While the healing god Asclepius is not a major player in Greek mythology, he is a pivotal one. Counted as one of the Argonauts, Asclepius came into contact with many of the major Greek heroes. Asclepius was also a causal figure in a drama played out between Apollo, Death, Zeus, the Cyclops, and Hercules. This story comes to us through Euripides' tragedy, Alcestis.
The Parents of Asclepius
Apollo (the brother of the virginal goddess Artemis) was no more chaste than any of the other (male) gods. His lovers and would-be lovers included Marpessa, Coronis, Daphne (one who got away by having herself transformed into a tree), Arsinoe, Cassandra (who paid for her scorn with the gift of prophecy no one believed), Cyrene, Melia, Eudne, Thero, Psamathe, Philonis, Chrysothemis, Hyacinthos, and Cyparissos. As a result of their union with Apollo, most of the women produced sons. One of these sons was Asclepius. The mother is debated. She may have been Coronis or Arsinoe, but whoever the mother was, she didn't live long enough to give birth to her healing god son.
The Creation of Asclepius
Apollo was a jealous god who was mightily displeased when a crow revealed that his lover was to marry a mortal, so he punished the messenger by changing the color of the formerly white bird to the now more familiar black. Apollo also punished his lover by burning her, although some say it was Artemis who actually disposed of the "faithless" Coronis (or Arsinoe). Before Coronis was completely incinerated, Apollo rescued the unborn infant from the flames. A similar event occurred when Zeus rescued the unborn Dionysus from Semele and sewed up the fetus in his thigh.
Asclepius may have been born in Epidauros (Epidaurus) of acoustically perfect theater fame Stephen Bertman: The Genesis of Science.
Asclepius' Upbringing - The Centaur Connection
The poor, newborn Asclepius needed someone to bring him up, so Apollo thought of the wise centaur Chiron (Cheiron) who seems to have been around forever -- or at least since the time of Apollo's father, Zeus. Chiron roamed the countryside of Crete while the king of the gods was growing up, hiding from his own father. Chiron trained several of the great Greek heroes (Achilles, Actaeon, Aristaeus, Jason, Medus, Patroclus, and Peleus) and willingly undertook the education of Asclepius.
Apollo was also a god of healing, but it wasn't he, but Chiron who taught the god's son Asclepius the healing arts. Athena also helped. She gave Asclepius the precious blood of the Gorgon Medusa.
The Story of Alcestis
The blood of the Gorgon, which Athena gave Asclepius, came from two very different veins. The blood from the right side could heal mankind -- even from death, while the blood from the left vein could kill, as Chiron would ultimately experience first-hand.
Asclepius matured into a capable healer, but after he brought mortals back to life -- Capaneus and Lycurgus (killed during the war of the Seven Against Thebes), and Hippolytus, son of Theseus -- a worried Zeus slew Asclepius with a thunderbolt.
Apollo was enraged, but getting mad at the king of the gods was futile, so he took out his anger on the creators of the thunderbolts, the Cyclops. Zeus, enraged in his turn, was prepared to hurl Apollo to Tartarus, but another god intervened -- possibly Apollo's mother, Leto. Zeus commuted his son's sentence to a year's term as herdsman to a human, King Admetus.
During his term in mortal servitude, Apollo grew fond of Admetus, a man doomed to die young. Since there was no longer an Asclepius with his Medusa-potion to resurrect the king, Admetus would be gone forever when he died. As a favor, Apollo negotiated a way for Admetus to avoid Death. If someone would die for Admetus, Death would let him go. The only person willing to make such a sacrifice was Admetus' beloved wife, Alcestis.
On the day Alcestis was substituted for Admetus and given to Death, Hercules arrived at the palace. He wondered about the display of mourning. Admetus tried to convince him nothing was wrong, but the servants, who missed their mistress, revealed the truth. Hercules set off for the Underworld to arrange for Alcestis' return to life.
The Offspring of Asclepius
Asclepius hadn't been killed immediately after leaving the centaur's school. He had had time to engage in various heroic endeavors, including fathering his share of children. His progeny would and did carry on the healing arts. Sons Machaon and Podalirius led 30 Greek ships to Troy from the city of Eurytos. It is unclear which of the two brothers healed Philoctetes during the Trojan War. Asclepius' daughter is Hygeia (connected with our word hygiene), goddess of health.
Other children of Asclepius are Janiscus, Alexenor, Aratus, Hygieia, Aegle, Iaso, and Panaceia.
The Name of Asclepius
You may find the name of Asclepius spelled Asculapius or Aesculapius (in Latin) and Asklepios (also, in Greek).
Shrines of Asclepius
The best known of the roughly 200 Greek shrines and temples of Asclepius were at Epidaurus, Cos, and Pergamum. These were places of healing with sanatoria, dream therapy, snakes, regimes of diet and exercise, and baths. The name of such a shrine to Asclepius is asclepieion/asklepieion (pl. asclepieia). Hippocrates is thought to have studied at Cos and Galen at Pergamum.
- Homer: Iliad 4.193-94 and 218-19
- Homeric Hymn to Asclepius
- Search Perseus for Apollodorus 3.10
- Pausanias 1.23.4, 2.10.2, 2.29.1, 4.3.1.