Asclepius, the son of Apollo, was the Greek god of healing. According to legend, he challenged the authority of Zeus (ruler of the gods) and Hades (lord of the underworld*) by saving too many people from death. Because of Asclepius’s curative power, people frequently sought his help.
The worship of Asclepius spread throughout Greece and later to Rome, and many temples were built in his honor. The most important temple was at Epidaurus in the Peloponnese in southern Greece. The ruins there include a small building and altar dating from the late 500s B.C.
* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades
People often came to the temples of Asclepius seeking cures for various illnesses. First, these sufferers washed themselves with water from a natural spring near the temple. Then, they dressed in plain white robes—without rings, belts, or even shoes. Next, the worshipers made an offering to the god, usually fruit or cakes. Then they went to sleep in a special room. They believed that the god visited and healed them as they slept.
Accounts of the healing experience survive in temple inscriptions and also in literature. These accounts describe Asclepius as a bearded figure who appeared to patients in their dreams or when they were in a transitional state between waking and sleeping. In some cases, Asclepius used medications, while in others he performed surgical procedures. One report details how the god cut open a man’s stomach, removed an abscess, and then stitched him up again. Often the cures involved sacred snakes that licked the patients in their sleep. The symbol for Asclepius—the caduceus, a staff or wand with one or two serpents wrapped around it—became the symbol for the medical profession. (See also Hippocrates.)