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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Asclepius, the god of healing

In ancient Greece, over 2,600 years ago, medical centers dedicated to Asclepius, the god of healing, blended the best aspects of physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual healing arts. At these sanctuaries, healers offered their compassion and skills to all who came for help. Now, in another day and time, the Asclepeion Center for Body Mind Therapy shares this mission, intense desire, and journey.

In Greek mythology, Asclepius was the originator of medicine and healing. Ancient depictions of Asclepius show a moving visage of infinite compassion, combined with a vigorous, athletic body. His staff, the caduceus, a rod entwined with two serpents, remains the symbol of medicine today.

According to legend, Asclepius was the son of Apollo, the Greek sun god, and a beautiful mortal woman, Coronis. While pregnant, however, Coronis fell in love and took a mortal lover, paying for her infidelity with her life. Yet, when it came to the unborn child, Apollo relented. He beseeched his brother Hermes, the guide of dead souls to the underworld, to pluck the still-living child from his mother’s womb.

Apollo named his son Asclepius and carried him to a remote cave in Crete, where he entrusted him to the care of the centaur Chiron—half horse, half man. Chiron was a wise, gentle, compassionate immortal—who also was thought to have taught Achilles, Jason, and other ancient Greek heroes.

Chiron acted as a mentor to Asclepius, instructing him in the boy’s own passion: the healing arts. Asclepius became skilled in surgery and in the use of drugs. As a young man, he left the cave of Chiron to serve humanity.

Temples dedicated to Asclepius by grateful patients became the first hospitals. Such a shrine was called an Asclepeion. The main center dedicated to Asclepius was the great theater and sanctuary at Epidaurus, located at a sacred spring that bubbled out of a hillside near the thriving city of Corinth.

Epidaurus became a celebrated place of retreat and renewal—a great cultural and healing center that used spiritual, psychological, and physical approaches to healing. Treatments included diet, exercise, rest, medicine, hands-on healing sessions, healing herbs, prayer, assigned study, drama, chanting, dream analysis, clearing the soul of painful memories, and sometimes visitation from the gods during sleep. Asclepius was believed to appear in dreams in various forms, including that of a snake, to give healing guidance to those who sought it.

Legend further tells us that Asclepius had seven children, who all became physicians and nurses. His son Machaon was a skilled surgeon, while Poaleirios was an expert on internal diseases. One of his daughters was Hygieia, goddess of health and cleanliness; another was Panaceia, or “all-healing.” Machaon and Poaleirios appear as characters in Homer’s Iliad, the ancient Greek saga of the Trojan War, as commanders and military physicians of the Thessalian army.
Athena, goddess of wisdom, gave Asclepius a powerful gift: the blood of the snake-headed Medusa, which contained the power to kill or to heal, even from death itself. But when, as legend tells us, Asclepius began to use it to revive mortals from the dead, Zeus, the king of the gods, was affronted by the prospect of humans sharing immortality with the gods. Hurling one of his thunderbolts, he killed Asclepius. But the great healer became a constellation among the stars, and the healing arts that he had brought to humanity continued on.

The Ancient Greeks revered Asclepius, rather than the historical figure of Hippocrates, as the founder of medicine. Many see the Hippocratic tradition—with its emphasis on documenting and defining specific diseases—as directly opposed to spirituality and healing rituals such as those used in the Asclepeion temples. Yet, the famous Hippocratic oath, to which medical physicians still swear today, begins with an invocation “To Apollo, the physician, Asclepius, Hygieia, and Panaceia… 


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