Asclepius: One of the earliest Greek gods to specialize in healing. He was known to the Romans as Aesculapius. Healers and those in need of healing invoked Asclepius' name in prayer and healing ceremonies in temples and at home. A healing clan known as the Asclepiads claimed to be the descendants of Asclepius and to have inherited a knowledge and mystical power of healing from him.
Asclepius did not begin as a god. It is now thought that he was an actual historical figure, renowned for his healing abilities. When he and his sons, Machaon and Podalirios, are mentioned in The Iliad in approximately the 8th century BCE, they are not gods. As his "clan" of followers grew, he was elevated to divine status, and temples were built to him throughout the Mediterranean world well into late antiquity.
Images of Asclepius are generally recognizable by his beard and staff with a single snake. (The caduceus with its two intertwined snakes grasping a staff has been adopted by some as the "ancient" symbol of medicine. In the ancient world, however, the caduceus was a symbol of Hermes, the Roman Mercury, who was primarily a messenger god linked with commerce.) Asclepius' symbol was a single snake entwined around his staff -- the "Asclepian staff." The snake symbolized rejuvenation and healing to many ancient Mediterranean cultures.
Subscribe to MedicineNet's General Health Newsletter
Last Editorial Review: 6/9/2016