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The Rod of Asclepius

The Rod of Asclepius

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Published by Anthony Writer
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 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.

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Categories:Types, Research, Science
Published by: Anthony Writer on May 16, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The serpent and the staff appear to have been separate symbols that were combined atsome point in the development of the Asclepian cult. The significance of the serpent hasbeen interpreted in many ways; sometimes the shedding of skin and renewal is emphasizedas symbolizing rejuvenation , while other assessments center on the serpent as a symbolthat unites and expresses the dual nature of the work of the physician, who deals with lifeand death, sickness and health.
The ambiguity of the serpent as a symbol, and the
contradictions it is thought to represent, reflect the ambiguity of the use of drugs, whichcan help or harm, as reflected in the meaning of the term
, which meant "drug","medicine" and "poison" in ancient Greek 
; we know that today antidotes and vaccines are
often compounded from precisely the thing that caused the poisoning or illness.Productsderiving from the bodies of snakeswere known to have medicinal properties in ancienttimes, and in ancient Greece, at least some were aware that snake venom that might befatal if it entered the bloodstream could often be imbibed. Snake venom appears to havebeen 'prescribed' in some cases as a form of therapy.The staff has also been variously interpreted. One view is that it, like the serpent,"conveyed notions of resurrection and healing", while another (not necessarilyincompatible) is that the staff was a walking stick associated with itinerant physicians.Cornutus, a philosopher probably active in the first century CE, in the
Theologiae GraecaeCompendium
(Ch. 33) offers a view of the significance of both snake and staff that is worthquoting at length:Asclepius derived his name from healing soothingly and from deferring thewithering that comes with death. For this reason, therefore, they give him aserpent as an attribute, indicating that those who avail themselves of medicalscience undergo a process similar to the serpent in that they, as it were, growyoung again after illnesses and slough off old age; also because the serpent is a signof attention, much of which is required in medical treatments. The staff also seemsto be a symbol of some similar thing. For by means of this it is set before ourminds that unless we are supported by such inventions as these, in so far as fallingcontinually into sickness is concerned, stumbling along we would fall even soonerthan necessary. — 
 Asclepius: A Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies
, Baltimore, 1945
History of Asclepius and His Rod
The rod of Asclepius is an ancient Greek symbol of a staff with a snake twined around it. InGreek mythology, Asclepius (also spelled Asklepios) was the son of Apollo and apractitioner of medicine. Hippocrates was a devoted follower of the god Asclepius.Asclepius was born of Apollo and a human female. Apollo learned that his beloved wasunfaithful to him and sent an arrow hurling through her heart. She told him as she laydying that he should have waited as she was pregnant with his son Asclepius. As she
burned on her funeral pyre, Apollo snatched the child out of her womb and took him to thecentaur Chiron who raised him with wisdom and the knowledge of medicine.Asclepius was also taught magic (not the entertaining kind) and he learned to raise thedead. Zeus considered this an offence to the natural order and struck Asclepius dead with athunder bolt. Asclepius was thus born in fire and died in fire. Zeus realized that Asclepiushad been important to humankind and placed him in the sky as the constellationOphiuchus (serpent-bearer).One method of devotion and cure for the Greeks was to make a pilgrimage to one of thetemples dedicated to Asclepius. There they would sleep in the
building, hoping to bevisited by Asclepius in their dreams during the night. Upon waking they would tell thepriests of their dreams and the priests would prescribe a cure such as a visit to the baths orto a gymnasium, or they would perform rituals to rid them of their illnesses.Non-venomous snakes were found in abundance at the temples and in the
where theworshippers slept. The snakes were considered to represent the god, and were fed bydevotees and priests.After being healed, the devotees would often give a gift to the temple such as an animalsacrifice or a tablet describing the illness and the cure. Another example was to offer a clayrepresentation of the healed body part. Many terra-cotta hands, feet, breasts, arms, legs,etc., were found in excavations of the temples.The snake symbol represents both death and life, and sometimes medicine can be bothharmful and healing. In ancient Greece, some were aware that snake venom that might befatal if it entered the bloodstream could often be swallowed without the same harmfuleffects. Snake venom may have been one prescription at the time for a serious illness. Thesacred snake of Asclepius represented healing, renewal of youth and resurrection.
Astrological connection
The two symbols were also associated withastrology. Asclepius was so skilled in the
medical arts that he was reputed to have brought patients back from the dead. For this, hewas punished and placed in the heavens as theconstellation Ophiuchus(meaning "serpent- bearer"). This constellation lies betweenSagittariusandScorpius. Inearly Christianity, the
constellation Ophiuchus was associated withSaint Paulholding the Maltese Viper.

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