Asclepius (also known as Asklepius and Aesculapius), in ancient Greek mythology, was said to have been the greatest healer who lived in the primordial times when gods and legends wandered the lands. Although several other mythological and legendary figures in Greek folklore were also known as miracle healers, who could even raise the dead, Asclepius’ talents were far greater than any of his peers. Whereas other heroes could drag individual souls out of the underworld, or resurrect fewer people than could be counted on one hand, the masterful healer Asclepius was said to have been able to cure and resurrect hordes of people. The scale of Asclepius’ miraculous operation infuriated and frightened Hades—the ruler of the underworld—because people who would have otherwise died were saved by Asclepius’ healings, and people already dead were being resurrected at an alarming pace. In fact, more people were supposedly leaving the realm of the dead than entering it. This was a serious matter for Hades, as the souls of the dead were his subjects, a key element to his standing and authority as ruler of the underworld. Death, as scores of myths and folktales attest, does not like to be cheated. Therefore, Hades petitioned Zeus to do something about Asclepius.
Mortal beings, understandably, were enthusiastic about Asclepius’ ability to keep people healthy and especially his seemingly inexhaustible ability to resurrect those who died. Yet, to immortals like Hades, Asclepius’ work was a disruption of the natural order, jeopardizing the authority of the divine entities overseeing life, death and fate. In short, Hades’ arguments against the healer won over most of the gods, including the high-god Zeus. Of the major gods, only Apollo—who was Asclepius’ father—tried to defend the healer. Despite Apollo’s protests, Zeus sided with Hades and decided that Asclepius’ campaign of healings and resurrections had to be stopped at all costs. Therefore, Zeus grabbed one of his weaponized thunderbolts and struck down Asclepius with a jolt of lightning. Although Asclepius had been seemingly able to heal his peers of any condition imaginable, he could not do anything to save his own mortal body from Zeus’ lightning. Apollo, enraged, was said to have killed the giant that produced Zeus’ thunderbolt as payback for the execution of Asclepius, but in the end, Zeus regained a peaceful partnership with grieving Apollo. On this myth of Asclepius endangering the underworld and subsequently being struck down by Zeus, a historian named Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE) wrote:
“Hades brought accusation against Asclepius, charging him before Zeus of acting to the detriment of his own province, for, he said, the number of dead was steadily diminishing, now that men were being healed by Asclepius. So Zeus, in indignation, slew Asclepius with his thunderbolt, but Apollo, indignant at the slaying of Asclepius, murdered the Cyclopes who had forged the thunderbolt for Zeus” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 4.71).
According to myth, Asclepius was survived by two sons, Machaon and Podaleirius. They reportedly made the risky decision to keep practicing some of Asclepius’ healing arts, but as they could not reproduce the healings or resurrections at the same god-threatening quality or scale as their father, they were thankfully spared by Zeus and Hades. As for Asclepius, having his mortal body destroyed by Zeus was not the end. In an awkward turn of events for the gods that had conspired against him, Asclepius managed to maintain power and influence after his mortal death and was able to ascend to godhood, a state from which he could still perform miracles. Following this belief, temples to Asclepius popped up in Greek and Roman lands, where desperate travelers flocked to pray for healing.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (A priest of Asklepios (Aesculapius) and a patient calling up the sacred, non-poisonous snakes, by Amedee Forestier (d. 1930), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the NYPL).