The Cult of Asclepius

Asclepius, the god who healed with moving water, was said to be the son of god Apollo and a woman named Coronis. His symbol was the snake, and he was known as the god of life because the snake seemingly resurrects itself (sheds its skin and is born anew, disappears to hibernate and reappears each year). Live snakes were kept in a sacred chest in each of his temples.

Asclepius was also known as %u201CAsclepius Savior.%u201D Hospitals or treatment centers were frequently located in conjunction with his temples, and people flocked to Pergamum from all over the world to seek healing at the large Asclepion there. The healing process was a mixture of religious ceremony and health practices%u2014especially diet, water, herbs and exercise.

When patients entered the Asclepion (hospital) in Pergamum after traveling the kilometer-long %u201Csacred way,%u201D they were greeted at the gate by the temple priests who would interview them to determine their acceptability for healing. Old people and pregnant women nearing the time of delivery were excluded (no deaths or births were allowed within the sanctuary), as were those who were considered impure. This is an interesting parallel to modern-day cultures that seek to terminate the lives of the senior citizens and the unborn.

Each patient who was admitted made an offering (probably incense) to show his or her devotion to Asclepius and began receiving free, supervised treatment. As part of the healing process, %u201Csacred water%u201D from a spring and a well was used for bathing and drinking. Treatments included mud baths, special diet, exercise, stress relief, and exposure to the sun. (Perhaps some of the patients%u2019 sleep was induced.)

Any healing that took place%u2014whether as the result of a psychological suggestion, demonic powers, and/or the medical knowledge of the day%u2014was credited to Asclepius. Healed people would bow down to the statue of Asclepius and the sacred snake to offer thanks, make an offering%u2014apparently a pig%u2014and have their names and the ailments Asclepius had cured inscribed on a marble pillar (usually white). Finally, each healed person would leave a gift with the priests to thank the god and would witness to many other people about Asclepius%u2019 great ability to heal. Thus many people heard or saw the praise and honor given to Asclepius, which in turn increased the cult%u2019s popularity.