Sunday, May 3, 2015

800 B.C: Asclepius will heal your asthma, part 1

This is a statue of Asclepius from the National
Museum at Athens.  The staff of Asclepius
appears to be missing. (2, page 44)
If you lived with asthma in ancient Greece around 800 B.C., chances were pretty good you worshiped the god Asclepius for health and healing.  He became the most proficient of all the Greek gods of medicine.

You didn't have to worship him, however, as nearly all the Greek gods had the ability to cause injuries and disease and the power to heal, especially Hermes, Paeon, Apollo, Hercules and Athena.

Yet these gods had other interests they had to concentrate on, so they may not have the time to help you. Their temples were dedicated not only to the sick, but to others who might need help improving their lot in life. (13, page 92)

About the time of Homer "the cult of a special god of healing arose, on whose sole office was the cure of sickness and the preservation of health. This was the cult of Asclepios, whose temples formed the chief and laterally the only seat of theurgic medicine, and were held in such estimation that they survived the Olympian fall," said medical historian Max Neuburger in his 1910 book "History of Medicine." (13, page 92)

So the god who would become the ultimate god of health and healing was Asclepius, the son of Apollo. He would become "the chief healing god," according to Henry E. Sigerist in his book "A History of Medicine."  (1, page 45-6)

Of Asclepius, Sigerist said:
The rise of Asclepius was possible only because the legend made him the son of Apollo.  In Delphi, Apollo had his famous oracle.  He was seer but also physician...  He (Apollo) is the first deity invoked in the Hippocratic Oath, where he appears as Apollo the Physician. (1, page 45-6)
Neuburger said Apollo was the founder of medicine, but he was also known to bring on "pestilence and death on man by his far-reaching darts (sun rays), who was early identified with Paeon, physician of the gods."  He said Apollo may have taught his son medicine, although more likely this job was left to the Chiron, the son of Saturn.  (13, page 92-93)

Chiron was the only immortal centaur.
Here, he is showing a young Apollo
how to shoot arrows with a bow.
He also taught Apollo's son, Asclepius.
Chiron was another legendary figure whose significance arose the same time as did the Asclepions, after the time of Homer. He was a half horse, half god called a centaur who, according to Sigerist...
"...dwelt in a cave on Mount Pelion, in Thessaly, like the other centaurs, deeply skilled in the arts of hunting, music and medicine.  In the history of mythologic founders of medicine, he was considered the discoverer of medicinal properties of many herb... (mastered them), and passed it (his medical wisdom) on to his pupils." (1, page 50)
Chiron obtained his knowledge from Apollo and Apollo's sister Artemis. Chiron became a skilled surgeon, an excellent musician, and was well versed in lore.  These skills made him a gifted and entertaining story teller with the ability to share knowledge of the past and present.  (7, page 76)

Apollo, who some speculate may have been an actual physician around 1200 B.C., wanted to make sure his son was the most proficient physician of all time, and so he sent him to Chiron to be educated.

Sigerist explained that around 700 B.C. Hesiod described one version of the story of the birth of Asclepius:
This statue of Asclepius is from
the National Museum as Saples.
It depicts Asclepius with his staff.
(2, page 45)
In the Boebian Lake, the lake of Phoebus, the beautiful maiden Coronis... was bathing her feet when Apollo saw her and desired her.  She became pregnant with the god's child but her (Corois's) father had promised (Coronis) to her cousin Ischys.  The day of the wedding came when the raven, a white bird until then, brought the evil news to Delphi, Apollo's seat.  The god in his wrath first punished the messenger of evil tidings, who from then on exhibited the black color of mourning and was feared as a herald of disaster.  He then killed Ischys, shooting his darts at him, while his sister hit Coronis and her innocent companions.  But when the god saw the body of his beloved in the pyre, he felt pity for the unborn child, removed him from the mother's womb, and brought him to the cave of Chiron on Mount Pelion (in Thessaly). There Asclepius grew up, instructed by the Centaur in the treatment of diseases with incantations, herbs, and the knife.  He became a famous physician, sought by many far and wide, and became so self-assured that he even resuscitated the dead, whereupon Zeus slew him with his thunderbolt. (1, page 52)
Asclepius and Achilles were the two most famous pupils of Chiron.  However, Sigerist said that Homer never referred to Achilles as a physician in the Illiad. Perhaps it was for this reason that Asclepius eclipsed even Apollo himself as the most significant healing god, and Asclepius was worshiped many places around the world, including Ancient Rome where he was referred to as Aesculapius.

There were actually many theories as to why Asclepius became such an important healing god. Some say he was an actual physician who was so skilled that, like his father Apollo, his legend turned him into a god.

How Asclepius really died may never be known, but legend has it (as noted above by Sigerist) he was "destroyed by a thunderbold of Zeus," said medical historian Fielding Hudson Garrison in his 1922 book "An introduction to the history of medicine."   (7, page 76)

Some speculate that Zeus may have done this because he was afraid the healing methods of Asclepius might make immortals of all the humans.  The result was that Asclepius became the most significant god of health and healing of all time.  (11, page 3)

He even became "so powerful that when Christianity entered the world as a religion that promised healing and redemption, he (Asclepius), of all pagan gods, was the only serious competitor of Christ," according to Sigerist.  (1, page 51)

He was such a significant figure that William Osler, the so called father of modern medicine, said of him during a lecture at Yale University in April of 1913:
No god made with hands, to use the scriptural phrase, had a more successful 'run' than Asklepios -- for more than a thousand years the counsoler and healer of the sons of men.  Shorn of his divine attributes he remains our patron saint, our emblematic God of Healing, whose figure with the serpents in our seals and charters. (2, page 43)
Osler was referring here to the seal of medicine.  Asclepius was such a significant figure that his symbol, of a rod with two snakes wrapped around it, continues to be the symbol (although modified slightly) of medicine to this day.

This symbol probably comes from the many busts and statues of Asclepius that depict him as a sagacious middle aged man with curly hair and beard, and he's usually carrying a staff with a serpent (perhaps the deadly type) wound round it with the head close to the hands of Asclepius, according to Albert Henry Buck in his 1917 book "The growth of medicine from the earliest times to about 1800."  (8, page 62)  

Buck explained that despite the deadly serpent's head being ready to strike, the face of Asclepius is calm and "unconcerned," perhaps representing his ability to remedy things that are known to be a threat to life.  (8, page 62)

Buck said:
"In the estimation of the Ancient Greeks this fearlessness was undoubtedly attributed to the supernatural power which they believed Aesculapius to possess over dangerous serpents as well as over diseases of all kind. "  (8, page 62, 63)
Some speculate the snakes represent the two opposing forces of medicine, sickness and health.  Some speculate the rod is a symbol of authority.  The serpent and the staff were not unique to Greece, as they became symbols of medicine throughout the ancient world.

Most of the gods had temples dedicated to them at various locations around Greece.  Osler said that it was around the 5th century B.C. that some of these temples were turned into places of learning.  While Asclepius was the most significant healing god at this time, his temples became the most significant of all these medical schools.  (2, page 39)

His temples became known as Asclepions. Garrison said that most of these Asclepions were set into mountainsides, with the most famous being the Asclepions at Cos, Cnidus, Epidaurus, and Pergamus (7, page 76)(13, page 94)

John Watson, in his book 1856 book "The Medical Profession in Ancient Times." said these temples would:
"Serve as schools of instruction, and as asylums for the sick.  They furnished the nucleus for which, in process of time, were developed other institutions and organizations.  As schools, the most ancient of them is said to have been Titane, near Sicyon." (5, page 26)
Neuburger said Asclepius introduced music and gymnastics into medicine. Built near the temples were gymnasiums. He said:
It is remarkable that the Asclepios cult flourished mostly in places which, through climate or hygienic advantages, were natural health resorts. Those favoured spots on hill or mountain, in the helter of forests, by rivers or springs of pure flowing water, were conducive to health. The vivifying air, the well cultivated garden surrounding the shrine, the magnificent view, all tended to cheer the heart with new hope of cure. Many of the temples owed their fame to mineral or merely hot springs. To the homely altars, erected originally by sacred fountains in the neighborhood of healthy-giving mineral springs, were later added magnificent temples, pleasure-grounds for festivals, gymnasia in which bodily ailments were treated by physical exercises, baths and inunctions (rubbing ointment on the skin), also, as in proved by excavations, living rooms for the patients (hostels)."
Renouard said that at some point:
"The gymnasium were no longer, as formerly, places devoted entirely to bodily exercise; they were surrounded by halls and porticos where philosophers, rhetoricians, artists and physicians assembled to hold their schools and dispute on questions of art." (9, page 80)
So Asclepius "became one of the most popular of the gods.  By the time of Alexander it is estimated that there were between three and four hundred temples dedicated to him."  (2, page 49)

Further reading and references:  800 B.C Asclepius will heal your asthma, part 2
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