Asclepius – the Snake and the Staff of Power
One day Apollo saw a lake nymph bathing by the side of the water. He pursued her and she accepted his advances, becoming pregnant with his child. She however, secretly desired a mortal man more than the god. Why look for a god when there are mortal men around?
When a white raven, left by Apollo to spy on the girl gave him the news, Apollo in his anger turned the raven black and called on his twin Artemis to slay the girl. The lake nymph was placed on a funeral pyre as was the custom, but Apollo took pity and rescued the child at the last moment. The boy was named Asclepius, which means “to cut open” in honor of his birth.
Apollo gave the boy over to a Centaur to be tutored in the healing arts. Somewhere along the way Asclepius became famous for his power as a healer and acquired a single staff with a snake wrapped around it as his sign and symbol -the proper medical symbol in use toady.
Unfortunately Asclepius met an untimely end at the hand of Zeus. When rumors spread that Asclepius had raised someone from the dead and accepted gold for it, Zeus in a fit of anger struck him down with a lightening bolt.
I’ve always wondered what riled Zeus more – the raising from the dead or the gold. I imagine Zeus gazing down from the heavens. “You charged them, Asclepius?”
Although Asclepius paid dearly for it, he did establish a legacy- a commitment to his art and practice and the human beings he served. Most scholars think he actually existed and was somewhat deified by his followers in succeeding centuries.
The storytelling, pre- writing Greeks with their rich poetic and primitive imagination often asked provoking and unsettling questions with their stories – like this one about life and death and healing…….. and gold- much like we do today.
But how did the single snake around a rod come to symbolize medicine?
Some Classical scholars associate the snake of Asclepius with rejuvenation and his rod with the walking stick that itinerant physicians carried in their wanderings. Others point to a common medical practice of the day –ridding the body of worms with a small incision and the wrapping of the worms around a stick as they left the wound.
Hippocrates – called the father of medicine (460-370 BC)– is thought to be the 20th generation of Ascepius healers. In the modern world The Hippocratic Oath – used as a rite of passage in most medical schools even today, begins “I swear by Apollo the healer and Asclepius…………
Even the brave Socrates – that most rational man – uttered the name of the legendary healer in his last breath after he has drunk the famous cup of hemlock “Krito, we owe a rooster to Asclepius (as a sacrifice for a painless death). Pay it and do not neglect it.”