Aesculapius (Asklepios to the Greeks) was a god of healing and was venerated in the ancient world as the patron deity of physicians. His cult, established in Greece in the fourth century B.C., became common throughout the Greco-Roman world, and even today his symbols—a staff and snake—are used universally as the symbols of medicine.

Aesculapius was said to be the mortal son of Apollo and the nymph Coronis. According to legend, Coronis was Apollo’s lover, but because she was unfaithful to him, his sister, Artemis, killed her. Apollo, however, felt sorry for her, and as her body began to burn on the funeral pyre, he snatched the unborn Aesculapius from his mother’s corpse and saved him. Apollo gave his son to the centaur Chiron to be raised and educated; Chiron taught him the arts of healing and surgery, and Athena gave him a potent healing potion made from the blood of the Gorgon, one of the three snake-headed sisters that included Medusa. Because Aesculapius was able to revive the dead, the chief god Zeus was offended and killed him with a thunderbolt. Afterward he deified Aesculapius, placing him in the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer. Aesculapius is also said to be the father of daughters Hygieia (the personification of health; thus the word “hygiene”) and Panacea (all-healing).

The cult of Aesculapius included a number of major temples and shrines (known as Askelopeiae). Invalids who visited them hoping for a cure were commonly treated through incubation: patients would spend a night in a dormitory, during which the god would visit them in a dream. Priests would interpret the dreams and use them to recommend a remedy, perhaps a visit to a bath.

The iconography of Aesculapius invariably features snakes, which were considered to have healing qualities, perhaps because of their ability to renew themselves by shedding their skin. Snakes were often kept in shrines to Aesculapius, and they may have been placed in the rooms of patients undergoing incubation. Often images show a snake being tended to by Hygieia. The more familiar symbol is Aesculapius’s staff wrapped in a snake; the staff suggests the support Aesculapius gives the ill, and the snake represents youth and healing.—M.S.