Yesterday, my love and I went to the College of Physicians Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, PA.
I was very thrilled upon walking across the marble foyer to see one of my patron Gods of Healing smiling down on us.
Asclepius, who was most probably a skilled physician who practiced in Greece around 1200BC, and described in Homer’s Iliad, became very well known for his healing arts. Eventually through myth and legend he came to be worshipped as Asclepius, the Greek god of Healing.
Medical schools developed, which were usually connected to temples or shrines called Asclepions (Asclepieia) dedicated to Asclepius. The Asclepion became very important in Greek society. Patients believed they could be cured by sleeping in them. They would visit, offering gifts and sacrifices to the god, and be treated by priest healers (called the Asclepiadae). The worship of Asclepius spread to Rome and continued as late as the sixth century.
The Asclepiadae were a large order of priest physicians who controlled the sacred secrets of healing, which were passed from father to son. Harmless and venomless Aesculapian snakes were kept in the combination hospital-temples built by the ancient Greeks and, later, by the Romans in honor of the god. The snakes are found not only in their original range of southern Europe, but also in the various places in Germany and Austria where Roman temples had been established. Escaped snakes survived and flourished.
Smooth, glossy, and slender, the snake has a uniformly brown back with a streak of darker colour behind the eyes. The snake’s belly is yellowish or whitish and has ridged scales that catch easily on rough surfaces, making it especially adapted for climbing trees. Scientific classification: The Aesculapian snake belongs to the family Colubridae. It is classified as Elaphe longissima.
Asclepius is the son of Apollo and the nymph, Coronis. While pregnant with Asclepius, Coronis secretly took a second, mortal lover. When Apollo found out, he sent Artemis to kill her. While burning on the funeral pyre, Apollo felt a mixture of guilt and pity and rescued the unborn child from the corpse. Apollo then brought his son to stay under the care and teaching of Cheiron. The wise centaur, taught Asclepius all his knowledge of medifine, and became so skilled in it that he succeeded in bringing one of his patients back from the dead. Zeus felt that the immortality of the Gods was threatened and killed the healer with a thunderbolt. At Apollo’s request, Asclepius was placed among the stars as Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer.
Meditrine, Hygeia and Panacea: The children of Asclepius included his daughters Meditrina, Hygeia and Panacea who were symbols of medicine, hygiene and healing (literally, “all healing”) respectively. Two of the sons of Asclepius appeared in Homer’s Iliad as physicians in the Greek army (Machaon and Podalirius).
The classic Hippocratice Oath is sworn “by Apollo the physician, by Æsculapius, Hygeia, and Panacea”
In ancient times infection by parasitic worms was common. The filarial worm Dracunculus medinensis aka “the fiery serpent”, aka “the dragon of Medina” aka “the guinea worm” crawled around the victim’s body, just under the skin. Physicians treated this infection by cutting a slit in the patient’s skin, just in front of the worm’s path. As the worm crawled out the cut, the physician carefully wound the pest around a stick until the entire animal had been removed. It is believed that because this type of infection was so common, physicians advertised their services by displaying a sign with the worm on a stick.
From the early 16th century onwards, the staff of Asclepius and the caduceus of Hermes were widely used as printers’ marks especially as frontispieces to pharmacopoeias in the 17th and 18th centuries. Over time the rod and serpent (the Asclepian staff) emerged as an independent symbol of medicine.
Despite the unequivocal claim of the staff of Asclepius to represent medicine (and healing), the caduceus, a rod with two entwined serpents topped by a pair of wings appears to be the more popular symbol of medicine in the United States, probably due to simple confusion between the caduceus and the staff of Asclepius, the true symbol of medicine. Many people use the word caduceus to mean both of these emblems.
The rod of Asclepius symbolizes the healing arts by combining the serpent, which in shedding its skin is a symbol of rebirth and fertility, with the staff, a symbol of authority befitting the god of Medicine. The snake wrapped around the staff is widely claimed to be a species of rat snake, Elaphe longissima, also known as the Aesculapian or Asclepian snake. It is native to south eastern Europe, Asia Minor, and some central European spa regions, apparently brought there by Romans for their healing properties.
This “snake handler” is actually the demigod Asclepios/Aesculapius, the Greek/Roman god of medicine, a son of Apollo who was taught the healing arts by the centaur Chiron. Asclepius served aboard Argo as ship’s doctor of Jason (in the quest for the Golden Fleece) and became so good at healing that he could bring people back from the dead. This made the underworld ruler (Hades) complain to Zeus, who struck Asclepius with a bolt of lightning but decided to honor him with a place in the sky, as Ophiuchus. The Greeks identified Asclepius with the deified Egyptian doctor Imhotep (27th century BC).
Any symbol involving a snake would seem natural for medicine: The snake is a symbol of renewed life out of old shed skin, the perpetual renewal of life evoked by the ouroboros symbol (a snake feeding on its own tail). A snake around a walking stick is also an ancient symbol of supernatural powers which can triumph over death, like medicine can (biblically, the symbol of Moses’ divine mission was his ability to change his walking stick into a snake).
The large Ophiuchus constellation is one of the 88 modern constellations. It was also one of the 48 traditional constellations listed by Ptolemy. In both systems, it’s one of only 13 zodiacal constellations. By definition, a zodiacal constellation is a constellation which is crossed by the ecliptic (the path traced by the Sun on the celestial sphere, which is so named because that’s where solar eclipses occur).
As a path charted against the background of fixed stars, the ecliptic is a remarkably stable line (since it’s tied to the orbital motion of the Earth, not its wobbling spin). It does not vary with the relatively rapid precession of equinoxes (whose period is roughly 25772 years). What does vary is the location on the ecliptic of the so-called “gamma point” (the position of the Sun at the vernal equinox).
Ophiuchus is the only zodiacal constellation which has not given its name to one of the 12 signs of the zodiac associated with the 12 traditional equal subdivisions of the solar year, which form the calendar used by astrologers. However, some modern astrologers are advocating a reformed system with uneven zodiacal signs, where Ophiuchus has found its place…
Astrological belief systems are not proper subjects for scientific investigation. Nevertheless, we must point out that it’s a plain error to associate Ophiuchus with the caduceus symbol (two snakes around a winged staff) since that symbol of Hermes (messenger of the gods) is associated with commerce, not medicine.
In 1910, the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association issued a resolution stating that “the true ancestral symbol of healing art is the knotty pine and the [single] serpent of Aesculapius”.