Temple of Asclepius

Dedicated to none other than the God of medicine, this monument is as important as it is unknown. Don’t forget to visit the temple of Asclepius when you enter the Acropolis of Athens. This refers to a time when there was no medicine as such, so this being of Greek mythology was your only salvation.

Hello, traveler! I am a tour guide in Athens and welcome to this special blog. Are you interested in the the Temple of Asclepius? Here you will find EVERYTHING you need to know about it. 

(The reconstruction of the Temple of Asclepius (in Athens) from the remains found in the twentieth century)

Note: This article is part of the virtual tour of the Acropolis of Athens that we offer free of charge on our website. If you do not know what this is about and want to find out EVERYTHING about this sacred enclosure (including the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, the theater of Dionysus, etc.), then you should visit the homepage.

The temple of Asclepius is located on the southern slope of the Acropolis of Athens, next to the theater of Dionysus. This is important as it often goes unnoticed. Let’s see why this temple, and its God, are so important…


History of the temple of Asclepius

In ancient Greece, healing was considered something supernatural. That is why the “doctors” who treated them were the priests themselves. According to Greek mythology, diseases were sent by their Gods, while they were also the ones who had the power to cure them.

It was in this context (5th century B.C.) when places like the temple of Asclepius in Athens became so important, and there were even 400 different Asclepions (whose meaning would be something like “home of Asclepius”). Other well-known temples or sanctuaries are those of Epidaurus, Kos, Pergamon. The most important of all the sanctuaries of Asclepius is located in Epidaurus.

Let me tell you how these extraordinary “hospitals” worked, as there were three different parts:

Also, what was the procedure of the patient’s healing inside the temple of Asclepius?

First, the patient was purified through baths, massages, fasting, and even animal sacrifices. This ceremony could last for days, after which the patient was taken to the incubation room, where the “miracle” would occur:

The key to healing was when dreaming; because then, the sick person came in contact with this God. Asclepius would appear to them in their dreams, cure the disease with his power, and also suggest further treatment. 

There are all kinds of fascinating testimonies in which the ancient Hellenes claim to have seen God in their dreams and to have felt instantaneous healing. One that really caught my attention is that of a woman who claimed to have become pregnant after a young man, supposedly the personification of Asclepius, touched her womb during the incubation process (while she was sleeping).

I believe that as important as the temple of Asclepius is precisely the God to whom it is dedicated. Let me tell you about this interesting fact:

The myth of Asclepius

According to Greek mythology, Asclepius was the son of the almighty Apollo (God of Olympus) and the beautiful Coronis (a mortal from the ancient city of Thessaly). This woman became pregnant by giving herself to the sun since Apollo was the god of the sun and light.

While still pregnant, Coronis was married to another man, which infuriated this God so much that he finally decided to kill him. While his sister Artemis – indeed, Apollo was the brother of the goddess of the hunt – takes it upon herself to kill his new wife.

So, what about Asclepius?

Actually, these things are common incidents in Greek mythology.

Apollo managed to get Asclepius out of his dead mother’s womb and gave the baby to the centaur Chiron (a great babysitter), who would later teach him all about the healing arts and medicinal plants.

In his adulthood, Asclepius had become so good at his craft that he could even bring the deceased back to life. Of course, this caused uneasiness to Zeus, as he was afraid that the Underworld would become empty.

Just as it would later happen with King Erechtheus (in the temple of the Erechtheion on the Acropolis), Zeus killed the God of healing with a thunderbolt. Thus, this man ascended to heaven as a deity, depriving the Hellenes of his powers, as well. From this moment on, the sick would have to go to the Asclepion to worship the God, hoping that Asclepius could help them with their problems.

But luckily, the legacy of Asclepius continued:

The Greek God of medicine and his descendants

You are already a bit familiar with Asclepius’ biography. However, now you are going to find out more about his family. It turns out that we encounter a few interesting facts about it. 

As it could not be otherwise, all the God’s entourage shared the same dedication:

His wife was in charge of soothing PAIN, which strangely enough was called Epione. His daughter symbolized PREVENTION through cleanliness and sanitation, and by the way, her name was Hygiene (crossed out) Hygeia. Another daughter was called Panacea, who specialized in medicinal plants to such an extent that she invented a potion that cured EVERYTHING (what a Panacea!).

So many coincidences together!

Let’s find out more about the sons:

Telesphorus was a dwarf who always had his head covered and symbolized the CONVALECENCE of the sick and their recovery. The latter were Macaon and Podalirius, both of whom appear in Homer’s Iliad as doctors and military generals. Later they were considered the Gods who were PROTECTORS of the surgeons.

Asclepius and the snake – Symbol of Medicine

In addition to ideas for terms we use today (names of relatives in the previous section), our beloved Asclepius also left us the current symbol of medicine: the snake.

How does this happen?

The cult of this God arrived in Athens in the 5th century B.C. (when the temple of Asclepius in Athens was built), bringing with it the cult of this animal. In fact, it is said that snakes, like dogs, helped in the healing process by licking the wounds of the sick.

The staff or rod of Asclepius

The staff has always been a symbol of medicine as a profession, while the snake symbolized rejuvenation due to its ability to shed its skin constantly. 

What’s more, in other cultures, snakes are considered capable of raising the dead, a privileged power it shared with Asclepius (which, by the way, led him to die; See the section dedicated to this god for further details). 

It was only a matter of time before both elements came together, giving existence to a rod that could cure EVERYTHING, and even RESURRECT. How could it be otherwise? This happened in the hands of Asclepius: the GREEK God of medicine
Congratulations, traveler, on reading this far! You’re definitely getting ready to make the most of your visit to the Acropolis of Athens. You can now skip to the next monument (Temple of Athena Nike) and continue with our virtual tour.

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