By: Morris Weiss, M.D.


Tonight I wish to identify and understand Telesphoros, son of Asklepios, a hooded dwarf figure.

     To do this, we must also develop the personality of his father, Asklepios.

     These two characters must be viewed against the backdrop of the cult of Asklepios.

     So my task in the next hour is formidable.  Paint a broad picture of the cult and detail in these two personalities.


     At the feet of the god Asklepios was sometimes shown a curious dwarf - a childlike figure enveloped in a hooded cloak.  This was Telesphoros, god of convalescence, whose powers complemented and logically extended those of the other Asklepian healer deities.  Convalescence was considered an integral and important aspect of healings by the Asclepiades and other ancient writers and systems and Telesphoros was devised to acknowledge these needs.

     I discovered this small votive statue of Telesphoros, as an isolated listing in a catalogue of archaeology books.  I have used this document as a starting point to look at this god, son of Asklepios plus the entire family of Asklepios.  A motive driven by the recent need for people to consider their “roots”.  This phenomena has seen a resurgence in genealogy, archaeology, paleontology, philosophy and other disciplines concerned with the origins of man and his institutions, both ancient and modern.

     Telesphoros was added to the family of Asklepios at Pergamen, a great Asklepian cult center in Asia Minor and a direct descendant of the parent Asklepian on the mainland of Greece at Epidauros.  The Pergamene Asklepian was founded - the 4th century B.C. and reached its zenith in the 2nd century A.D.  The sick and injured came “from far and wide” for a cure in the sanctuary.  Here were found in addition to a temple and altar to Asklepios, temples to Apollo, Hygieia and Telesphoros.  Aelius Aristides, a wealthy young man of the 2nd century A.D., spent several years in various Asklepieians, for a variety of illnesses, including two years at Pergamen where he records the presence of a famous statue of Telesphoros in the temple of Hygieia, a monument that has not survived to modern times. (1) (2)

     Tonight we will discuss all that is known of this obscure child of Asklepios.  To do this we must understand who Asklepios was and the growth of his cult from the late 6th century B.C. until the end of the Roman Empire in the 4th century A.D.

     First, we shall touch upon the genealogy and myth of Asklepios and how this was developed and modified over nearly 1,000 years.

     Second, we will discuss the cult of Asklepios with emphasis on what happened in the temples during the process of “cure” and follow the cults’ migration around the classical world.  Looking at Epidauros, Corinth, Kos Pergamen and Rome.

     Finally, try to understand Telesphoros.


Who was Asklepios?


     In the Iliad, Homer’s great epic poem, we first see Asklepios recorded.  In the Iliad he is a mortal, the “Blameless physician” - not a god (divine being).  Only later does the “hero” take on divine status.  In the Iliad, his two sons Marchaon and Podalerios appear as the military liaisons of warriors from Thessaly in Northern Greece, who participated in the common venture of the Greeks against the Trojans, where the Hellenic tribes first came into contact with the pre-Hellenic world of the Mediterranean basin.  Asklepios is called Lord of Tricca, a city state in Thessaly.  Hence, this man who was the king of Tricca, a lesser state was also a renowned physician who eventually became the god of Physicians.  Other Greek heroes were known to treat wounds but none were referred to primarily as “the blameless physician”.

     This story is held true for the ancient writers Pindar, Srabo and Hesiod, who held Asklepios as a mortal hero, but of lesser status at that time than the great warrior kinds Agamennom and Menelaus, key figures in the Iliad.

     The myth as developed at Epidauros showed a classic Greek genealogy.  To go from a mortal to a god required a detailed pedigree including his birth, education, deeds, and death.  Pindar the Greek poet gives this in coherent detail.  Homer’s 9th century B.C. reporting in the Iliad of events of the 13th/12th century B.C. So in the 300 years following the myth was developed in its entirety.

     Thus, Asklepios acquired his divine status during the early historical period of ancient Greek history.  The original gods such as Zeus and Apollo are lost in the mists of prehistory.  They occupied their seats in the divine abode long before any records survive and their origin is hidden form the eyes of the modern interpreter.  However, their pedigrees are used to create the myths of later gods and goddesses.

     Asklepios was the son of Apollo (Sun god and god of healing) and Coronis, daughter of King Phlegyas.  Coronis was a mortal.  She proved faithless and with her lover (Ischys) was slain by Artemis at the request of Apollo.  Apollo snatched his unborn son, Asklepios, from his mother’s womb on the funeral pyre and entrusted him to the centaur (half man/half horse) Chiron who taught him medicine and herbs.  In the environs of Tricca can be found the mountain and caves where Chiron lived and taught Asklepios.

     In addition to various cures and miracles ascribed to Asklepios is the restoration to life of the man names Hippolytus - for this Asklepios was slain by a thunderbolt of Zeus.  This part of the myth of birth to death to life again becomes very important some 600 years with later, with the advent of Christianity.

     Epidauros, the first major cult site, modified the myth to fit her local geography and to assume ascendancy as the authentic Asklepian site, but Kos always considered Tricca as the mother site.  Archaeologically, little remains at Tricca since the buildings of the late 6th century B.C. are under the modern village.  At Epidauros extensive ruins are found.  Thus far at other sites no temples to Asklepios are earlier than the late 6th century B.C. temple at Epidauros. (4) (5)

     The family of Asklepios is important.  He is always discussed with his children, his wives, including sons and daughters.  He rarely acted without his children.  They were part of his own nature as it were.  His wife is generally called Epione and his children include:

1)     Machaon – warrior king and physician in the Iliad.

2)     Podalirios – warrior king and physician in the Iliad.

3)     Hygieia – personified health, an Athenian creation.

The most important of his attendants with her own cult at Titane.

4)     Panaceia – goddess of universal remedy.  Originally, an independent goddess that got linked to him later.

“All healer”.

5)     Iaso – originated in 5th century B.C. and is a daughter of healing.

6)     Aceso – originated in Epidauros.  Daughter of healing.

7)     Telesphoros – a late Pergamene addition to the cult.

There are no literary inscriptions; only art works and a rare inscription found.  God of Convalescence.

8)     Enamerion (possibly Telesphoros by another name) and described by the traveler Pansanias.

9)     Acesis – known only by his name and worshipped at Epidauros.

All his divine children and his divine wife are personifications of abstract of medical functions – a fact recognized by ancient and modern writers.  When the Athenians invoked Asklepios, they called him “sire” and his offspring, “blest”.

     The hymns carefully enumerated all the sons and daughters of the god.  They asked them to appear and lend their help.  Obviously the father, the mother, and their offspring, in the eyes of the worshipper, were a unity.  Aristophanes, the playwright, pictured one of the cures of Asklepios, his task supported by his daughters.  In the end of the 5th century B.C., Epione was considered his wife.  Ancients themselves found in the meaning of his name, “The one who gently pains with the sick.”  For his wife, there is no word about her origin and no tale concerning her marriage to Asklepios, and nowhere does it suggest where she gave birth to her children.  She is a mere double of the god so that he may have means of producing offspring.


What is the meaning of the Legend?


The main content and date of the Asklepios legend has been determined but the data reviewed so far does not give more than the broad outlines of a saga.  What kind of myth is the one attached to Asklepios?  Does it echo certain facts in the lives of real individuals or tribes?  Is it designed to explain a cult or ritual?  If it is not a historical fact, does it symbolize the images of human fantasies, the hopes and fears of men, their estimation or life, and the destiny or fate of mortal beings?

     The hero, half human and half divine, must be a member of the human family.  He must also be assigned to some native land.  All agree that Asklepios arose the Dotian plain of Thessaly in northern Greece.

     Asklepios is always said to be the son of Apollo.  This never varies throughout all of antiquity.  Apollo was revered everywhere.  Any Greek tribe would consider him the Father of the hero.

     What is the significance of Asklepios being treated as the son of Apollo?  Is the divine genealogy merely a title to higher rank and greater dignity?  Or is he related to Apollo to represent one particular task, one of the many skills over which this god presided?

     In the old sagas, Apollo was connected as a god of medicine, the sender of disease and the liberator from the illness.  Asklepios’ birth is a very singular event with no parallel of any other hero.  Besides, Apollo is made to play the part of a physician when the hand of the god miraculously penetrates Coronis’ body saving the baby.  Pindar says it was Apollo’s intention that Asklepios should learn how to heal mortal men of painful maladies.  Thus the hero was not merely descended from Apollo, the physician; he was expected by his father to follow the paternal calling.  Was this the only destiny Asklepios was meant to have?  A great hero should have more than just thoughts about medicine.  He should also have exploits in war and other ventures.  Yet in fact, Asklepios’ record as a hero among heroes is not too impressive.  He participated in the voyage of the Argonants and wild animal hunts (Calydonian Boar Hunt) but these were added to embellish his reputation by others in later centuries to strengthen his myth.

     What did the father of the family look like?  And what is the meaning of his symbols?

     Both in Greek and in Roman art Asklepios was usually depicted in the manner chosen for statues of contemporary physicians, a powerful bearded man of middle or advancing years, with bare or sandaled feet and an ankle–length cloak slung across the left shoulder.  His distinctive attribute was a snake–entwined staff, and Hygieia, too, is often shown with the same symbol of healing (36, 37).  For amongst other powers and duties she assisted in the temple and fed the snakes that were sacred to her father.  The staff probably signified the long walking stick used by Greek travelers.  This would have been a natural attribute of Asklepios, who journeyed widely, first as a mortal physician and later as a healing god.  It was undoubtedly imbued, too, with symbolic meaning, as a support or relief for the sick (3).  Snakes have many characteristics which are open to symbolic interpretation, and they have a long history in early religions.  In the pagan Greco–Roman world they seldom inspired the fear and horror that is often seen today, nor did they bear the connotations of evil ascribed to them in Christian literature.  Instead, they were usually regarded as beneficent, and were not only kept as zoological exhibits or pets, but were also valued for apotropaic and prophetic qualities.  Their long association with fertility and healing deities and with the chthonian spirits of the underworld is understandable in view of their tendency to emerge from and disappear into crevices in the ground, Mother Earth, who received the dead but from whom new life sprang.  Equally, by reason of the yearly renewal of their skin, snakes became a widespread and powerful symbol of rejuvenation and restored health, they were particularly appropriate to Asklepios (4).

     At Epidauros, above all other Asklepian sanctuaries, the snake was the typical attribute of the god.  There alone, according to the Greek traveler and geographer Pausanias, was found the specific type of snake that was tame with humans and sacred to Asklepios.  The Asklepian snake has been identified as Elaphe longissima longissima, a harmless yellow species now native to south–east Europe (5).  It was the combination of mystery, power and beneficence that made it such an appropriate attribute of the kindly god of healing.  In his cult these snakes also took an active part, for they were sometimes the intermediaries through which the god’s cures were wrought.  Dogs, too, were believed to be possessed of healing qualities and were sometimes shown as companions to Asklepios and other healing deities.

     Now we must take a few minutes and look at the sanctuaries around the Mediterranean basin.  Previously, we looked at the archaeological remains and architectural plans of Epidauros.  Now a few slides to reveal Epidauros in greater detail and look at Kos and Rome, Corinth, and Athens.

     Kos is important because this is the home of Hippocrates whose school of medicine lived side by side with the cult of Asklepios.  Rome is important because of the introduction of this cult during a plague in the years B.C. 295 - 293 and exposure to the western world; Corinth because of the quality of the excavation and Athens the center of Greek culture.


Comments on Corinth


     In Corinth, as elsewhere in Greece, the shrine of Asklepios was set apart from the city-center and bustle (Plutarch-Moralia 286D).  In that Plutarch asks, “Why is the shrine of Asklepios outside the city?” and wonders in answer, “If the way of life is not more helpful than in town.”  Vitruvius in his treatise On Architecture (1.2.7) recommended that “the healthiest regions and suitable springs of water therein be chosen first for all temples and particularly for Asklepios, Hygieia, and those gods by whose medical art very many of the sick seem to be cured.  For when sick bodies are transferred from a pestilent to a healthy spot and are treated with water from wholesome fountains, they will recover more quickly.

     The Corinth’s Asklepieian was located just inside the city wall, a fair distance from the center of town and immediately adjacent to a spring.  This Asklepieian was built on top of a previous shrine to Apollo, also a god of healing.  When and how Asklepios came into the picture is uncertain but if may judge both from what happened elsewhere and from the mythological accounts of their relationship, it appears that Asklepios joined Apollo first in perhaps a junior capacity.  If this seems appropriate, the interloper occupied the somewhat unorthodox structure to the east of Apollo’s shrine in Corinth, we may perhaps date his arrival to the 5th century B.C.  It is only from the end of the 6th century B.C. that we have firm evidence of Asklepios worship anywhere.  Concerning his previous existence, there is only a tangle of myths which seem to reflect conflicting claims and rival theories.

     Our knowledge of Asklepieian cults comes from the various sites.  Corinth did not produce any inscriptions recording cures or thanksgiving although there are anatomical votive offerings in large numbers noted.  It did not produce any of the sculptured reliefs found elsewhere illustrating cures and visitations of the god.  Therefore, literary and epigraphical material from Athens of inscribed testimonials from Epidauros and Lebena, Crete and of reliefs form Athens and Piraeus are necessary to obtain a full picture.

     Initially, Asklepios entered into partnership with his father in Corinth.  This continued in use till late in the 4th century B.C. when it was replaced by a whole new complex of healing shrine and fountain house.  Then a large, rectangular precinct defined by walls and a large building was constructed.  This included the abaton or inner sanctum and on the north, by a colonnade.  This covered walkway being built on the edge of the hill was supported in part by the adjacent section of the city wall. 

     One entered the sanctuary through a gateway in the east wall confronted first by a water basin set in a small columned porch and perhaps this token contact with water was all that was expected of those not coming for a cure.  Passing from there to the long altar, healthy worshippers might offer honey cakes and fruit as a form of medical insurance.  This was surrounded by statuary and other dedications.  This was followed by the temple itself, set squarely over the original Apollo shrine.  Little remains, except a few pieces of entablature.  This was followed by the abaton building behind the temple followed by the large rectangular colonnade building with a courtyard and a fountain.  A similar plan was followed at Lerna, a pleasant resort colony.  Associated with the abaton were rooms for dining.  The large colonnaded courtyard provided shade for patients and visitors to lounge and walk.  It also provided the source of the healing waters.

     Exactly what happened to the complaining worshipper in pursuit of a cure, we can use Aristophanes’ play, Ploutos.  Here the patient Wealth was treated for blindness.  First a bath in the sea served as the outward symbol of the inner state prescribed at Epidauros that is cleanliness of body and spirit.  Going into the fragrant temple, one must be pure and thinking holy thoughts.  Secondly came the offering of honey cakes at the altar.  Also ablutions at the initial water basin proceeded to both altar and temple and then to the lustral area for proper cleansing before entering the main hall of the abaton.  Thirdly, the patient laid down on a pallet on the floor and presently an attendant put out the lights and urged sleep and silence.  Then in the patient’s dream, the god came with an attendant carrying mortar, pestle and a medicine chest, mixing a potion, applying a plaster and using the knife or summoning a sacred serpent to lick the afflicted part.  If the dream was suggested by an actual priest making his rounds, the cure to which the patient attested on waking was still a thing worthy of wonder and thankfulness.  Finally, the expressions of thankfulness from patients are commemorated in various ways.  Terracotta models showing anatomical bits and pieces that were healed were left to illustrate the case histories recorded at Epidauros and elsewhere.  The original excavator estimated that the accumulative mass of life-size votive limbs and organs found in the Asklepieian precinct amounted to some 10 cubic meters and included examples of almost all parts of the body.

     Male flesh is colored red while that of a female was white.  All hair is deep red.  There is no indication of the particular ailment from the piece.  Many hands and feet were found.  Arms, legs, and occasional heads, teeth, and ears.  Only three eyes are found at Epidauros.  The reason for this is not known.  Hands and feet are the most common and in an essentially machineless society, it was not surprising that there are many votive offerings of this type. 

     The goose has been associated with cures as well as the cock.  The cock was not sacrificed to other gods as was the bird of the morning so that it became especially appropriate to Asklepios.  After the night of dreaming in the shrine, it was the morning awakening that brought the cure and symbolized and signaled by the cock’s crow.  Asklepios, like other mortals, regarded death as contamination and not as philosophical as Socrates did.  No one was permitted to die in any sacred place.


Comments on Kos


     The island of Kos has never been included in the usual itinerary but it was excavated at the turn of the century.  The Greeks always selected beautiful sites for their temples, especially the Asklepios rich in springs and this was certainly the case on Kos.  It discovered a few miles inland from the city of Kos on gentler rise of ground not far from a mineral spring.

     What was surprising was that chronology of this Asklepieian had been first discovered in 1891 and been mentioned in a poem by Herondas by 250 B.C. in which he described women offering sacrifices at the temple of Asklepios.  Two simple women, walking in the early hours of the morning, on a pilgrimage to the sanctuary.  This poem took us into a Greek temple of the 3rd century.  We must remember that this was some 200 years after Hippocrates.  The belief that Hippocrates derived his science from the temple or reports of cures has come down to use from antiquity but the temple of Asklepieian temple developed very late at Kos and was very much smaller than Epidauros.  The temple at Epidauros was the prototype of Asklepieian temples and utilized a place of incubation which served for the most direct possible method of healing.  The patient himself was offered an opportunity to bring about the cure whose elements he bore within himself.  To this end, the environment was created which is in modern spas and health resorts where it is as far removed as possible from the cities and in a healthful environment.  The religious atmosphere also helped mans innermost depths of accomplished and cured potentials.  In principle, the physician was excluded from the individual mystery of recovery.  The patient sought out the deity in a much more personal way than in the great mysteries of the classical period.  It is therefore to resume that at Epidauros, the physician remained intentionally in the background.  To what extent this was true on the island of Kos which had a famous medical school was not known.  Here under Hippocrates, the doctor became the focus of the cure.  When medical science was at its height, there was no temple of Asklepios but rather a state hospital where citizens received medical treatment free of charge.  One is amazed to learn how far back this state medical system reaches.  Charondas, the semi-legendary law giver of the Greek city of Katana in Sicily to whom the Koans attributed certain of their institutions is said to have founded a system of public medicine assistance already in existence.

     Hippocrates tells in a letter of a celebration that seems to have been a special festival of Asklepied’s at Kos.  This festival is connected with annual pilgrimage to the sacred cypress grove not far from the city of Kos.  It is not said that the staff is a branch from the grove but this seems highly probable.  The Cypress branch could scarcely yield a very straight staff and in the mythology, a crooked staff is often seen.  This is the same cypress grove dedicated to Apollo Kyparissios.  This is the grove after the death of Hippocrates, where the first Koan temple of Asklepios and later the Tower of Asklepian was built.  There would be no doubts as to which of his aspects Apollo disclosed in a cypress grove.  In the Mediterranean countries, the relationship between the world and this dark tree with its everlasting green and its masculine upstriving power bearing witness to indestructible life has remained unchanged from antiquity to our own day.

     It is not without significance that the statue of the Roman Veiovis who had the attributes of a dark Apollo and was worshipped on a Tiber island in close association with Asklepios, was of carved cypress wood (6).


Comments on Epidauros


     The temple of Epidauros was built on the model of the temple of Zeus at Olympia.  The artist who adorned the temple of Asklepios used the same style as those expressed in the temple of Zeus and wish to express something common to the two deities.

     In a famous cave on the island of Melos, the great head of Asklepios was found and has been argued by some that this belonged to a statue of Zeus but others felt that it belonged to Asklepios who is identified with Zeus.  Also in the cave was a round base with the name of the goddess Hygieia.  Hygieia has, at times, been considered the wife of Asklepios and other times, a co-equal deity.  Unfortunately, the remainder of the statue is not present.  One can always identify Asklepios by the snake and dog which appear with him beside his throne.  These are not present with Zeus.  In addition, there was a difference in the face of this great head and is similar to a small votive statue found at Epidauros where the expression fits Asklepios and not Zeus.  The eyes seem to look upward and into the distance without definite aim.  This gives us an impression of inner emotion; one might also say of suffering.  This is different than Zeus whose eyes would have more a look of calm.

     Richard Caton in his book discusses in depth the sanctuary at Epidauros with special reference to architecture and the rites in the temple.

     When one travels to Epidauros, the little town lies in a valley between the hills, near the sea.  It is a beautiful site.  The cult is far removed from the city.  The temple of Epidauros, foundations of which have been unearthed was built on the model of the famous temple of Zeus at Olympia.  Both temples and throne statues of the solemn bearded god are placed on the floor of black Eleusian stone.  There is identification by the Greeks with Asklepios and Zeus.  In fact, the cult at Pergamon was called the Zeus Asklepios.  The temple stood within a walled oblong enclosure but like most of the Greek temples, not in the center.  There was a great peristyle of double columns on the north side; the western wing which was composed of two stories.  Peristyle was designed for the patients who came to sleep in the sanctuary.  Whether it was the actual incubation is unknown.  The inner wall was adorned with countless votive tablets listing cures.  Cures at Epidauros are no more mysterious than those at any cult site.  Healing itself is the mystery.  In the western half of the sacred enclosure stands a foundation of a puzzling rotunda which symbolizes the mysterious aspect of this whole sanctuary.  There is the typical labyrinth of concentric circles.  A similar building had been escalated at Pergamon connected with the cult of Asklepios.




     The Asklepieian in Rome deserves special comment but tonight we must abbreviate our comments because of the lack of time.  Today, this site is still an active hospital on an island in the Tiber River in the heart of modern Rome and easily visited on foot, situated only 100 yards from one of Rome’s busy thoroughfares.

     But in the year 295-293 B.C., a great plague had ravished Rome.  Sacrifices to all the Roman gods and divinations were not helping so consultation with their own oracle of Apollo and the Sibylline books suggested a trip to Epidauros to invite Asklepios to Rome.  The Epidaurans sent a sacred snake aboard a Roman ship.  The snake jumped from the ship as it sailed up the Tiber to Rome and landed on an island where the temple to Asklepios was built in conjunction with the underworld Roman god, Veiovis.  This statue was carved from cypress wood from the tree in Apollo grove in Kos and symbol of the underworld and death.  At the time the snake arrived, the plague cebated and Romans ever after followed the Asklepian cult.

     Strolling along the Tiber River on a visit to Rome, we pass the Ponte Garibaldi and then a few steps further on in the direction of the Aventine, we come to the site where the influence of the Greek god of Medicine spread through the entire Roman Empire.  We look across to the Tiber Islands with its church of St. Bartolomeo stands among a group of hospital buildings.  They are the heirs to an ancient Asklepios, a cult site unique in form.  Closer investigation, we see that the southern tip of the island is the remains of an old containing wall built of travertine marble in the shape of a ship commemorating Asklepios voyage from his native Epidauros to Rome.  There is fragment of a relief including a snake on a staff that remains in the wall.  There is a well that fits in with the temple secret recorded by the Greek traveler, Pausanias in the course of a trip to Epidauros, he stated that no oil or water was brought to the temple because there was a spring under the statue of Asklepios and this was stated to be present in every such cult site.  The ancient physicians took their ancestries very seriously.  Classical Greek medicine flourished in Kos in eastern Greece.  It’s representative, among the Hippocrates who we call the great, to distinguish from their grandsons and other relatives bearing the same name were members of a single family of physicians.  The art of healing was handed down in the genealogical line from father to son.  Paying pupils outside this line took second rank, still they had to take the same oath through which they became, in a manner of speaking, adoptive sons.  Asklepios was looked upon as the ancestor of the family of physicians.  All Greek physicians were descended from him or sons of Asklepios.  Embodied in every physician, two related facts should be considered.  On the one hand, the god of Physicians.  Asklepios of dreams and visions but the mythologic and religious embodiments.  On the other hand, a Techne, a knowledge and skill handed down as a family tradition and at the same time, as a hereditary talent.  The mythological genealogy, the divine author is a super individual or fountainhead of the inherited gift so we may expect the figure of Asklepios, god of Physicians, to measure the most profound origins of Greek medicine.

     The arrival in Rome was a significant historical event.  In the years 295 and 293, the plague broke out in Rome.  The ancient mind of the disease was like a fire.  It was “scorching” says Livy, speaking of its devastations and the background behind the bodies charred by an inner fire behind the burning heaps of corpses, the Greeks sense the wrath of Apollo.  In the year 293, the Romans consulted their own oracle of Apollo, the Sibylline books were told to invite Asklepios to Rome from Epidauros.  The transfer of a powerful new god from a foreign land to Rome demanded an elaborate ceremony to be executed with care and attentiveness.  At first the city was at war but then devoted to prayers to Asklepios.  Only in 291 were ten men led by Quintos Ogulnis were sent to Epidauros to bring the god to Rome.  This brought out in Ovid’s account in Book 15 of the Metamorphosis.  The Romans considered Apollo himself a healer god.  To the Romans, he was Apollo Medicus, that is Asklepios with his special cult in Epidauros.  Emissaries were sent to bring the god himself to Rome but Epidaurians took a different view of the matter and according to Ovid, Quintos Ogulnis had a dream and Asklepios appeared.  The Romans were determined to bring this god on a throne a figure of gold and ivory with the snake before him, back to Rome but the Epidaurians instead sent a snake.  The serpent god made his way to the harbor of Epidauros and boarded a Roman ship.  Favorable winds bore the ship to Antium.  There the serpent left the ship to dwell in a temple belonging to Apollo.  The snake hung for three days from a palm tree in the outer part of the temple.  It is also known that in a sacred grove in northern Greece, snakes were kept in honor of Apollo.  There were Coluber Longissmus, the species of the snake sacred to Asklepios.  It is a tree snake sometimes obtaining a length of over six feet.  Eventually the snake made his way up the Tiber River to Rome and landed on the Tiber Island.  According to Roman tradition, it was a floating island originally which had been formed from wheat, a plant sacred to the god Ceres.  This relationship to Ceres and Mars on the Campus Martius, which was in reality a cemetery, there is a parallel with Asklepios.  Here on this island, the Romans dedicated the temple to Asklepios.  In the cult of Asklepios as the Romans knew it on the Tiber River Island, the limits between Chthonic darkness and solar radiance are faced in a way that is almost terrifying.  Terrifying to those who cling to the romantic conception of the Greek gods but less so to the physician.  Even surroundings more hygienic than the ancient temples of Asklepios on the island, accustomed to a certain twilight realm between life and death.

     In gratitude to the god, it was thus visibly among them in serpent form, the south end of the island – probably indeed the whole of the island – was modeled into the shape of a great galley of hewn stone.  A temple of Aesculapius (as the Romans called him) was built at the southern end with a portico and abaton.  A well existing there became sacred to Aesculapius and from that day to this, the island in the Tiber has, through pagan and Christian times alike, been devoted to the cure and treatment of the sick.  The stern of the stone galley still exists, with the effigy of the serpent and remains the image of Aesculapius.  The Church of St. Bartholomew stands on the site of the temple, and on or near the spot where stood the ancient abaton now stands a hospital served by the Brotherhood of San Juan de Dios, the benevolent saint of Granada, where the sick folk of Rome are helped and tended; and there, unlike their predecessors of 2200 years ago, if illness should terminate in death, the poor weary souls are kindly and tenderly ministered to by priest, physician and nurse.  It is doubtless in consequence of this episode of the founding of a temple of Aseculapius on the island of the Tiber that the staff and serpent of the Epidaurian god have been and remain to this day, the symbol of the profession of Medicine.

     What happened within the sanctuary to effect a cure?  What is known of the administrative function of the priest and various other personnel staffing the temples and the surrounding precinct?

     The hierarchy consists of a (Hierophant) priest who was the head official.  He was appointed and reelected from time to time.  There were (Dadouchoi) or torch bearers and subordinate priests.  The (Pyrophoroi) or fire carriers lighted the sacred fires on the altars.  The (Nakoroi) exact duties uncertain, but sometimes were used as physicians.  The (Kleidouchoi) or key bearers, were originally a class of superior door porters who assumed priestly functions.  The (Hieromnemones) has secular duties and were in charge of receipts and payments and all there were under the rule of boule of Epidauros.  The (Kanephoroi) or basket bearers and the (Arrephoroi) or carriers of mysteries or holy things were priestesses.  These officials also attended to the sacred dogs and serpents who were a part of the Asklepian centers.  The abaton where the patients stayed would house up to 120 beds but men and women were separated and slept in a large area separated by a curtain.  The room was open to one side to the outside with proper ventilation.  At other times, there were great festivals of sport and music, the so-called Megala Asklepieia and as many as 15,000 people attended the games and saw the plays and listened to the poets.  The area around the abaton in the temples was beautifully decorated with fountains and a multitude of sculpture.

     When night came, the sick person put his bedclothing in the abaton and rests it on his pallet putting a small gift on the table or altar.  The Nakoroi came around to light the sacred lamps.  The priest entered and recited the evening prayers to the god entreating divine help and then collected the gifts.  Later, the lights are put out and silence fell and everyone went to sleep hoping for a guiding vision from the god.  The abaton was a lofty and airy sleeping chamber, its southern side being an open colonnade.  It provided abundance of fresh air for the sick by day and night.  According to the inscriptions found in the area, the god frequently appeared in person on in visions speaking to the sick man or woman concerning their ailments.  Whether these visitations were hallucinations in individuals whose imaginations had been excited, or whether some priest in the dim light accompanied by a serpent acted the part of Asklepios; whether the patient was put under the influence of opium or some other drug provocative of dreams; or whether, by some acoustic trick, the priest caused the sick to hear spoken words, it is difficult now to say.

     The valley was the habitat of a large, yellow harmless snake and this was used by the priest.  The tongue of the snake was allowed to touch the sick area in hopes of healing the ailing part.  Also the sacred dogs of Asklepios licked the injured or painful area.

     The priests wearing the holy garments would take a person (as probably he took all suppliants) into the temple and caused them to present himself before the image of the god; libations were poured, prayers and sacrifices offered, and rites of an impressive kind enacted.  Hymns were sung to the music of the double flute.  The sick man was caused to lay his hand solemnly and reverently on the altar of the god and then on the part of his own body presumed to be affected; if there were really nothing the matter, he was proclaimed to be miraculously cured by the god, and doubtless his imagination was so impressed that he often himself believed in the cure.

     If the patients were young, sacrifices were doubtless offered at the shrine of Artemis-Hekate.  Throughout the day, priests offered sacrifices to the snakes at the Tholos and the patients brought their small cakes to feed the snakes.

     It must be remembered that the precinct or area of rest was one of the most beautiful in all of Greece shaded by lofty trees protected from the sun’s heat and a soft breeze from the mountains which made this a wonderful place indeed.  There were specially designed marble shelter-seats where the people could sit and converse or read and there was a library.

     Those not too ill would ascend the hill of Kynortion at Epidauros to visit the temple of Apollo or climb the neighboring hill of Titthion, sacred to the infancy of Asklepios.  The healthier ones could participate in sport and priests and patients attended the music in singing the Orpheic hymns, religious dances, processions and festivals at the amphitheater.

     Who is the god at Epidauros that affects the cure?  Is it Asklepios or Zeus Asklepios?  When the priest of the temple invoked the god, he meant both Apollo and Asklepios.  Both were named in the list of cures but only Asklepios as the healer.  According to Isyllos, the birthplace of Asklepios was the temple itself.  In this place of healing, only a divine birth, only an epiphany of the god of healing could occur.  Women in labor were excluded from the sacred precinct for a pregnancy is not an ailment and cause for cure nor could the dying be taken into the sanctuary.  It was only in the days of the Roman emperors when healing had lost its meaning as a divine event and Epidauros had become a kind of climatic resort and sanitarium and halls for expectant mothers and the dying were built outside the sanctuary.  In Greek mythology, both the dog and the snake represent the underworld.  The purpose of a visit to a sanctuary of Epidauros was to meet this divine power halfway.  This was no visit to a doctor that simply administers medicine.  It was an encounter with a naked and immediate event of healing itself experienced sometimes in more realistic visions.  In many of theses dreams, the god intervened directly.  Snakes were encountered every step.  The priests were certainly not without medical training or ability but their role deciding whom to admit seems to have been largely passive.  The dying as we have said were excluded and the rest were left with their own process of healing.  The process was so much like the usual incubation practice at the oracle sites that some people came to Epidauros in search not of healing but of a god’s advice and difficulty unrelated to health.

     In gratitude for relief of symptoms, patients left food, money, and votive offering.  At Corinth alone, 10 cubic yards of terra cotta body parts were found.


The character of Telesphoros


     Socrates is dying.  His last words to his friend, “Kriton, we owe Asklepios a rooster, don’t forget it.” 

What is the meaning of this enigmatic statement?

     The dying Socrates regards his death as a healing process.  The rooster signifies the morning and birth of a new day.  Apollo, father of Asklepios, was the sun god as well as god of healing.  Since the sun is the birth of a new day and the healing process begins again, the rooster becomes the symbol of Asklepios.

     In Southern France, Eturia and other areas, a small hooded figure similar to Telesphoros is found.  Also found in the northern German areas, this figure has been likened to Telesphoros who first appears in Pergamum 100 B.C.

     This Celtic god figure penetrated the circle of Asklepios and took the Greek name in the west known as Genius Cucullanto.  The Celts were adjacent to Pergamen and kept their religion and customs for a long time.

The costume of culcullus was typical of Celts worn by the lower classes – eventually adopted by monks.  Also woodland trolls and dwarfs were pictured also in hooded garb.

     Also to the German Celts, dwarfs were “underworld people” and this costume came to represent this position.

     We see Asklepios illuminated on his bright side by Hygieia and his dark side by Telesphoros (Bright means life; dark means death).

     Although it would seem unlikely, a Celtic god would be introduced to Greek culture at its height; there is no other explanation when one considers the geographic location of Pergamum in Asia Minor and the costume.

     Linguistically, the word cucullus is of Latin origin - not Celtic - they borrowed the word from the Romans.

     The bordocucullus is a Gaelic dress- the “bordo” part means dumb or stupid.  Also the root word par and bar means “death.”  Seen in surname (Parciluis/Parconius/Bargonius/Barginna).  Some words were found in old French.  Exactly how all this is integrated is not clear.

     Even today, pallbearers wear hooded costume in parts of Europe - signifying a cult of the dead.  Thus, anyone wearing a cucullus is considered ghostlike, a dark and lonely being.

     The Etruscans also have a hooded figure.  The connection of the Etruscans to Southern France and Asia Minor are fascinating but difficult to prove.  Especially interesting is the possible origin of the Etruscans from Lydia in Asia Minor.

     Telesphoros is recognized Enamerian of Titans, a god figure, one side represents day and the other night or underworld Akesis of Epidauros is also the Telesphoros of Pergamum.

     Telesphoros in Greek means the “end or finisher” as seen in dying.  Dying leads through death to the godly enlightened existence.

     Asklepios was viewed as blessed by death.  To have the rooster is life, warms blood as sacrifices.  From below he sends healing during sleep and healing as well in death.

     To one way of healing we see Hygieia (Sun) and the other Telesphoros (night).  In this way both sides of Asklepios are seen.

     Now we understand Socrates better and also Telesphoros as a son of Asklepios representing death and dying. (7)


Asklepios and Christ


     Who is this deity who when the god of a new gospel appeared, became perhaps his most significant and most powerful antagonist in the spiritual struggle that ensued between paganism and Christianity?  Is this deity the same hero Asklepios of whom Homer and Hesiod knew?

     Asklepios was firmly entrenched in his position as one of the great and most popular ancient gods when the struggle between paganism and Christianity ensued.  Did he possess real power?  The Christians denied this and refused to acknowledge the reality and strength of the other heathen deities.  Asklepios was able to heal, they admitted, but as was true of all gods and goddesses whom they dared to oppose, they believed that Asklepios was weaker than their own Lord and they delighted in pointing out that unlike Christ, he could not “command the wicked spirit of one out of his senses to come out of the man.”

     They stated that he was a performer of miracles for evil purposes, “one who does not cure so but destroys them.”  This same charge was true of other Pagan gods but the apprehension was not as great when they censured Zeus, Apollo, Hera, or Athena.  In Asklepios, they faced their strongest enemy.  Simply because the Asklepios worship in the Christian era had spread all over the world and was a living force in the hearts of many men.

     This hardly explains the rancor against Asklepios.  It is likely they feared Asklepios so intensely because, like Christ, he was a savior.  In the early gospel, Jesus appeared as a physician, as a healer of diseases.  It was such an interpretation in the new God’s  mission that made Him resemble Asklepios, the god of Medicine more than any other pagan divinity.  This similarity between the deeds of Christ and Asklepios were bound to heighten the controversy between the Christian faith and the Asklepian religion.  For there was no question, Jesus’ achievements of healing the lame and sick and resurrecting the dead were similar to those of Asklepios.  Many of the stories are identical.  Therefore, the heathens could compare the blessings bestowed by Christ to those bestowed by Asklepios as they could even claim what Jesus does, He does in the name of the god, Asklepios.

     There was a fundamental difference between the two, however.  Jesus came to heal not only the sickened body and soul but extended his help to the sinners and publicans.  Asklepios rejected those who were impure and did not think holy thoughts.  This distinction was a crucial one for it set Christianity apart from paganism.

     The Christians found disconcerting a disturbing resemblance the life of Christ in performing heroic or worldly exploits.  He fought no battles.  He concerned himself solely with assisting those who were in the need of help.  So did Asklepios.  Christ, like Asklepios, was sent into the world as a helper of men.  Christ’s life on earth was blameless as was that of Asklepios.  Christ, in his love of men, invited his patients to come to him or else he wandered about to meet them.  This too could be said of Asklepios.  All in all, it is not astonishing that the apologists and the church fathers had a hard stand in their fight against Asklepios and proving the superiority of Jesus.  Nor were the metaphysical or theological problems fewer or less cumbersome.  The nature of the godhead of the two saviors was indisputably identical.  Both were man gods.  Like Asklepios, Christ was the son of God and of a mortal woman.  Jesus had died not through God to be sure but through men as the Christian write.  Through God, he had risen to Heaven as had Asklepios.  Some of the early Christians even thought that their master had been made immortal on account of his virtue.  The same had been asserted of Asklepios.  Asklepios acted as the son of Apollo in the name of his father.  Speculations concerning the Christian trinity were dangerously near to the speculations concerning Asklepios.  Christ was human and divine at the same time.  Asklepios was called the terrestrial and intelligible god.

     In short, the similarity between Asklepios and Christ was deep rooted and was founded in the very essence of the two figures.  In the historical process the concept of Asklepios grew to a god who was placed on earth to save men.  This truth, the Christians themselves had seen, were willing to recognize as soon as they learned to admit that the pagans had not been entirely deprived of the light of knowledge that in fact an inkling of truth was given even to them with the natural revelation that foreshadowed the clearer and truer revelation of the Bible.  Some of the great Christian teachers, at least, did no longer regard Asklepios as an evil spirit invented by the devil to be the false Christ.

     It is true in Christianity and Asklepian religion, despite the many features which they had in common, were not identical.  That which formed the essence of the new faith was unique and yet as far as Christianity can be compared to any of the Greek and Roman cults, the Asklepios ideas seemed nearest to the idea of Christ.  The Greek god of Medicine was the most accomplished precursor of a god of a higher gospel that paganism had brought forth.  From his humble position as a friend of Chiron, Asklepios had risen to be a symbol of human daring.  He had become the patron of physicians yet assumed divine prerogatives the deities of old.  Christianity was made the religion of the state.  Asklepios, so the Christians charged, was still revered in secret corners and libations and prayers were still offered to him.  Of all the Greek gods, he persisted longest in exercising his full and undiminished power for he had been the embodiment of the highest expectations which men cherished of the highest values they had known before the ancient world was shattered and the new world was built in which men lived for other hopes and other virtues.




     In an uncertain world there was good reason to employ every means available to help ensure good health.  The cost, risk, uncertainty, discomfort or sheer pain of ancient medical treatment make it only too easy to understand why people have turned to the healing deities for help, but it was not merely a negative response to those shortcomings.  The deities were so much part of everyday life that the seeking of divine aid would often have been a first not a last resort.  Few people would have considered an appeal to the gods to be an act of despair, as is usually the tendency today.  This no doubt explains in large part the otherwise surprising fact that the rise of rational medicine did not eclipse irrational beliefs, and the healing deities flourished alongside scientific medicine in an almost parallel development.  Thus the emergence of Hippocratic medicine in early fifth-century B.C. Greece coincided in time and place with the elevation of Asklepios to divine status and the spread of his cult.  Indeed, the Hippocratic Oath was taken in his name: “I swear by Apollo the healer, by Asklepios, by Hygieia, by Panakeia and by all the powers of healing, and call to witness all the gods and goddesses that I may keep this Oath and Promise to the best of my ability and judgment.”

     Equally, Greek medicine was eased into Roman Italy by the contemporary arrival of the Asklepios cult, itself readily absorbed into a culture which also looked to its gods for preservation of bodily health.  The parallel development continued, while two events of particular significance were taking place in Pergamum.  Construction of a magnificent new temple of Asklepios had just been completed, and the teenage Galen had just embarked on the medical career that was to make him a famous physician and was to influence the course of Western medicine up to the Renaissance.  Ironically, it was the appearance of Asklepios in a dream-vision that proved the decisive factor in Galen’s choice of a medical career.  Later, too, he obtained his first post through the agency of the High Priest of the Pergamene Asklepieion, while it was an instruction received from Asklepios that Galen successfully used as an excuse not to accompany Marcus Aurelius on his military expedition against the Marcomanni. (1)

     Since the turn of the century, the main problems concerning Asklepios and his tradition have been cleared up.  According to this theory, even the beginnings are explained by the fact that in the Iliad, the future god of Physicians is mentioned only as the father of two heroes who practiced the healer’s art, that he is represented as an “excellent physician” but otherwise merely as a warrior king like many others.  The Homeric poems say nothing about his divinity or his myth.  It is only inferred that Asklepios had been a physician hero in his native place, the Thessalin city of Tricca, also mentioned in the Iliad.  According to this theory, he was elevated to divine rank only later on. 

     In any event, he must, for centuries, have been worshipped only as a hero, as a mortal, to whom a hero cult had been attached.  In this worship, the cult is practiced over a hero’s grave.

     The weakness of the argument is easily shown.  To be perfectly accurate, we cannot even glean the information that Asklepios was a physician hero in Tricca from the Iliad.  The Homeric story says nothing about any cult but merely calls him an excellent physician.  It is impossible to say what cult it passed over in silence – whether only a hero cult or perhaps the cult of a god.  Can we infer that the cult of the dead (Chthonian) was not in existence because the Iliad does not speak of it?  Homer’s silence is understood as a reflection of the form which his poems took in relationship to Greek religion.  Why Asklepios fame as a great god made its appearance in literature so late is not known.  It has been suggested it was invented by priests at Epidauros.  What a god meant to the Greeks is expressed by his myth.  In elaborate words, in images.  If we wish to know who Asklepios was, we must visit the sites of his cult and look into his mythology.

     If we do not have written proof of an event that had actually occurred, some say one cannot make such an assumption but this is childish.  We cannot possibly assume that we know everything that happened in all the ages before.

     With Asklepios, we have only a post Homeric tradition.  Did Asklepios exist before Homer?  The deciphering of the Mycenaean writing has added centuries to the span of pre-Homeric Greek religious history and dates to the 15th to 13th centuries whereas Homer’s poem were the 9th to the 7th centuries, extending Greek history 500 years further back.

     The truth of the possibility of the Asklepian cult existing before Homer needs only to look at the Paieon, the Physician of the Gods, in Homer’s poems and find that Knossos in the 15th to 13th centuries he appeared in the Mycenaean dialect thus extending back 1000 years the origin of his famous hymn.  This will come down to us in the term Paeans or singers of hymns.  This type of god did not appeal to Homer.  He stood aloof from this type of god that was so bound up with sun god of Apollo.  The same is true of the Dionysos cult which Homer found little use for and can be traced to Mycenaean times.

     Walter Otto and his Dionysos drew a parallel between the story of Ariadne and the myth of Asklepios’ birth.  Both stories are similar and both represent important myths repeated in the whole history of Greek religion also proclaimed in the Eleusinin mysteries.  It is stated that Theseus could not have carried Ariadne far.  Artemis at the request of Dionysos killed her on the Isle of Dia.  Here we see a parallel to the story of Asklepios.  Koronis, mother of Asklepios, was shot by Artemis at the instigation of Apollo for she had been unfaithful to him, the father of her child.  On Koronis’ death pyre Asklepios was born.  Apollo delivered the child from the dead mother.  The death of Adriadne’s cult in Cypress relates that she also died in childbirth.  Birth and death.  That is what is proclaimed in the Myth of Asklepios is truly a non-Homeric myth.  Dionysos also comes in the world amid death and we can trace through the myth of Persephone which can be traced back to the Phrygian language.  The God, Chthonia or the subterranean one, also was born at the time of a funeral pyre similar to Koronis and Asklepios.  The myth of a miraculous birth and death which is the Myth of the Healing, the myth of Asklepios took during Helenic times a turn and became the religion of the Greek physician.

     From all this, we see that there is clearly a pre-Homeric origin for the myth of Asklepios regardless of what chronologies are set down by others.

     Many have argued the nature of the myths.  Some have tried to reduce the natural phenomenon but mythology is man’s representation of himself, and the religion of Dionysos is actually a self representation of the living creature and also a representation of the world.  In mythology, man’s own being and reality of the being that enfolds him, are expressed simultaneously in myth.

     To the ancient physician, Asklepios was the prototype of their existence, the existence of the healer.  Existence is not used as in existential philosophy but in its simplest and most direct sense.

     Asklepios and his children including this nocturnal figure of Telesphoros, are the personification of the divine healing power.  His function was that of giving and preserving health and relieving from disease.  At first glance, this fact seems certain proof that his worship, in spite of all its truly religious aspect, was a materialistic one; that he was a god of the body rather than the soul.

     They recognized that the mind and the body should be harmonized.  The latter must be even subordinated if a true goal in his life is to be achieved.

     This can be found in a prayer, “Relieve me of my disease and grant me much health as is necessary in order that the body may obey that which the soul wishes” and to say it in one word, a life lived with ease.


(1)           Jackson, Ralph: Doctors & Disease in the Roman Empire.    

Norman Gordon. 1988. pp. 153,155,170 (illustration 36, 46)

(2)           Kerenyi, C.:  Asklepios. Archetypal Image of the Physician’s  

Existence. London 1959. pp.151 (illustrated).

(3)           Cure and Cult in Ancient Corinth. A Guide to the Asklepieion

American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Princeton, New Jersey, 1977.

(4)           The Oxford Classical Dictionary 2nd Editon.  Eds.

N.G.L. Hammond and H.H. Scullard. Oxford, 1979.

(5)           Cator, Richard:  The Temple and Ritual of Asklepios at

Epidauros and Athens.  London 1900 pp.49 (Illustrated).

(6)           Major, Ralph H.: Hypocrates and the Isle of Cos.

Kansas City 1946, pp. 76.

(7)           Kerenyi,C.:  Telesphoros: Zum Verstundes

Etruskischer, griechischer, and keltioch

Germanischer Damongestalten: Egytmees Philologiaia

Kozlony, LV11 (1933) 156 ff.