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, Lat. Aesculapius , legendary Greek physician; son of Apollo and Coronis. His first teacher was the wise centaur Chiron. When he became so skillful in healing that he could revive the dead, Zeus killed him.
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in Roman mythology, the god of healing.
The cult of Aesculapius came from Greece, where he was called Asclepius; it penetrated into Rome in the early third century B.C. According to legend, during a plague in Rome in 293 B.C. a prophecy was found in the Sibylline Books predicting that the epidemic would cease if a statue of the god were brought to Rome from the temple of Asclepius in Epidaurus. In 291 B.C. a temple of Aesculapius was built on an island in the Tiber.
Rites in the Aesculapian temples proceeded just as in the Greek temples of Asclepius. Patients slept in the temple and had dreams containing useful advice; those who recovered made votive offerings to the god and left inscriptions of thanks. The priests of the temples of Aesculapius were Greeks. Both the Greek Asclepius and the Roman Aesculapius had animals dedicated to them—the snake, the dog, and the rooster.
The spread of the cult of Aesculapius in Rome contributed to the Roman state’s official recognition of the Greek art of healing; Greek physicians received the rights of Roman citizens, and medicine and medical training were for the most part carried out by Greeks. The cult of Aesculapius was among the most popular and enduring.
The term “Aesculapius” subsequently came to be used as a general and usually ironic term for a physician or medic.
Aesculapius (or Asclepius) was the most popular healing divinity of the Hellenistic world. He was a mortal son of Apollo, who was slain by Zeus for daring to bring people back from the dead. Taught the healing arts by the centaur Chiron, he was a healer by profession. He gradually evolved into a god, and by the end of the classical period he was one of the most popular deities of the Greek pantheon.
The central asclepieion (temple dedicated to Aesculapius) was situated six miles inland from the Greek city of Epidaurus, the birthplace of the legendary healer. This temple was established in the sixth or seventh century B.C.E. and was the focus of Aesculapius worship for over eight hundred years. The cult of Aesculapius was officially transplanted to Rome in 293 B.C.E. when the asclepieion at Epidaurus sent a giant snake regarded as a form of Aesculapius himself to Rome in order to halt a disastrous plague. The subsequent waning of the plague was attributed to Aesculapius, and he became a popular god among the Romans. At least two hundred asclepieions were know to have existed in the Greco-Roman world.
The principal activity at the asclepieions was the seeking of cures via the technique of dream incubation, the practice of seeking dreams for specific purposes—for everything from healing to practical guidance. (Dream incubation was extremely popular in the ancient world and seems to have originated as a method of divination in ancient Mesopotamia.) People went to asclepieions to “camp out” and sleep with the intention of receiving a healing dream from Aesculapius. Particularly in the earliest centuries of the cult, it was believed that the dream directly cured the pilgrim. However, as the cult evolved, it came to be regarded as acceptable if the dream merely provided information that, if followed, would lead to a cure. Aesculapius himself sometimes appeared in the seeker’s dreams, touched the diseased part of the body with his finger, and then disappeared. In other healings, he appeared in the form of a dog or a snake.
The dreamer fasted and engaged in other rituals before lying down to sleep. In cases where the temple was too far away from the person seeking dream guidance, or when the person was too sick to undertake the required fasts, sacrifices, cold baths, or other rituals, a surrogate could go through the rituals for the seeker. Priests assisted pilgrims in performing the proper rituals and were also available to help interpret their dreams.