Published in Speaking Tree, July 31, 2011

Asclepius was the Greek god of health and healing. He was the son of Apollo, the Greek sun-god. His mother died when he was still in her womb and he cried out when her body was placed on the funeral pyre. Apollo cut the womb and pulled the unborn child out and declared that this son of his, Asclepius, would be responsible for the human fight against disease and death.

Asclepius is famous because the original Hippocratic oath taken by doctors all over the world on completion of their education was taken in his name and in the name of his daughters, Hygeia, the goddess of hygiene and Panacea, the goddess of universal remedy. Asclepius had other daughters whose names meant ‘healthy glow’ and ‘medicine’ and ‘healing’.

His two sons were Machaon and Podalarius, surgeons and healers of repute, who helped Greek soliders who participated in the long siege of the city of Troy. They healed the archer, Philoctetes, of a wound that had festered for 10 years and was full of pus, so that he could raise his bow and arrow, kill Paris and facilitate the end of the decade long Trojan war.

More famous than Asclepius is his rod with a single serpent wound around it known as the asklepian. This became the symbol of doctors and modern medicine. This must be differentiated from the caduceus or a staff with two serpents around it, which refers more to the occult arts, which was carried by the Greek god Hermes when he took souls from the land of the living to the land of the dead.

The story goes that Asclepius was so good in health and healing that many people who were supposed to die did not die. Hades, the god of the dead, was so annoyed that he complained to Zeus, god of the sky, who struck Asclepius with a thunderbolt and killed him. Asclepius and his staff with the serpent was then cast upon the sky as a constellation.

Serpents have in all cultures been associated with health and healing perhaps because they can shed their skin and rejeuvenate themselves. In honor of Asclepius, snakes were often used in healing rituals and non-venomous snakes were allowed to crawl on the floor in dormitories where the sick and injured slept.

In the Bible, during the exodus out of Egypt and the long wandering through the wilderness in search of the Promised Land, Moses raised a serpent made of copper on his staff, much like the rod of Asclepius. This rod with the wound serpent was called Nehushtan. Those who looked upon it were healed of snakebite.

Rationalists believe that the serpent wound around the staff is actually a guinea worm that grows under the skin and peeps out of ulcers to lay its egg. Doctors and healers, even in India, use a stick to slowly wind out the guinea worm from under the skin of the patient.