Spare the rod, or staff, and spoil the child? Not exactly. But Asclepius, who grew up to be the Greek god of medicine, was born into an all-too-human story of domestic violence and could have used his staff before birth to protect his mortal mother, Coronis, from his divine father, Apollo, the sun god. Even after Asclepius acquired his staff and single serpentine assistant, mayhem followed him most of his life. And through eternity, the general confusion between his staff and Hermes’ double-snaked caduceus has dogged Asclepius and his medical progeny—including Hippocrates, the father of medicine.
The birth story goes like this: Apollo went on a trip. Coronis, already pregnant, fell in love with another man. (Never mind, that Apollo and Coronis hadn’t legally married. Gods don’t have to bother with all that decorum.) A white raven Apollo left to watch Coronis told him of his lover’s disloyalty, and—after he singed all members of the Corvus genus black forevermore because the bird hadn’t pecked out the guy’s eyes—he asked his sister Artemis, the goddess of hunting and childbirth (uh-huh), to kill Coronis. As Coronis lay on the funeral pyre, Apollo, full of remorse (what’s new?), asked Hermes, the god of commerce, thieves, and literature (among other things), to cut Asclepius out of her womb. Lest you wonder why Apollo didn’t handle the gore himself (at least in some versions), be aware that he was the original god of healing (indeed!). Apollo couldn’t cope with child rearing anymore than cesarean sections, so he gave the baby to the centaur Chiron, who taught Asclepius the medical arts.
Asclepius’s staff may have been passed down among ancient Middle Eastern gods (and doctors) from “Grandma” Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of nature (who got a little warlike in her later years). She walked around with a rod encircled by one snake (never two) to represent Earth’s fertility. (By the way, the words “life” and “snake” share the same stem in Semitic languages.) On a particularly difficult medical call, a snake twined itself around Asclepius’s staff to give him some useful herbs. The two became a duo so dynamic that not enough people were dying to satisfy Pluto, the god of the underworld. Eventually, he complained to Zeus, who threw a thunderbolt at Asclepius to kill him. Apollo, again enraged, slew the Cyclopes who made the thunderbolt. But Asclepius wasn’t divine enough to warrant resurrection, so Zeus made him into the constellation Scorpius.
Though officially dead and hanging in the sky as star art, Asclepius visited his temples all over Greece. Sick people lolled about the floors (along with lots of snakes, I’m told), and Asclepius appeared to them in helpful dreams. In 293 BCE during a frightful epidemic (according to the poet Ovid), the Roman senate decided to summon Asclepius to Rome from his favorite sanctuary in Epidaurus. Some senators didn’t like bypassing Apollo (who could blame them?), so they went to Delphi to consult the sun god. In a kind moment, Apollo urged them to accept help from his son. The senate took two years to call Asclepius (sound familiar?).
As for the staff …
It has been the symbol of healthcare providers for 2,500 years. In the mid-nineteenth century, Americans got a little confused between medicine and trade (somewhat characteristic of us, huh?) and started to use Hermes’ caduceus to represent public health and medicine. The confusion actually started in the fifteenth century when the German publisher Johann Froben, not erroneously (read on Hermes above), used the caduceus on his books, only some of which were on medicine.
And the snake, living or dead?
It went to China to become part of the Chinese horoscope and rule over the year 2013 (actually 4710 or 4711, depending). I’m kidding, of course, but the connection between Asclepius and the Year of the Snake just struck me and brings us, smoothly or clumsily, to the subject of my next post—setting themes.