Slithering symbolism

A bearded man wears a long robe with a bare chest; in his hand, he holds a wooden staff with a serpent coiled around it. Does this figure ring any bells? If not, you clearly have not heard of Asclepios

The legend of Asclepios

Original file by Michael F. Mehnert, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Asclepios represents the art of medicine in Greek mythology. He was the son of Apollo and was taught medicine by a centaur (the half-man, half-horse creatures like in Narnia). Asclepios became an outstanding healer, with prowess so great that he discovered a way to avoid death and even perform resurrections – he allegedly learned these secrets after observing a serpent bringing healing herbs to another serpent.

Hades, the ruler of the underworld, was infuriated by this because his subjects were leaving his subterranean kingdom. So he complained to his brother Zeus who struck the physician with a mighty thunderbolt, killing him instantly. Despite this, Zeus wanted to honor Asclepios’ good work, so he placed him in the starry heavens as a constellation named Ophiuchus , or “serpent-bearer”. In our latitude, Ophiuchus peaks in the southern horizon around July. In astrology, this constellation was left out to fit the 12-month-calendar, but anyone born between November 29th and December 18th actually has the Ophiuchus as their zodiac sign.

After Asclepios

Asclepios is thought to have been an actual person who lived in ancient Greece. After his death, his legacy was immortalized in myths and legends, ultimately giving him the status of a hero and demigod. Temples called Asclepeions were raised in his name around the Aegean sea, where a common belief was that Asclepios would present himself in the dreams of sick people and cure them. Many people slept in these supposedly healing temples in hopes of getting better, i.e., they were the forerunners of hospitals. It is even said that Hippocrates (often considered the Father of Medicine) began his career in one of these temples.

Even the names of fauna and flora have been affected by Asclepios, such as the Aesculapian snake that was adored and frequently seen around the temples or the plant genus Asclepias (a.k.a. milkweed) which was named by the Swedish botanist Carl von Linné because of the plant’s medicinal uses. 

Stretching beyond symbolism, many people today owe their lives to snakes. In fact, several of the most common medications used to treat high blood pressure, such as ACE inhibitors, are derived from snake-venom.

Slithering symbolism today

Today, the Rod of Asclepios is a universal emblem for medical sciences. For example, it is a symbol for Medicinska Föreningen, Karolinska Institutet, and WHO. Moreover, KI has two additional symbols: the snake bowl of Hygieia (daughter of Asclepios and symbol of cleanliness and hygiene) and the cockerel that was sacrificed in gratitude to Asclepios by those who recovered from illness.

The bowl of Hygieia, the rod of Asclepios, and the cockerel on Karolinska Institutet’s entrance. Image credits: Inika Prasad

It should be noted that the Rod of Asclepius is frequently and incorrectly confused with the Caduceus, which is a shorter staff entwined by two serpents and often surmounted by wings; this is the staff of Hermes, the messenger of gods and patron of commerce.

However, next time you see a man with a staff and a snake coiling around it, you might now think of Asclepios for a second! Who knows, you may even look up at the starry sky in July and take a moment to appreciate the mesmerizing constellation named in honor of Asclepios, the serpent bearer.

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Author: Mikail Yilmaz

Editor: Tom Enriko Kelt

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