a work of universal history covering events from the creation of the cosmos to Diodorus’ own time (mid-first century BCE), contains references to the myths of Asclepius.

  • Strabo: Asclepius’ mythology and worship are mentioned a few times in the Geography, a late first-century BCE geographical treatise and an important source for many local Greek myths, institutions, and religious practices from antiquity.

  • Pausanias: Asclepius’ mythology and worship are mentioned in the Description of Greece, a second-century CE travelogue and, like Strabo’s Geography, an important source for local myths and customs.

  • Antoninus Liberalis: Ascepius’ myth is briefly recounted in the Metamorphoses (second century CE).

  • Apollodorus: The myths of Asclepius are summarized in the Library, a mythological handbook from the first century BCE or the first few centuries CE.

Roman

  • Cicero: In Book 3 of his On the Nature of the Gods (first century BCE), Cicero describes three different Asclepii who contributed in different ways to the invention of medicine.

  • Ovid: The myth of Asclepius’ birth is told in detail in Book 2 of the Metamorphoses (ca. 8 CE).

  • Hyginus: The Astronomica and Fabulae (first or second century CE) contain references to the myths of Asclepius.

Secondary Sources

  • Edelstein, Emma, and Ludwig Edelstein. Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

  • Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

  • Graf, Fritz. “Asclepius.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 180–81. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

  • Graf, Fritz, and Anne Ley. “Asclepius.” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e203800.

  • Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1955.

  • Hart, Gerald D. Asclepius: The God of Medicine. London: Royal Society of Medicine Press, 2000.

  • Holtzmann, Bernard. “Asklepios.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Vol. 2, 863–97. Zurich: Artemis, 1984.

  • Kerényi, Károly. The Heroes of the Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson, 1974.

  • LiDonnici, Lynn R. The Epidaurian Miracle Inscriptions: Text, Translation, and Commentary. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1995.

  • Mitchell-Boyask, Robin. Plague and the Athenian Imagination: Drama, History and the Cult of Asclepius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

  • Oberhelman, Steven M., ed. Dreams, Healing, and Medicine in Greece: From Antiquity to the Present. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013.

  • Riethmüller, Jürgen W. Asklepios: Heiligtümer und Kulte. Heidelberg: Verlag Archäologie und Geschichte, 2005.

  • Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Methuen, 1929.

  • Smith, William. “Aesculapius.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed October 8, 2021. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DA%3Aentry+group%3D7%3Aentry%3Daesculapius-bio-1.

  • Theoi Project. “Asklepios.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Asklepios.html.

  • Wickkiser, Bronwen. Asklepios, Medicine, and the Politics of Healing in Fifth-Century Greece: Between Craft and Cult. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

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