Asclepius (Imouthēs, Ešmūn, Glycon)

Category: Gods > Terrestrial Gods

1 Introduction

In other gods’ pages, I often insist that the strong distinction we make between different ancient peoples’ deities is ahistorical: Roman Juno simply is Hera, for instance, and there are no two ways about it. But there are other cases, and they are no less (if also no more) important. In the case of the god Asclepius (gr. Asklēpios), his Latin name Aesculapius is, of course, not a distinct Roman name but simply the same as the Greek,* with his worship said to have been imported directly from Epidaurus in Greece; but there are other regions where things are more complex.

(*Starting from the dialectal form Aisklāpios, attested for instance in the Epidaurian inscription IG IV²,1 136, Latin inserts a short vowel –u– into the cluster –kl-. The same phenomenon can be observed in reverse when the name Proculus, only sometimes spelled Proclus in Latin, is borrowed as Proklos into Greek. The ending of course becomes –us instead of –os, as always when a word is properly Latinized. Hence, Aesculāpius. There are also a very few occasions where the form Asclēpius is used, as in Lactantius Placidus, On the Thebaid 5.434, or in the glosses attributed to Lactantius Placidus: “Haesculapius: Asclepius, the inventor of medicine”.)

The key text here is from Damascius (5th century CE), who tells us that “the Asklēpios in Beirut is neither Greek nor Egyptian, but a certain Phoenician (god). For Sadykos had sons whom they translate as Dioskouroi and Kabeiroi. But the eighth after these was Esmounos, whom they translate as Asklēpios” (Damascius, Philosophical History, fr. 348 Zintzen, preserved by Photius). In other words, the god Ešmūn, who is known from (unvocalized) Phoenician inscriptions as ʾšmn, was called both Asklēpios and Esmounos by locals when they spoke Greek, and at least some of them regarded him as a different Asclepius than the Greek one whose center of worship was at Epidaurus.

Likewise, as Damascius suggests, the Egyptian Asclepius was not seen as identical to the one at Epidaurus just because he was given the same name in Greek. In the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM), for instance, there is an instruction to “engrave the Asclepius at Memphis” (PGM 7.630), and in the Hermetic fragments of Stobaeus, we hear of “Asklēpios Imouthēs”, the son of Hephaestus (=Ptah)* (Stobaeus, Anthology 1.49.44;69), whereas the Greek god was famously the son of Apollon. This is of course the god known in English as Imhotep, with the final -p dropped (as is usual in Coptic) and replaced with a Greek ending. The -t- is likely aspirated in compensation for the h sound in *Imhoute, just as Coptic Ptah is adapted as Phtha in ancient Greek.

(*Stob. 1.49.44 preserves the Egyptian name of Hephaestus, in the genitive, as Panos or Spanos. The reconstruction Ptanos, as if from Ptas rather than the more usual Phtha for Ptah, would be reasonable, if we did not also have a mention of Opas as the Egyptian Vulcan/Hephaestus, in Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods 3.55. To miscopy a genitive οπανοϲ Opanos as ϲπανοϲ Spanos is an exceedingly easy mistake to make.)

There was, besides, a small town in Paphlagonia, called Abonoteichus, where in the mid-2nd century CE, a priest called Alexander declared that Asclepius had come to the city as a human-headed serpent and under the name of Glycon. Lucian of Samosata, in a hypercritical account of this novel cult, quotes the record of a dialogue held between a man called Sacerdos of Tius and the god Glycon:

“Tell me, o lord Glycon, who are you?” – “I am a new Asclepius.”
“Different than the one before? How do you mean?” – “That is not licit (themis) for you to hear”
“How many years will you stay with us and give oracles?” – “Three more than a thousand.”
“Then where will you go?” – “To Bactra and the land there; for it is necessary that the barbarians also may enjoy my presence.”
“And the other oracles, that in Didymi, in Clarus or in Delphi, do they (still) have your father as the giver of oracles, or are the oracles which now issue from there false?” – “You should not have sought to know this either; for it is not licit.”
“And I, what shall I be after my present life?” – “A camel, then a horse, then a wise man and prophet no lesser than Alexander” (Lucian, Alexander or the False Diviner 43).

I hope to add sections about the Egyptian and Phoenician Asclepii, as well as Glycon, in the future, but for now, this article will only review the Epidaurian god.

[Perhaps there are also still other Asclepii I should incorporate; I at least need to say something about the career of the “Hermetic” Asclepius.]

2 The theology of Asclepius

According to mythical accounts, Asclepius was born as a mortal, being the child of Apollon with a human woman. (Her name is debated.) His father being a healer (as well as a sender of illness), Asclepius became a healer or physician himself, and taught the same art to “the two sons of Asclepius, / the good physicians Podalirius and Machaon” (Iliad 2.731–2), who appear among the besiegers of Troy in Homer. In later sources, we hear much more about his family relations (as will be discussed in later sections).

Although mortal-born, Asclepius was not merely honored as a man, nor even as a hero – although there are a very few texts that do call him a hero, e.g., the ancient scholia on Pindar: “the most gentle contriver of painlessness and health, the hero Asclepius, a true hero and a helper against every kind of illness” (Scholia on Pindar, Pythian Odes 3.9). No, rather than a hero or a local daemon, Asclepius was seen as a god.

Not, indeed, one of those gods “who were fixed (certi) from the beginning and are eternal” – at least not by the usual account –, but one of those who “were made into immortals out of humans” (Servius auctus, On the Aeneid 8.275, attributing the distinction to Varro): “let people worship as gods both those who have always been regarded as celestials and those who are said to be in heaven by merit: Hercules, Liber, Aesculapius, Castor and Pollux, Quirinus” (Cicero, On the Laws 2.19).

According to the Platonist Apuleius, these latter were not really gods in the strict sense, nor daemons in the primary sense (i.e., of a status between gods and human sous), but daemons in a secondary sense, or Lares, specifically “those among” human souls “who, because they led their life justly and wisely, were afterwards taken as gods (pro numine) by humans and honored with temples and ceremonies by the people, like Amphiaraus in Boeotia, Mopsus in Africa, Osiris in Egypt, and others among other peoples, but Aesculapius everywhere” (Apuleius, On the God of Socrates 15).

The ascent to divine status came about in a strange way, since according to myth, when Asclepius surpassed the limits set to human art and healed a dead man, bringing him back to life, he was killed by Zeus’ thunderbolt in punishment. In response, Apollon killed the Cyclopes – the artificers who had created the thunderbolts – and had to lay down his divinity for a time in atonement. Ancient tellings of the story often make no mention of what happened to Asclepius after his death, such as in pseudo-Apollodorus’ Library (3.10.3–4), or the following summary from Servius (which weaves the Roman deity Virbius into the still markedly Greek tale):

[Servius story to be translated] (Servius, On the Aeneid 7.761).

Ovid (who already included Hippolytus-Virbius) completes the story very briefly: “You complained, o Phoebus (=Apollon); now he is a god, to placate the parent. On your account, (Jupiter) himself does what he forbids to be done” (Ovid, Fasti 6.761–762). Only a few actually integrate the apotheosis into the narrative, like Hyginus: “For this crime, Jupiter incinerated his house, but because of his invention and for the sake of his father Apollo, he stationed (Aesculapius) himself among the stars, holding a serpent” (Hyginus, Astronomica 2.14.5; the reference is to the constellation Ophiuchus, stars and constellations being understood as gods).

In non-mythical accounts, all such narrative details (which paint the gods in so dim a light) tend to be omitted. It is simply said that he merited godhood “through labors and perseverance” (Porphyry, To Marcella 7), namely for his philanthropic invention/discovery (gr. heuresis, lat. inventio) of medicine and drugs or herbs (e.g., Arnobius, Against the Pagans 1.38;41).

Or, for consistency’s sake, we can say with Servius that “Apollo is the inventor of medicine; for Aesculapius only presides over medicine, while Apollo invented it” (Servius, On the Aeneid 12.405); in either case, he is “god of health (deus salutis)” (Servius, On the Georgics 2.380) or, in a more common way of putting it, “cause and giver of health” (John Lydus, On the Months 4.45).

Of course, these latter, rather grand characterizations, taken by themselves, would seem to suggest a god who was “fixed from the beginning and is eternal”, as Varro put it, not one who simply happened to become a god. The famous doctor Galen at least, in referring to “Asclepius and Dionysus”, doubted “whether they were humans before, or gods from the beginning”, knowing only that “they are revered with the greatest honors because they taught us an art, the former that of healing (iatrikē), the other that about the vines” (Galen, Exhortation to Study the Arts 9).

The late Neoplatonists (5th–6th centuries CE), for their part, were convinced of the eternity of Asclepius’ divinity, although they found a way to reconcile that idea with the accounts of the human Asclepius, and were even able to give a theological explanation of the plurality of Asclepii. The next section will lay this out.

3 Asclepius in late Neoplatonism

Beyond the cosmos, among the intellective gods, “the Apolloniac” fount or fontal intellect, also called the first Apollon, is contained “within the Heliac (solar) fount; and the Asclepiac”, in turn, in the Apolloniac (Damascius, On the Parmenides, p. 237): so, Sun* → Apollon → Asclepius.

*The god, not the celestial body (both called hēlios in ancient Greek).

Things are still somewhat more complicated than this, however, because Asclepius is associated specifically with the paeanian or healing (iatrikē) series of Apollon (Paean being a title shared by Apollon and Asclepius; cf. Syrianus, On the Metaphysics, p. 26), as is a yet lower god, Telesphorus (Damascius, On the Parmenides, p. 116). See my notes on Proclus’ hymn to the Sun.

On a cosmic level, “the Asclepius who has brought to light all things that are in accordance with nature is the one through whom the universe does not fall sick, does not age, and the elements are not loosed from their unbreakable chains” (Proclus, On the Republic, vol. 1, p. 69).

According to Proclus, Porphyry said that Asclepius is the Seleniac (lunar) intellect, as Apollon is that of the Sun, but “Iamblichus rebuked this, since it is not good to mix up the essences of the gods, and not correct to distribute the intellects and souls of the (gods) within the cosmos along these lines. For Asclepius should be placed within the Sun, and also as proceeding from him (=the Sun) across the (sublunar) realm of origination, so that, like heaven, origination too will be encompassed by this divinity through a secondary participation, and filled with its symmetry and balance” (Proclus, On the Timaeus, vol. 1, p. 159). If I understand this correctly, Iamblichus thus holds what Sallustius writes, that, within the cosmos, “Asclepius is within Apollon”, the ruler of the solar sphere, primarily.

After the god, there are “many daemons […] around Asclepius, some allotted the order of companions (opadoi) of the god, others of attendants of his procession (propompoi)” (Proclus, On the Timaeus, vol. 1, p. 158), that is, of being relatively close or far from him. It is due to the plurality of these attendants (and not just daemons but also angels above them and heroes below them) that there are divergent traditions of Asclepius’ worship, or rather, that genuinely different Asclepii worshipped, yet they are all recognized as the same god – not as the Greek Asclepius, but as the first Asclepius to whom all the local names belong. (Which, of course, is arguably still a Hellenocentric viewpoint; but then, the late antique Mediterranean was culturally Hellenocentric, for good and for ill).

Not only that, but certain “particular souls”, i.e., souls that become embodied as humans, “who recognize their own presiding and ruling gods, have called themselves by their names; or why else have they been called Asclepii, Dionysi and Dioscuri by us?” (Proclus, On the Timaeus, vol. 3, p. 166). This explains the Asclepii who are said to have actually lived among different nations. Other souls of a nature to be healers (iatrikaí psykhaí) are also Asclepiac (Proclus, On the Timaeus, vol. 1, p. 163), but they are not fully “preserving the form of their proper life in this order”; it can be said that “the Dionsi, Asclepii, Hermae and multiple Heracles who have the same names as the gods overseeing them have come to these (earthly) regions by grace, accompanied by gods” (Proclus, On the Cratylus 81).

Even inanimate objects can participate in the Asclepiac chain, if they are correctly consecrated. According to the fragments from Damascius’ Philosophical History (fr. 218 Zintzen, the statue of Asclepius in his Athenian temple spoke and answered Plutarch of Athens and another philosopher in the early 5th century CE.

[More remains to be said about the theology of the god, certainly in other sections to be added later, but also here (namely the ideas of the emperor Julian in On Helios & Against the Galilaeans).]

4 Asclepius as an agent of healing, seen and unseen

Artemidorus counts Asclepius as one of the terrestrial gods, who by different accounts is either perceptible or intelligible; in other words, is either directly experienced (in the way that, for instance, Nymphs were sighted and sometimes encountered more intimately in the woods) or known only intellectually. As the ancient literature quite shows, perceptible waking encounters and (intelligible?) dream visions of the god were both frequently experienced and widely believed to result in miraculous cures, including by people of a skeptical bent and great education.

[Asklêpios in PsThessalus; various drugs; Oribasius Synopsis 8.2.1 Ephialtes; Oribasius Collectiones 45.30.11; Dioscorides 4.162.4; Hippocratic Epistles, Oath; Galen, Introductio, De libris propriis, De praenotione, In Epidemiarum?, De antidotis?, De compositione, De methodo, De morborum temporibus, De morborum differentiis, De sanitate tuendi, De anatomics administrationis, Adhortatio.]

[Strabo about manifestations in Proclus On Alc. 166 – oh, also In Tim. 1.158; Epidaurian cure inscriptions; Oribasius and Galen in On His Own Views; medical writers such as Galen about Asclepius and the invention of medicine; the Hippocratic Oath; other practical texts such as the prayers over plants; De Taxone; Quintus Serenus; medical writers also in other respects; perhaps other things; the ancient medical commentators and other Latin writers.]

5 The family of Asclepius, and their myths and worship, especially at Epidaurus

[Family, in Ps.Apollodorus & elsewhere; Iamblichus on Machaon and Podalirius? Hymns, genealogy, worship especially Epidaurus. Oracles, Delphi & Porphyry; Pausanias! Servius on Georgics 2.380; patristic sources; etc.]