Asklepios, Finest of Healers

To modern pagans, Asklepios is almost a forgotten god. Even among Hellenic pagans, his aid is not commonly sought and he receives few honors.

To the ancient Greeks, however, the arrival of Asklepios was unreservedly welcome; his cult took hold immediately and grew quickly wherever it was introduced, making Asklepios a pan-Hellenic deity in a relatively short time. This was a god both wanted and needed--kindhearted, helpful, and with a great interest in the welfare of humanity.

I have always found this lack of interest in him surprising, since in my experience Asklepios is very much an active, present deity who is more than willing to respond to our pleas and to work with us to find cures for our ailments, as much today as in ancient times.

Asklepios In Myth

A son of Apollo by the nymph Koronis, Asklepios' birth was spectacularly mythological: when Apollo learned that Koronis had been unfaithful to him, he sent Artemis to destroy her, saving their child at the last possible minute by taking him from her on her funeral pyre. He learned the healing arts from the centaur Cheiron and became a healer of great skill. Eventually he attempted not only to heal the sick but to raise the dead, an act that prompted great objections from Hades and Asklepios' resulting death at the hands of Zeus.1

Asklepios In Cult

Hero Cult

Asklepios, like Herakles, was that rarity, a hero who was transformed into a god.

The Greeks had a long-standing tradition of honoring heroes in cult. Typically a hero was a local entity with an interest in the city or region in which he had a mythological history or in which his body rested; the cult was centered around the hero's grave or heroine, where the hero received sacrifices and votive offerings. He might also be provided with an upgraded grave marker2, or with a festival or festivals. While hero-cult did not exist in all parts of Greece3, it was not uncommon. Unlike the gods, whose influence might be split--and the Iliad shows the problems this could cause--a hero could be counted on to protect the interests of the community4.

A city's founder, whose interest in the well-being of the city would be natural and undoubted, often became a hero. However, a hero need not be originally a member of the community, as is shown by Athens' efforts to find the bones of Theseus on the island of Skyros and move them to Athens, where the Athenians would pay cult to the new addition and receive the subsequent benefits5.

A hero was considered to be a chthonic being and received the honor--blood offerings, food, libations--appropriate to such a being6. While some hero cults were begun in hope of gain, others were founded to appease a hero who had somehow been insulted and responded by sending famine or disease to a community. A wellcared- for hero, however, could provide any number of advantages to the community--good harvests, health to the people, and victory at war7.

Asklepios: Hero and God

It seems likely that Asklepios was originally a local hero, a physician, although there is little agreement as to his origin; he is associated with Epidauros, the site of one of his greatest temples and the location of the earliest piece of evidence for his worship. Epidauros, like many other cities, had a history of honoring healer heroes, Asklepios being the latest and by far the most successful of these, and there are good reasons to favor this origin (including the words of Delphic Apollo)8. It is hard to say just when Asklepios made the leap from hero to god, but it seems likely that this would have occurred before the process of becoming pan-Hellenic, as a purely localized hero would have been less mobile and less interested in anything other than local concerns. He was known at the time of Homer--his sons appear in the Iliad--but Homer gives no indication of his status.

Asklepios' great popularity can, at least in part, be credited to one Telemachos, who took upon himself the responsibility of establishing a private cult to the god in Athens. Very soon after, the Athenian state itself sponsored the cult, providing the god with temporary temple space in the Eleusinian9 and later with his own temple. The perceived sponsorship of the new arrival by Demeter and her daughter was surely a great boon to the growth of Asklepios' own cult10; similarly, several of Asklepios' other temples had originally been devoted to Apollo and were at some point likely to have been shared between father and son before they were turned over to Asklepios alone11. The Athenians were at that time recovering from a great and debilitating plague which had reduced their population by perhaps a third, and they had very likely exhausted all other spiritual options and were ready to welcome a kind god whose sole interest was the health and healing of humanity12.

Medicine And Magic

The relationship between physicians and priests was not, as one might expect, one of enmity. Both the cult of Asklepios and the practice of medicine in the Hippoocratic tradition began to develop rapidly at approximately the same time (the latter part of the fifth century BCE)13. They may not have worked in concert, but neither were they hostile. This isn't to say that all of Asklepios' recommendations were essentially practical ones, simply that his methods were not limited to the supernatural. Although some sought healing from the god after physicians had failed them, the remedies they were recommended were not greatly different from those that a secular doctor might provide because Asklepios, while he might provide a boost to the work of mortals, did not necessarily suggest purely spiritual remedies--in that, he was an ally of the physician14, and in fact the public physicians of Athens offered to him regularly15. The relationship between spiritual and scientific medicine varied over time and regionally; according to Kerenyi, the cult of Asklepios in Kos was far more practical and focused on the physician than was the case in Epidauros or in most other regions, due to Kos' preexisting focus on medicine16.

Healing And Health

Asklepios became, over time, the most important healing deity in Greece. Whether he was also a god one would commonly turn to for issues of maintaining one's existing health is debatable. Many of the other gods who shared this interest (his associate Hygieia, for example) were indeed focused on the preservation of health rather than the healing of illness17, although others such Apollo Paian, whose temples were eventually turned over to Asklepios, can be assumed to have had some interest in healing as well18. While there is evidence that Asklepios was also approached as a preventer of disease19, there is so much more information on his role as a healer of existing disease that it seems clear that the latter is by far his more important function.

Asklepios' Worship In The Ancient World

Asklepios was often honored in his own temples, which became quite widespread over time. The sick would pray for healing there, and leave votive thank-offerings when they were again well--a typical process for asking for individual favors from any god. In Asklepios' temples, however, a sick person could seek health in a different and unusual manner as well: incubation, in which the supplicant would spend the night in the temple, hoping for either a miraculous cure or (presumably more commonly) a dream directing him or her as to the best say to find that cure20.

Often a person who sought healing from Asklepios would approach him with a promise, telling the god what he or she would give him once he or she was healed21. When the healing had taken place, the person would give the god the gift in question, keeping the promise he or she had made. Again, this procedure was far from unique, and many or most of the offerings made to Asklepios were similar to those made to other gods in their own temples.

Most common were votive offerings of various sorts. While we may think first of the ubiquitous small terracotta votive figures, and these were of course very common, the size and value of the offering would depend on the financial status of the person making offering, as well as the degree of gratitude he or she felt toward the god.

Along with the terracotta figures, a supplicant on a budget could present the god with a terracotta or wooden plaque, to be hung on the temple walls or on nearby trees. These small plaques could also be made of more precious materials, gold or silver22.

Larger offerings might be attached to a pedestal, either on top if a statue or on the side as a stone plaque or relief sculpture23. A relief was likely to include an image of either the god in the act of healing the patient, or of the grateful recipient of healing making his or her offering to the god, perhaps accompanied by his or her family24.

Particularly interesting, and as far as I know unique to Asklepios, were the terracotta votive offerings, often lifesized, of parts of the body. These were not a universal phenomenon, and the type of offering varied somewhat with the region (for example, in Epidauros those who were healed would give an offering including a long, detailed description of the cure given), but in Corinth at least the life-size votive limbs and organs were very common25.

Asklepios welcomed offerings of many sorts, including cakes and other foods, and animals (a cock was common):

People in exchange for the fulfillment of their wishes could give and actually gave almost anything: money, frankincense, laurel, olive shoots, oak leaves, garlands, songs, branches, chaplets, pictures on which Asclepius was painted as well-doer...or brass rings..., candles..., offerings in in gold and silver... Some patients even dedicated their sandals to the god; they had made a long trip in order to visit him, and thus it seemed fitting that they should give him their shoes. Whatever it was, the god received it graciously.26

Unsurprisingly, after a temple had been in use for a while, time during which votive offerings left for the god by grateful supplicants would have filled the temples to overflowing, something would have to be done to make room for new offerings. Rules set by the temples as to where offerings could be placed27 would have done little to help the situation, and certainly a restriction on type of offering would have been particularly inappropriate in a sanctuary of Asklepios. The offerings belonged to the god, so simply discarding them was not an option28. On occasion the more valuable offerings, those made of precious metals, were melted down to make something new for a temple, but the rules for this procedure were very strict29. It was also considered acceptable to bury, in a respectful and pious manner, offerings which were old or which had become damaged30.

Unlike many Greek religious practices, the worship of Asklepios was primarily for the benefit of the individual. While individuals certainly made offerings of their own to all the gods, state-sponsored cults typically held festivals in hope of gaining favor for the city. By contrast, although the state recognized the need for a healing god and Asklepios' cult was state-sponsored, Asklepios was almost always approached by individuals31.

However, even though he was most commonly approached by lone men and women seeking aid for their own needs, Asklepios' festivals were the work of the state. In Athens he had two. One, the Epidauria, was held during the month of Boedromion, in the midst of the Eleusinian Mysteries (not only had Demeter shared her temple space with the healing god at need, she shared a place in her most sacred festival as well):

The advent of Asclepius was worked up into a myth which told that in his own lifetime on earth Asclepius had come to Athens to seek initiation, but had arrived too late for the preliminary ceremonies, so that they had all to be rushed through again for his benefit on this, the fourth day. His privilege provided a mythical justification for any other would-be initiates who had started belatedly on the ceremonies.32

The Epidauria included a procession, offerings and a feast33 --in other words, nothing atypical for a festival.

His other large festival was the Asclepieia, held during the month of Elaphebolion, within the City Dionysia. Little is known of this festival apart from the existence of a good-sized sacrifice, and presumably a feast to follow. Although Parke does not give evidence of a direct connection between Asklepios and Dionysos, as he does with regard to Asklepios and Demeter to justify the placement of the Epidauria, he does wonder whether in fact some link does exist and finds it suggestive that one of Asklepios' proponents was the playwright Sophokles34.

Asklepios' Worship In Modern Paganism

Asklepios has not received a lot of attention during the current resurgence of pagan religions, even among Hellenic reconstructionists. Possibly this has to do with his being a later addition to the Greek pantheon (and the notion that older deities or concepts of deity must necessarily be better), or of his having made the leap from hero to god (modern Hellenic polytheists have not at this point embraced the idea of hero-cult--nor those gods, such as Asklepios and Herakles--who started out as heroes).

However, I think it is more likely a function of the difficulty of adapting to a polytheistic religion--there are so many gods, and some people may prefer to limit the number they have regular personal dealings with. It seems to be much more common for someone in need to seek help with issues of health or healing from Apollo, and certainly as a god of purifications he is qualified, although historically he seems usually (although not universally) to have been more concerned with larger health issues--plagues and the like--than with individual needs. Additionally, there may be a question of whether Asklepios does in fact exist as a separate entity, or whether he is an aspect of Apollo. Finally there is Asklepios' narrow focus--unlike many of the gods, possessors of rich mythologies and multiple functions, he seems to be fairly single-minded, and some may equate that apparently narrow range of interest with the tendency in the later part of the era to deify concepts such as victory (Nike).

The polytheistic view of deity is one that perceives the gods as specialists. This does not mean that the power or ability of the gods is limited--if asked, and if amenable, any god can do any of those things we ask of them--merely that they are individuals with individual preferences and interests. For example, you could ask Athena for help with your love life, and if you have a good existing relationship with her she may well lend a hand, but her approach will certainly be different from that of Aphrodite, for whom those matters are far more of a priority. Asklepios is a healing god. That is what he does; that is what he likes to do.

He is also a responsive god, with an interest in the good of humanity. In my experience, Asklepios listens to sincere prayers and is more than willing to lend his abilities to those in need. He doesn't generally deal in miracles (although I certainly would not discount the possibility) but will support any efforts the person asking his aid makes on their own behalf.

Modern Worship and Offerings

With the obvious lack of modern temples to Asklepios, we moderns are at a slight disadvantage; however, even in ancient times a trip to the Asklepeion was not a requirement, and the god was thought to hear prayers made from home as well as those made within a temple.

The custom most strongly associated with Asklepios was incubation, sleeping in the temple in hope of finding a cure through dreams. Someone who is seeking Asklepios' aid might be advised to take particular note of any dreams he or she may have.

An offering to the god would also be a possibility. It was customary to promise a thank-offering during the initial prayer, and to present it after the cure had been completed; however, the timing of the offering could also depend on the type of offering being given, the nature of the help asked for, or of the ailment itself. In addition, the post-cure offering presupposes an ailment that can be quickly cured, and if you are asking for help with something chronic, or less cut-and-dried, you may want to give your offering after some improvement has been shown even if the ailment is still present to some degree.

Asklepios welcomed all sorts of offerings, so there's no need to be anxious about your choice. Traditional votives are appropriate, as are more seemingly-modern offerings such as candles and incense, perishable items such as food and flowers, and immaterial ones such as prayers and songs. In fact, this article you are reading right now is a thank-offering to Asklepios.

If you do choose to make a traditional votive offering, there is a wide range of possibilities; however, one type particular to the worship of Asklepios is the terracotta model of the part of the body you are asking to be healed. While making a life-sized model may be beyond our resources, a smaller one is far simpler and may be made of either oven-dried or air-dried clay without much difficulty.

Another consideration, and one to take into account while choosing the type of offering to make, is what to do with the offering once it is made. Songs and prayers, of course, will not be a problem for most people. Perishable offerings can be left on one's home altar for an appropriate length of time, which will vary with one's circumstances (for example, if you have house pets, you may not want to leave food offerings out for very long at all); if this is not possible, they can be left outdoors. More permanent offerings can also be left on the altar, indefinitely if an altar item or if you have room, for a shorter period of time if not. You can also bury these items in a respectful manner. if and when you are no longer able to keep them there.

Finally, you will want to consult your doctor or other health care provider in addition to any prayers or offerings you give to Asklepios. Asklepios, father of physicians, is most likely to help those also who take steps to ensure their own health.

End Notes

1 Timothy Gantz, Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, vol 1 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univeristy Press, 1993), p. 91.
2 Walter Burkert, Greek Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 203.
3 Robert Garland, Introducing New Gods: The Politics of Athenian Religion (London: Gerald Duckworth and Co., Ltd., 1992), p 32..
4 Garland, p. 97.
5 Garland, p. 82-98.
6 Burkert, p. 205.
7 Burkert, p. 206-7.
8 Garland, p. 117.
9 Garland, p. 123.
10 Garland, p. 124.
11 Garland, p. 118.
12 Garland, p. 131.
13 Garland, p. 116.
14 Robert Parker, Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), p. 249.
15 Robert Parker, Athenian Religion: A History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 184.
16 C. Kerenyi, Asklepios: Archetypal Image of the Physician's Existence (London: Thames and Hudson, 1959), p. 51.
17 Parker, Athenian Religion, p. 175.
18 Parker, Athenian Religion, p. 175.
19 Emma J. Edelstein and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, volume 2 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), p. 182-3.
20 Burkert, p. 215.
21 Jon D. Mikalson, Athenian Popular Religion (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1983), p. 23.
22 Folkert van Straten, "Votives and Votaries in Greek Sanctuaries," in Richard Buxton (ed.), Oxford Readings in Greek Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 195-6.
23 Van Straten, p. 192..
24 Van Straten, p. 198.
25 Garland, p. 123.
26 Edelstein and Edelstein, p. 190.
27 Van Straten, p. 213.
28 Van Straten, p. 214.
29 Van Straten,p. 215.
30 Simon Price, Religions of the Ancient Greeks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 59. 31 Garland, p. 134.
32 H. W. Parke, Festivals of the Athenians (London: Thames and Hudson, 1977), p. 64.
33 Parke, p. 65.
34 Parke, p. 135.

References

Burkert, Walter, trans John Raffan. Greek Religion. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985. (originally 1977)

Edelstein, Emma J. and Ludwig Edelstein. Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, Volume II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1945. (1998)

Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources, Volume 1. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Garland, Robert. Introducing New Gods: The Politics of Athenian Religion. London: Gerald Duckworth and Co., Ltd, 1992.

Kerenyi, C. Asklepios: Archetypal Image of the Physician's Existence. London: Thames and Hudson, 1959.

Mikalson, Jon D. Athenian Popular Religion. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1983.

Parke, H. W. Festivals of the Athenians. London: Thames and Hudson, 1977.

Parker, Robert. Athenian Religion: A History. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Parker, Robert. Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.

Price, Simon. Religions of the Ancient Greeks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

van Straten, Folkert. "Votives and Votaries in Greek Sanctuaries," in Richard Buxton (ed), Oxford Readings in Greek Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Author Information

Hester Butler-Ehle (Hearthstone)

Articles by Hester Butler-Ehle (Hearthstone)

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