Asklepios, Gracious Savior and Healer

Relief of the god Asklepios and his daughter Hygeia treating a sleeping girl (Piraeus, Greece)

All of the books in my A Slave’s Story historical fiction trilogy—A Rooster for Asklepios, A Bull for Pluto, and A Ram for Mars—combine the name of a Greek or Roman deity with the animal that the god was thought to prefer as a sacrificial offering. Most of us are familiar through the Bible or other literary works with the use of bulls and rams as sacrifices. But a rooster? Such a small, bony creature seems ill-suited to such a lofty role.

The association of the rooster with Asklepios is not a random development but a mark of his unique role and character within the Greek and Roman pantheon of gods. Asklepios was the Greek god of healing, a compassionate savior who cared as much for the poor as for the rich. Unlike other gods, he could not be bought off with elaborate sacrifices; he healed or not according to his own wishes, and those who tried to bribe him risked rejection from the god. The rooster, a relatively inexpensive offering, symbolized this divine accessibility.

Asklepios was one of the most popular gods of his time, with temples in virtually every town and city where the Greeks had made their mark. The Romans adopted him into their divine pantheon (under the Latinized name of Aesculapius) in 293 BC when a temple was erected for him in Rome to avert a raging pestilence that no other god had been able to cure. Archaeological remains and literary references point to the existence of at least 670 temples of Asklepios across the Roman world by the 2nd century AD.

Artist’s rendition of the temple of Asklepios at Epidauros, Greece

Asklepios was one of the few gods toward whom both Greeks and Romans voiced feelings of love and affection. In part this was due to his reputation as a compassionate healer, but devotion was also elicited by the belief that he had once been a human physician who lost his life while attempting to aid humans, a fact that made him seem more approachable to worshippers. Songs, prayers, and literary narratives speak of worshippers rejoicing in his presence and lauding him as the gracious savior of humanity, while stories of his healing prowess circulated far and wide.

The mythology surrounding Asklepios is inconsistent, but most versions state that he was the son of the god Apollo and a human mother named Coronis whom Apollo killed in a fit of anger after learning that she had been unfaithful. Remembering that she was pregnant with his son, the remorseful god rescued the unborn child (the future Asklepios) from her womb and handed him over to the centaur Chiron to be trained in the arts of healing, an area in which Apollo himself was known to be skilled.

As an adult, Asklepios developed a reputation as a kind and powerful healer. He cured many who were on the verge of death, and some stories say that he even restored the dead to life using the blood of one of the Gorgons that the goddess Athena had given him. Hades, the god of the underworld, complained to his brother Zeus about the many souls that Asklepios was stealing from him, while Zeus himself was worried that Asklepios’s activities were blurring the boundaries between humans and the immortal gods.

To put an end to this threat, Zeus struck Asklepios dead with a thunderbolt. This act so enraged Apollo that he went on a violent rampage until Zeus agreed to elevate his son to the heavenly realm by turning him into a god, a constellation, or both, depending on the story. In this divine form he continued to ply his trade as a healer for humanity, assisted by his daughter Hygeia (the Greek word for “health”).

Like other gods, Asklepios’s presence among humans was signified by sculpted images in his temples that showed him as a middle-aged man with a kindly face holding a staff around which a snake curled. (Snakes are associated with healing in many cultures due to their unusual ability to renew their form by shedding their skin.) The snake-twined staff that is used today to symbolize medicine has its roots in these images of Asklepios.

Three different sculptural representations of Asklepios

Individuals who wished to be healed by Asklepios had several options. The simplest was direct personal prayer, which could be efficacious if the god so willed. But Roman religion was more about rituals than spontaneous devotion, so a Roman (like Lucius in my novels) was more likely to add a small statue of the deity to the other images to whom formal prayers and offerings were presented as part of the daily family worship. If the god did not respond to these home-based appeals, the head of the family might visit the local temple of Asklepios (as Lucius also does) to present additional gifts to the god and perhaps consult with the priest or a physician about what to do.

One of the more unusual ways of seeking healing from Asklepios—unusual to us, that is, but not to the ancients—was to spend a night in the god’s temple in hopes that Asklepios or Hygeia (or both) would appear to the sick person in a dream and either perform a miraculous cure or prescribe a treatment that would restore the person to health. This ceremony, called incubation, could be done at the local temple, but those who could afford it preferred to travel to one of the regional healing sanctuaries where the god was thought to appear more often and where additional treatments were available from physicians.

The most important Asklepian healing sanctuaries were located at Epidauros in southeastern Greece, Cos in southwestern Turkey, and Pergamon in northwestern Turkey. All three sites have been substantially excavated and can be visited by tourists today. These sanctuaries included not only religious buildings—temples and altars dedicated to Asklepios and other gods associated with healing—but also many of the facilities and activities that we commonly associate with health spas, including hot baths, gymnasiums, massages, exercise training, dietary consultations, and medical checkups. Apartments were available to house the wealthier guests when they were not in the sleeping chamber (known as the abaton) seeking a dream-cure, while poorer visitors probably slept in the open air or under the column-lined walkways.

Ground plan and models of the Asklepion at Pergamon (2nd century AD layout)

Care at these centers was provided by priests, physicians, dream-interpreters, physical trainers, and others who tended both the bodies and the souls of the sick. Musical performances, plays, and speeches served to reinforce the visitors’ faith in Asklepios as a mighty healer while also helping them to pass their time between treatments. A vivid portrait of what a visit to one of these centers might have entailed can be found in A Rooster for Asklepios.

Assessing the success of these centers is difficult after so many centuries. Greek and Roman literature contains numerous references to the healing activities of Asklepios, and archeological excavations have uncovered many carved images of body parts (representing experiences of healing), stone tablets (telling stories of healing), and votive columns (erected as expressions of thanksgiving) within the premises of Asklepian temples and healing centers. Most of the healing stories are too fantastic to be believed, but their presence in the sanctuaries would have helped to stimulate faith in the god’s healing abilities.

Modern scholars have postulated that the bulk of the healing that is accredited to Asklepios was either psychosomatic or produced by the application of valid medical treatments as in modern health spas. But to the many people who appealed to the god for healing, these stories served as indubitable evidence of Asklepios’s power and willingness to heal.

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