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Asclepius was originally a mortal and later became the god of medicine and healing, according to the ancient Greeks. The myth of Asclepius is connected to the origins of medical science and the healing arts. His cult was particularly popular all over Greece and people from all Meditarranean countries used to come to his temples, named Asclepieion, to be cured. Remains these temples can be seen till today. His story is pretty interesting and is actually a story of punishment.
Asclepius was said to be the son of god Apollo and a mortal woman from Trikala, Thessaly, named Coronis. While Coronis was pregnant, she fell in love with Ischys, another mortal man. When Apollo learned their secret affair, he sent his sister Artemis to kill Coronis. Indeed, Artemis burned Coronis on a funeral pyre. Meanwhile, Apollo, who was watching this scene and felt guilty of killing his unborn child, rescued the baby by cutting open the womb of the burning Coronis. This is thought to have been the first Cesarean section in human history. Apollo entrusted the baby to centaur Chiron, a strange yet wise creature, half-human half-horse, who was famous for his skills in medicine. Chiron then brought Asclepius up and became his mentor.
While Asclepius was growing up, he was becoming even more famous as a highly-regarded healer with exceptional skills. Aside from the art of surgery, Chiron had also taught him the effective use of drugs, incantations and aphrodisiacs as aids to healing. Asclepius was also said to have been given from goddess Athena a small bottle of Gorgon blood with magical properties. The Gorgons were mythical female monsters that had snakes for hair, wings, bronze claws and eyes that could turn a human into stone. The blood from the left side of a Gorgon was supposed to kill a mortal man, while the blood from a Gorgon's right side was believed to bring a dead person back to life. Therefore, a bottle of such blood was a powerful remedy in the hands of Asclepius, who used to go from town to town and heal people from pain and diseases.
Asclepius, in the ancient times, was almost always depicted as a middle-aged man holding a rod with a snake rapped around it. The snake symbolizes the snake bite, which was the worst kind of disease someone could have in the antiquity and very difficult to cure. However, Asclepius had the power to heal even the snake bite. This rod with the snake is known as the Rod of Asclepius and is even today the symbol of the physicians throughout the world.
Only a few things are known about the private life of Asclepius. We only know that he was married to Epione and had nine children, three sons and six daughters, who also had leaned some healing practices. According to some accounts, Asclepius fought during the Trojan War, on the Greek side, and there he healed Phyloctetes, a famous hero, from snake bite.
Asclepius was reputed to have preformed many miraculous cures, including the bringing back to life of many dead people. Reviving the dead people and making them immortal was a practice that outraged Hades, the god of the Underworld, who thought that the dead souls rightfully belonged to him. This practice also worried Zeus because Asclepius, in his way, was disturbing the normality of things and Nature. It is not normal for people not to die and live forever. Imagine the problems that something like that would bring in the future! That is why Zeus, at the instigation of Hades, decided to punish Aslcepius for the abnormalities he caused.
One day, he struck Asclepius down with a thunderbolt and gave him a tragic end. This punishment meant that a mortal man can reach only one certain limit in the natural order of things and it is forbidden to him to exceed this limit. With this action, Zeus also wanted to make the rest of the people understand that there is a bridgeless chasm between mortals and the gods. However, Zeus was fair enough to recognize the great service that Asclepius had offered to humanity and decided to turn him into a constellation to live forever in the sky.
After his death, people started to cult Asclepius as a god because he believed that, even dead, he had the power to help them get cured and release them from pain. They erected glorious temples to honour him,known as Asclepieion, in many Greek areas and islands and there people could go to seek for cure. Others, more favoured, used to go to learn the secrets of medicine. It is said that Hippocrates, the father of medicine, studied and started his medical career at the Asclepieion on Kos island.
An Asclepieion was actually a sanctuary to the god but also a healing centre very popular in the ancient times. People used to go there with the hope to get cured. To find out the right treatment for them, they spent the night in a sleeping room and the god himself was said to come to their dreams and tell them what to do in order to be cured. The other day, the patient narrated his dream to the priest of the Asclepieion and was given a treatment, as an explanation of the dream. Patients could also exercise in the close by gymnasiums and take baths in healing water.
Moreover, sometimes snakes were used in the healing practices, since these serpents were sacred to Asclepius, and non-poisonous snakes were left free in the dormitory, close to the patients to bring them luck and bless. The cult of Asclepius started to decline with the domination of Christianity but remains of his sanctuaries can still be seen today spread all over Greece. His most famous temples were situated in Trikala, his birthplace, Epidaurus and Kos.
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