The Rod of Asclepius: The Symbol of Medicine from Ancient Greece

Rod of Asclepius
A symbol of health and medicine around the world to this day. Public Domain/Greek Reporter Illustration

The Rod of Asclepius remains a symbol of health and medicine around the world to this day. Asclepius was a demi-god son of Apollo, who developed such incredible powers of healing that his Rod continues to be a famous symbol associated with healthcare.

The Rod of Asclepius is featured on the logo of the World Health Organization. In addition, many pharmacies have this symbol displayed in their logos or on their signs.

The Rod of Asclepius (known also as the Staff of Asclepius) is a rod or staff with an entwined serpent.

According to Greek mythology, Asclepius was the god of healing and medicine. His father was the god Apollo and his mother was Coronis. The story goes that while Coronis was pregnant with Asclepius, she took another lover, which angered Apollo.

To punish the unfaithful Coronis, the god sent his sister, Artemis to kill her. While Coronis was being cremated on the funeral pyre, Apollo took pity on their unborn son and rescued him from the flames.

Grecian Delight supports Greece

In another version of the tale, Coronis didn’t die so soon but abandoned the baby Asclepius near Epidaurus, where he was looked after by a goat and a dog, as she was ashamed of his illegitimacy.

In any case, Asclepius was raised by Apollo, who taught him the art of healing. Additionally, he was tutored by Chiron, the wise centaur who inhabited Mount Pelion. Asclepius became such an accomplished healer that he was able to bring one of his patients back from the dead.

This alarmed Zeus, who felt that Asclepius’ skills could potentially grant mankind immortality, which would be a threat to the gods.

Thus, Zeus struck Asclepius down with a thunderbolt. In order to avenge the death of his son, Apollo killed the Cyclops who made this thunderbolt and therefore was punished by Zeus to serve Admetus, a king of Pheres in Thessaly.

According to the Romans, Apollo requested that Asclepius be placed amongst the stars, which was granted by Zeus, turning the former healer into the constellation Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer.

Asclepius appears in Homer’s well-known work, Iliad, as a skilled physician and father to two Greek doctors. However, the healer later became a heroic figure in the ancient world and eventually received god status.

Asclepius’ cult began in Thessaly but was popular in many parts of ancient Greece. He eventually was said to have a preference for curing the ill while they were sleeping, so people would often sleep in the temples of Asclepius. The Romans also adopted the deity from the Greeks.

Rod of Asclepius
Asclepius developed such incredible powers of healing that his Rod continues to be a famous symbol associated with healthcare. Public Domain.

The Serpent and Rod of Asclepius

There are three main theories that provide an explanation why the Rod of Asclepius has a serpent entwined around it.

The first is that the snake symbolizes the snake bite, which was the worst kind of disease someone could have in antiquity and very difficult to cure. However, Asclepius had the power to heal even the snake bite.

The second is the so-called “worm theory”, which is based on a technique used to remove parasitic worms that is found in the Ebers Papyrus , an ancient Egyptian medical document dating around the middle of the 2nd millennium BC.

In order to treat an infection by a parasitic worm, a physician would cut a slit in the patient’s skin, just in front of the worm’s path. As the worm made its way out of the cut, the physician would wind it up around a stick until it was removed from the patient’s body. The ‘end product’ would have resembled the Rod of Asclepius.

The other theory is of a Biblical nature. In the Old Testament, God had sent ‘fiery serpents’ to punish the Israelites who had spoken against Him and Moses. When they repented, God commanded Moses to erect a pole with a bronze serpent on it, so that all who looked upon it would not die from the bites.

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