Asclepius was most probably a skilled physician who practiced in Greece
around 1200BC (and described in Homer's Iliad). Eventually through myth
and legend he came to be worshipped as Asclepius, the (Greek) god of
Medical schools developed, which were usually connected to temples or
shrines called Asclepions (Asclepieia) dedicated to Asclepius. The
Asclepion became very important in Greek society. Patients believed
they could be cured by sleeping in them. They would visit, offering
gifts and sacrifices to the god, and be treated by priest healers
(called the Asclepiadae). The worship of Asclepius spread to Rome and
continued as late as the sixth century.
The Asclepiadae were a large order of priest physicians who controlled
the sacred secrets of healing, which were passed from father to son.
Harmless Aesculapian snakes were kept in the combination
hospital-temples built by the ancient Greeks and, later, by the Romans
in honor of the god. The snakes are found not only in their original
range of southern Europe, but also in the various places in Germany and
Austria where Roman temples had been established. Escaped snakes
survived and flourished.
Smooth, glossy, and slender, the snake has a uniformly brown back with
a streak of darker colour behind the eyes. The snake's belly is
yellowish or whitish and has ridged scales that catch easily on rough
surfaces, making it especially adapted for climbing trees. Scientific
classification: The Aesculapian snake belongs to the family Colubridae.
It is classified as Elaphe longissima.
Asclepius is the god of Healing. He is the son of Apollo and the nymph,
Coronis. While pregnant with Asclepius, Coronis secretly took a second,
mortal lover. When Apollo found out, he sent Artemis to kill her. While
burning on the funeral pyre, Apollo felt pity and rescued the unborn
child from the corpse. Asclepius was taught about medicine and healing
by the wise centaur, Cheiron, and became so skilled in it that he
succeeded in bringing one of his patients back from the dead. Zeus felt
that the immortality of the Gods was threatened and killed the healer
with a thunderbolt. At Apollo's request, Asclepius was placed among the
stars as Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer.
Meditrine, Hygeia and Panacea: The children of Asclepius included his
daughters Meditrina, Hygeia and Panacea who were symbols of medicine,
hygiene and healing (literally, "all healing") respectively. Two of the
sons of Asclepius appeared in Homer's Iliad as physicians in the Greek
army (Machaon and Podalirius).
The classic Hippocratice Oath is sworn "by Apollo the physician, by
Æsculapius, Hygeia, and Panacea"
In ancient times infection by parasitic worms was common. The filarial
worm Dracunculus medinensis aka "the fiery serpent", aka "the dragon of
Medina" aka "the guinea worm" crawled around the victim's body, just
under the skin. Physicians treated this infection by cutting a slit in
the patient's skin, just in front of the worm's path. As the worm
crawled out the cut, the physician carefully wound the pest around a
stick until the entire animal had been removed. It is believed that
because this type of infection was so common, physicians advertised
their services by displaying a sign with the worm on a stick.
From the early 16th century onwards, the staff of Asclepius and the
caduceus of Hermes were widely used as printers’ marks especially as
frontispieces to pharmacopoeias in the 17th and 18th centuries. Over
time the rod and serpent (the Asclepian staff) emerged as an
independent symbol of medicine.
Despite the unequivocal claim of the staff of Asclepius to represent
medicine (and healing), the caduceus, a rod with two entwined serpents
topped by a pair of wings appears to be the more popular symbol of
medicine in the United States, probably due to simple confusion between
the caduceus and the staff of Asclepius, the true symbol of medicine.
Many people use the word caduceus to mean both of these emblems.
The rod of Asclepius symbolizes the healing arts by combining the
serpent, which in shedding its skin is a symbol of rebirth and
fertility, with the staff, a symbol of authority befitting the god of
Medicine. The snake wrapped around the staff is widely claimed to be a
species of rat snake, Elaphe longissima, also known as the Aesculapian
or Asclepian snake. It is native to south eastern Europe, Asia Minor,
and some central European spa regions, apparently brought there by
Romans for their healing properties.
This "snake handler" is actually the demigod Asclepios/Aesculapius, the
Greek/Roman god of medicine, a son of Apollo who was taught the healing
arts by the centaur Chiron. Asclepius served aboard Argo as ship's
doctor of Jason (in the quest for the Golden Fleece) and became so good
at healing that he could bring people back from the dead. This made the
underworld ruler (Hades) complain to Zeus, who struck Asclepius with a
bolt of lightning but decided to honor him with a place in the sky, as
Ophiuchus. The Greeks identified Asclepius with the deified Egyptian
doctor Imhotep (27th century BC).
The Rod of Asclepius, symbol of medicine, is a single snake entwined
around a stick. Originally, the symbol may have depicted the treatment
of dracunculiasis (very common in the Ancient World) in which the long
parasitic worm was traditionally extracted through the patient's skin
by wrapping it around a stick over a period of days or weeks (because a
faster procedure might break the worm).
Any symbol involving a snake would seem natural for medicine: The snake
is a symbol of renewed life out of old shed skin, the perpetual renewal
of life evoked by the ouroboros symbol (a snake feeding on its own
tail). A snake around a walking stick is also an ancient symbol of
supernatural powers which can triumph over death, like medicine can
(biblically, the symbol of Moses' divine mission was his ability to
change his walking stick into a snake).
The large Ophiuchus constellation is one of the 88 modern
constellations. It was also one of the 48 traditional constellations
listed by Ptolemy. In both systems, it's one of only 13 zodiacal
constellations. By definition, a zodiacal constellation is a
constellation which is crossed by the ecliptic (the path traced by the
Sun on the celestial sphere, which is so named because that's where
solar eclipses occur).
As a path charted against the background of fixed stars, the ecliptic
is a remarkably stable line (since it's tied to the orbital motion of
the Earth, not its wobbling spin). It does not vary with the relatively
rapid precession of equinoxes (whose period is roughly 25772 years).
What does vary is the location on the ecliptic of the so-called "gamma
point" (the position of the Sun at the vernal equinox).
Ophiuchus is the only zodiacal constellation which has not given its
name to one of the 12 signs of the zodiac associated with the 12
traditional equal subdivisions of the solar year, which form the
calendar used by astrologers. However, some modern astrologers are
advocating a reformed system with uneven zodiacal signs, where
Ophiuchus has found its place...
Astrological belief systems are not proper subjects for scientific
investigation. Nevertheless, we must point out that it's a plain error
to associate Ophiuchus with the caduceus symbol (two snakes around a
winged staff) since that symbol of Hermes (messenger of the gods) is
associated with commerce, not medicine.
Ophiuchus is indeed properly associated with the Staff of Asclepius
symbol (one snake around a plain stick) the correct symbol of the
medical profession, which is mythologically tied to the Ophiuchus
In 1910, the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association
issued a resolution stating that "the true ancestral symbol of healing
art is the knotty pine and the [single] serpent of Aesculapius".