Now, gather around, for I am ought to tell to you the story of how Asclepius the God of Healing came to be.
The Conception of Asclepius
One night while Apollo was secretly observing the training of his priestesses at the Oracle at Delphi, disguised as a snake, he spotted a mortal woman whom he found most beautiful. Apollo continued to eye this beautiful woman, learning that she was particularly gifted in the interpretation of dreams. This woman’s name was Coronis.
Now while most priestesses-in-training at Delphi were selected from a very select stock by Apollo’s priests, Coronis had been found mysteriously one day roaming in the nearby woods as a young orphan, and was taken in by the priests. Recall, my listeners, that Apollo’s priests were trained in divination of the priestesses’ utterances during their fissure-trance at the Oracle. These priests learned how to divine from Apollo, who learned how to divine from Pan himself. Apollo learned much more from Pan about divining than he did tell to his priests, wary that if he were to tell them how to divine, say, the meaning of clouds in the sky or the meaning of playing cards, that they would go mad with depression, as men had been in the Days of Old before the ability to tell the future was taken from them by Prometheus and replaced with blind hope.
So it was so that Apollo’s priests knew only the divination of fissure-mutterings and nothing else. However, upon discovering Coronis’ ability to divine dreams, the priests became excited and wanted to learn how to do this also. Worried, Apollo took the form of a giant serpent and carried Coronis away from the priests and his Oracle at Delphi, into the waters of the sea as a dolphin, in which Apollo carried Coronis on his back as he glided to an isle far away. There he placed her and provided for her a home and garden to take care of herself.
Coronis eventually bared Apollo a babe in her self, however, the rumors of a dream diviner had spread beyond Delphi, and the Goddess Rumor had whispered in the ears of those most interested in dream diving the location of Coronis, and so a group of curious but evil men went to find and capture her. Capture her they did, and they forced her to teach them her art. Coronis told them that she did not understand how she could do it, only that it came to her naturally, and so they decided that if they could not divine dreams, then no mortal could, and decided to burn her at the stake.
Hearing her cries, Apollo came down from Olympus to discover that she was with child. Apollo swiftly cut open her stomach and reached out and took his child, leaving Coronis to burn. This is why Apollo decided to name the babe Asclepius, which means, “to cut open.”
The Education of Asclepius
Now Apollo could not take care of this child, for he was quite a busy God, what with his Oracle and all. Instead of finding a caretaker for his child, Apollo left his son on top of a mountain, for he did not want Asclepius to grow weak and complacent. If the child would be able to fend himself off from wolves and the like, then he was surely worth being the son of Apollo, who as we all know thought rather highly of himself among the Gods, and expected his son to reflect such qualities he found in himself.
What follows next precisely I do not know, though some say a wild satyr of Dionysius found him and raised him, others some sort of nanny-goat, and yet others that the child like Hermes before him grew rather prodigiously, and by evening was already building his first shelter. What seems to be more certain is that Asclepius took quite an interest in plants, herbs, and snakes. He would spend most of his day studying herbs and picking their leaves and berries. He would craft his own mortar and pestle out of white marble from the nearby mountains, and he would go out and find wounded mortals left over from the battle and experiment his concoctions on them in the disguise of a snake. He would dip his snake tongue in his remedies and then go into the field of battle and lick the near-dead soldier’s eyes and wounds, often curing them back to enough health to return to their camps.
Eventually Asclepius was discovered by Cheiron the Centaur, teacher and trainer of great heroes, who lived in a cave on Mount Pelion, most famous of all for rearing the great Achilles as a boy. Asclepius went to live with Cheiron and train under him at his home in the mountains with Cheiron’s wife, which was much like a small boarding school of today, except carved into rock and supported with wood. Cheiron would let his heroes in training ride on his back as he rode out into the woods to teach them hunting. He would show them how to properly enjoy wine without getting too drunk, and also the art of romancing. You must keep in mind that, like Cheiron, the students did not wear clothing, and were often lusty with each other growing up.
Now most of the Greek Gods loved war, conflict, and schadenfreude. Asclepius, however, did not like these things at all, and was mostly interested in healing and making people feel better. Having met his first intelligent comrade, Asclepius became fascinated by the idea that Cheiron had a different personality than his own. As Asclepius met from time to time with Cheiron’s other occasional students, he became more and more adept at understanding how different personalities were nevertheless common in particular ways, and Asclepius often thought about why people became sad or happy, or how to go about healing people not only physically but emotionally as well.
Now Cheiron was a very firm believer in tradition when it came to education, and so he taught Asclepius, as he did all of his students, gymnastics and warfare in addition to music and the arts and healing, even though Asclepius did not want to learn the former things. Cheiron had very strict, numbered rules that he expected all of his students to follow, and was oft to repeat them and drill them into the heads of his students. Despite how much this sometimes annoyed them, all of Cheiron’s students, Asclepius included, grew to love him and his wife very much. Do you know Cheiron’s number one rule? It was to obey Zeus above all Gods, and next to obey the father above all men, except when Zeus’ demands contradicted the father’s.
Cheiron, a great healer himself, taught Asclepius much about herbs and plants, and how to take care of people when they were sick. Cheiron also taught Asclepius how to sing little tunes to make people recover from ailments that originated in the soul but not the body, and how to uplift spirits in times of self-doubt. Indeed, Asclepius was often left to attend to the wounds and sorrows of Cheiron’s other students when they had been hurt in gymnastic training or were down on their luck. Asclepius gradually became more proficient at healing, until Cheiron felt that Asclepius was a better healer than himself. Upon this discovery, Cheiron came to Asclepius to tell him that his training was complete, and gave him a mortar and pestle crafted from the solidified ambrosia of the Gods of Olympus and dyed in their drink of immortality.
The Apotheosis of Asclepius and How He Attained his Rod of Caduceus
So, armed with his mastery of the healing arts, Asclepius went out to venture into the world, and became widely known throughout the land, pleasing his father Apollo and impressing even the Gods with his amazing abilities to heal seemingly any wound, physical or psychical. Now, all the great Gods and half-Gods eventually rise to Olympus, however, Asclepius’ is somewhat more tragic and incomplete than others, even though he technically achieved this.
One day Asclepius observed the death of a snake, and he noticed how another snake placed an herb he had never seen before in the dead snake’s mouth, and it was revived. Curious, Asclepius studied this herb and searched for it, until he found it outside an entrance to Hades. After trying the herb on a dead man, Asclepius found no results. Clever like his father, Asclepius fastened a branch from a tree near the same cave entrance he found the herb, and then took the snake he had seen giving the dead snake the herb and tied it around his new staff, petrifying it. He then concocted a concentrated oil out of the life-giving herb and rubbed it on his staff.
Trying again on a dead man, Asclepius found success, and this magical rod of life giving properties is now known as Asclepius’ Staff of Caduceus, upon which you see stamped on hospitals the world around (funny story, most American hospitals have the Rod of Hermes instead, which has two snakes, not one like Asclepius’ Caduceus. Hermes is the God of trickery and deceit, and now American hospitals and their healthcare do just that because someone not well-studied in their mythology mixed the two up in an earnest attempt to give praise to our good Asclepius, but now gives praise to Hermes instead!).
Now, as you might expect, Asclepius began to use this very powerful staff to bring the dead men back to life. Of course Hades began to notice that there was a shortage of souls in his kingdom, and he promptly went to Olympus to complain to Zeus. Together they decided that it must’ve been due to Asclepius’ wicked staff, and so Zeus struck Asclepius with a lightning bolt, killing him on spot, for he did not obey the laws of life and death set even before Zeus long ago by Khaos, father of all Gods.
Angered that Zeus did not give Asclepius a fair warning, Apollo went out to avenge his son’s death by killing the Cyclopes who made Zeus’ bolts. Apollo then went to Zeus, cleverly persuading him that only Asclepius knew how to resurrect the dead in full form, and that Zeus would never find another craftsman as great as the one whom he had just killed. Convinced, Zeus revived Asclepius, but because Asclepius was the only one who can revive the mortal or immortal back to their original state, Asclepius was rendered into the night sky as a celestial constellation in the form of his Caduceus, from where he could still watch over his worshippers and bring back to life those he deemed worthy, including Zeus’ Cyclopes, but only because Apollo asked him to.
What Became of Asclepius’ Followers, the Psyche-Analysts, and Asclepeions
Asclepius’ followers came from many tribes, including the Corybantics, who were worshippers of Corybantes and known experts in healing the psychically ill, as well as worshippers of Psyche, the Greek Goddess of the soul. These followers built temples to Asclepius, known as asclepeions, which healed the sick and trained future healers and followers of Asclepius. These worshippers came to be known as psyche-analysts, for they were known to unravel the soul in order to put it back together better than before.
These asclepeions became destinations for the sick and the haunted all over ancient Greece. The sick would lie on the warm side of the temple on a portico, or a porch, and would be attended to by the priests and priestesses of Asclepius in the daytime. At night, while they were sleeping, the blessed snake of Asclepius, who dwelled in tunnels beneath the porticos, would come out and lick the eyes of the wounded and whisper into their ears songs of soothing harmonies, just as Asclepius had done in his younger years.
Pleased by this marvel, Psyche went to visit Asclepius’ mother Coronus in Hades to learn from her the art of dream divination, where in death she was now able to rationalize the art and therefore teach it, and then took the form of a wise pilgrim and taught this to her analysts. When travelers that came to the porticos of asclepeions had dreams in their sleep, as they often would, upon awakening they would be taken to a reclined Greek stone bench situated in the most holy of places in Asclepius’ temples, where they would tell their dreams to Asclepius’ psyche-analysts, who would then give instructions to the theraputae (that is, the apprentices of Asclepius) on what methods of action to take to remedy their patient’s ailments based on their dreams. When these patients were healed, they would create art in the image of what part of them had been healed and offer it to Asclepius’ altar, or even find it in the wild, in case for something like a toothache.
These asclepeions became famous beyond Greece. When the Christians came and usurped the Greek culture and Gods with their God, the church found these asclepeions and their philosophies quite useful, and so the tradition was started where after a monastery or church had healed you, you were to craft a model or sculpture of what part of your body was healed and offer that to that church or monastery’s patron saint.
And that, my listeners, is the story of Asclepius and his ascension into the heavens. So next time you feel troubled or in pain, make a little prayer to Asclepius, and when you wake up be sure to recall your dreams, for they are Asclepius’ instructions on how to remedy yourself. You will know he visited you because his snakes will leave their dried dream saliva in the corners of your eyes. And if you are healed successfully, be sure to thank him by creating a piece of art to symbolize the healing act.