9/30 Days of deity devotion

Day Nine: Common mistakes about this deity

Because the temples of Asclepius eventually became hospitals and medical schools, quite a few legends, tales, and erroneous details have become attached to Asclepius and the early history of medicine. Furthermore, the stress and uncertainty of illness often leads patients and their families to question the skill and ethics of their doctor; this was as true in antiquity as it is now.

Myth #1: Asclepius was bribed by a rich man to raise the dead.

This could be based on stories of wealthy donors who made large donations to Asclepions, and is perhaps related to mistrust of physicians in general, and the fear that the poor don’t receive the same level of care as do the rich.

In antiquity, rich people were expected to “share the wealth”, to improve the infrastructure and make available services which brought renown to their cities and fame to themselves. As with those seeking initiation in the Eleusinian Mysteries, people who visited the sanctuaries of Asclepius obviously could afford the time off from work and possible travel expenses; patients were charged on a sliding scale for their accommodations and treatment.

An alternative version of Asclepius’ story is told, wherein a king demanded he raise his son from the dead. When Asclepius informed the king that his demand was impossible to fulfill, he was thrown into prison. It was there he learned the secret of raising the dead from a serpent. After this, he was able to raise the king’s son, and was released from prison.

Myth #2: Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, rejected the practices of the Asclepion.

Hippocrates was the son (and perhaps the grandson) of a priest of Asclepius, and his family traced their roots back to the children of the god. Hippocrates didn’t build the Asclepion of Kos, but he probably trained there and may have been influential in the addition of a new section to the sanctuary.

Hippocrates wasn’t a scientist as we know the term. His work was based on the theory of four bodily humours, which needed to be balanced in order to restore good health. He might not have been a groundbreaking physician; it may simply be that he just made a name for himself, so that we have his name and some details. The classification of diseases, for instance, appears to have already been highly developed, even in the oldest of the so-called Hippocratic treatises. The priests of Asclepius had been keeping records of symptoms, typical progression of diseases, treatments, and outcomes for a considerable period. It could have been Hippocrates who systematically compiled this data under the Humoral theory – or it could have been someone else entirely. That’s something we just don’t know.

What we DO know is that physicians of the Hippocratic approach didn’t complete or have antagonistic relationships with the priests of Asclepius. Some cases responded well to the Hippocratic approach, and others responded well to incubation at the temples. A healthy population was the goal of priests and physicians alike.

Image: Hippocrates Welcomes Asclepius to Kos. Roman Mosaic, 2nd-3rd century CE. Archaeological Museum of Kos, Greece.

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