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Asclepius and His Animals’ Roles in Healing

Info: 8383 words (34 pages) Dissertation
Published: 16th Dec 2019

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Tagged: Medicine


Animals have been used in the medical field consistently for the last few decades. It is tempting to believe that their applications in medicine are fairly new, however, this is not true. Since the very beginning of medicine, animals have had a role in healing. This paper investigates the very start of medicine by Asclepius and how his three animal totems factored into the healing aspects of ancient Greece, in an attempt to prove animals’ longstanding purposes in medicine.  I review the god’s animals’ symbolism, their appearance in dreams, their role in ritual sacrifice and cures all in relation to the healing process. This feat is accomplished through the analysis of several articles and books on Asclepius published in the fields of classics and theology.

Asclepius and his Animals’ Roles in Healing

Since early ancient history, animals have been used to better human lives through the field of medicine as seen by Greek physicians Aristotle, Erasistratus and Galen (Hajar, 2011). Their applications since then have been used in various forms through: the testing of new drugs in the twentieth century (Hajar, 2011), the creation of medication using animal parts (Alves & Rosa, 2005), development of vaccines (Kiros et al., 2012), to the research on a variety of diseases. This has, in turn, had a direct effect on the livelihood on mankind. For example, smallpox has been eradicated in large part due to animal contribution in the development of a vaccine to combat the illness (Greenwood, 2014). The importance of animals in the medical world today is obvious, however their role has been around for much longer than we may think. When healing began in ancient Greece and Egypt, animals then also had a purpose (Alves, Medeiros, Albuquerque, & Rosa, 2013). Their function may not have been as discernible as it is nowadays, but there was still an influence on healing culture during that time.

The connection between animals and healing rests upon the fact that several Greek healing deities such as Artemis (fish, stag, boar, dog) (Encyclopedia Mythica, 1997) ,Apollo (dolphin and swan) (Encyclopedia Mythica, 1997) and Hygeia (snake) (Encyclopedia Mythica, 1997),  were depicted with their sacred animals. People looking to be healed often used animals in sacrifices as an offering to these gods, as can be seen on votives displayed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens as well as Artemis’ temple in Athens. The recurring presence of animals on statues of gods and dedicatory votives speaks to the importance they had in ancient Greece. If this was not the case, there would be no representations of such on antiquities that have been recovered. This is due to the fact that humans generally seem to create artwork about people, animals and places that have some sort of significance.

The idea of animals having a place and function in the medical world of ancient times is particularly relevant to the prominent healing deity during that time frame. Asclepius, one of the most revered god of medicine in classical Greece, was associated with a number of animals which were thought to have several important purposes in his healing practices. This is  reported in a number of studies in the disciplines of classics and theology. This paper will explore the functions of Asclepius’ three animal totems in relation to healing. It will investigate their indirect roles in symbolism (Kostuch, 2017), appearance in dreams (Risse, 2015; Askitopoulou, 2015) and ritual healing sacrifices (Stafford, 2008; Hitch & Rutherford, 2017), as well as their direct roles in actual cures (Lonsdale, 1979).

As previously mentioned, through antiquities that have been discovered in Greece and displayed in museums around the world, we can clearly see through votive offerings, statues, coins and vases that animals held some fundamental importance in the lives of Greek civilization (see figures 1 – 3). Additionally, many gods were depicted with one or more sacred animal, thus further substantiating their significance (Burkert & Raffan, 2013). This does make sense, accordingly, as Greeks believed that animals were manifested in all facets of life and were a dominant part of religious cult practice (Kostuch, 2017). In general, animals appeared to have a religious symbolism more than anything (Johnston, Mastrocinque, & Papaioannou, 2016). Animals were thought to possess powers that were inaccessible to man, making them indispensable mediums in allowing the communication to gods(Lonsdale, 1979). What they symbolized however, varied from god to god. For example, the dolphin, associated with Apollo and Poseidon (Encylopedia Mythica) emerges when death is imminent and functions as a mediator between men and gods (Beaulieu, 2016). To illustrate that each animal did indeed have different symbolisms, another instance can be found with the cockerel in relation to the god Persephone (Cosentino, 2016). In this particular case, the cockerel represents the afterlife as Persephone was married to Hades, the god of the underworld (Cosentino, 2016). As we will see later on, animals can have a variety of meanings depending on who they are associated with.

One might have difficulty making the connection between the symbolism of animals in ancient Greece and its relation to healing, however, this is where Asclepius comes in. Since the general symbology, as previously mentioned, was religious in nature, the association between the god of medicine, healing, and animals slowly becomes apparent. As we have seen, Asclepius was a sort of mix between the rational practice of medicine (where he used herbs, incantations, and the knife) and the divine (where healing came in forms of dreams and was sort of miraculous), which labelled him as a divine physician (Sigerist, 1961). The fact that Asclepius had several animals associated with him speaks volumes to their importance in healing since this deity was in fact the god of medicine. As we will see further on in this paper, Asclepius without his animals, may not have become the renown healer he was. One of the sacred animal of Asclepius was first and foremost, said to be the snake. (Grant & Hazel, 2002). Additionally, he was also said to be associated with dogs (Cartwright, 2013). Lastly, and less commonly noted, there was also been mention of relations to the cock in some writings (Lagasse, 2017). A mention of all three of these animals has been found in Edelstein and Edelstein’s (1998) writings on Asclepius, as well as a few other works by different authors.

Since deities had such strong links to specific animals, it would make sense to firstly investigate the symbolism of the snake, as it was the most commonly associated animal with the healing cult of Asclepius (Kalof, 2007). Statue depictions found at this god’s sanctuaries often include his rod, which is never without the serpent that is entwined around it (Kalof, 2007). Sculptures dedicated by appreciative believers too, incorporated the snake in their reliefs, often portrayed  him as visiting his sleeping patients, awaiting a cure in the sanctuary (Kalof, 2007). Asclepius, when appearing to the ill, would either arrive alone or in company of Hygeia, his daughter, or a snake (Sigerist, 1961). Not only is Asclepius often depicted with snakes, there is material that suggests that he was capable of manifesting himself into serpent form and vice versa (Alves, Medeiros, Albuquerque & Rosa, 2013), which would explain the votive reliefs illustrating serpents visiting patients.  This is exemplified by a legend describing the plague obliterating Rome where Asclepius took form of a snake and used his powers to heal disease-stricken citizens (Antoniou, Antoniou, Learney, Granderath, & Antoniou, 2011).  Supplementary to this story, a relief in the Carlsberg Museum in Copenhagen also speaks of such manifestations. This antiquity illustrates a patient being carried home on a stretcher after an ineffective incubation, when suddenly, they encountered a large snake in a tree, which presumably was the god who was now ready to heal (Sigerist, 1961). Legends, sculptures, and relief offerings speak volumes to the relation between Asclepius and snakes, whether he was one and the same or whether they were just helpers in the healing process.

To further make the connection between this animal and the god, one of stories of Asclepius’ upbringing suggests that the centaur Chiron taught him about healing and restorative plants (Sigerist, 1961), just as snakes are supposed to have medical knowledge which can be transmitted to others (Alves et al., 2013). There could be two possibilities here: either Asclepius obtained his knowledge from Chiron, and was then able to manifest himself into a snake, or, he learned his trade through his association with snakes, thus enabling him to channel and transform into them. The serpent became such an important animal in regard to Asclepius that whenever a new temple was built, snakes would be brought over as a means of transferring the healing power of the god (Alves et al., 2013). As a result of these godly relations, this animal became a symbol of medicine and healing (Alves et al., 2013).

The symbolism of the serpent is profoundly related to healing in a variety of ways. As many know, Asclepius’ staff, bound and wrapped by the serpent, has been a symbol in healthcare industry for over 2500 years (Hart, 2000). This strong relation between the serpent, Asclepius and healing has held on for centuries. While the meaning of the snake nowadays may be dramatically different from what others before us thought, it is still imperative to see where and how the association was made between the snake and medicine. People in ancient times believed that gods had conferred special favor on snakes (Hart, 2000). This animal was associated with the symbol of prognosis and prophecy, which makes sense in accordance to what we have learned about Asclepius’ roles as a healer. Moreover, the warding off of death, recuperation from ailment, followed by rebirth or regeneration is also attributed to the snake due to its annual shedding of the skin(Hart, 2000). These important reptiles had a plethora of other symbolic meanings. By way of illustration, the manner in which snakes were able to twirl their bodies into a circle represented eternity. They also exemplified superior procreative abilities due to their lack of visible genitalia. People believed that their enhanced vision was a sign of caution and wisdom, whilst their lack of sleep gifted them with tremendous powers of vigilance. Finally, it was additionally thought that snakes had learned the medicinal capacity of plants and herbs as a consequence of living in their habitat amongst the bushes (Hart, 2000).

Along with the snake, another animal that is frequently mentioned in relation to our main deity in numerous writings in the field of classics, is the dog. One might wonder, where this association stems from, and why, to which an investigation into a couple of Asclepius’ origin stories will reveal the answer. One of these stories comes from the Epidaurians (where Asclepius’ most famous temple was built) in which they speak of  the miraculous birth of the god (Sigerist, 1961). This story, as told by Pausanias, describes Phlegyas going on a military mission to the Peloponnese with his daughter Coronis accompanying him. At this time she is with child by the god Apollo. According to the myth, she gave birth in Epidaurus and left him on Myrtle Mountain, which was later named Titthion. After this, a goat gave milk to the baby while a herd dog protected him. He was found by the dog’s owner and tried to take the child when a lightning flash occurred, which prompted him to turn away. This led to the spread of the idea that this child was divine and could cure every disease as well as revive the dead (Sigerist, 1961).  Another story comes from later on, around the early fifth century AD in which it was understood that Asclepius was a spontaneous delivery and abandoned by his mother Coronis in the mountains near Epidaurus (Hart, 2000). There, he was nurtured and taken care of by a dog until hunters found him and took him to the centaur Chiron (Hart, 2000). Through these two stories’ similarities and slight differences we can see a definite reason as to why the dog would have been considered a sacred animal to Asclepius. The most obvious one is that the animal played a significant role in keeping the child alive, by nurturing him and also guarding him from evils that may have gotten too close.

Dogs in modern day have various significant functions to humans, mostly social. It is tempting to think that this is a recent development however, this is untrue. Dogs have been part of history since before humans could even write (Mark, 2014). Even more so, they held important roles in ancient Greek culture and society. In this civilization, dogs were regarded as companions, protectors and hunters for the people (Mark, 2014). The central aspect was the man-animal relationship of reciprocity where they would ward off robbers, scavengers, cats and wild dogs which devastated humans’ belongings and peace of mind (Lonsdale, 1979). Moreover, these animals’ heightened sense of smell and hearing made them excellent watch dogs. They were regarded as a spiritual force or the embodiment of some special qualities and considered utilitarian as they worked with man (Lonsdale, 1979).  There were a wide range of emotions affiliated with dogs due to their nature, some of which included: avoidance, awe, fear and mistrust. In the healing cult of Asclepius however, dogs were associated with awe, due to the fact they were believed to possess therapeutic capabilities (Lonsdale, 1979). They were also looked up to as a result of their ability to communicate non-verbally. Another power they were said to hold was that of controlling fertility of both crops and flocks, and most importantly, being able to converse with the immortal gods (Lonsdale, 1979). Probably the greatest reason for the dog being so symbolic in reference to Asclepius is by virtue of being able to serve as an intermediary between both worlds (Tick, 2001). Accordingly, Asclepius was concerned with securing the healing energies that originated from nature and subsequently reinstating the natural balance in humans. With the help of dogs, this task could be accomplished (Tick, 2001). Not in direct relation to our healing deity, but nonetheless essential to his patients, these animals were also said to be the guides into the other world (Tick, 2001). This could be pertinent if Asclepius was not reached, or his cure failed. Also relevant to this idea, is the belief that dogs were companions of the soul and would serve as guides to the underworld (Tick, 2001). As we have seen, the symbolism of dogs is not comparable to that of snakes where they actually symbolize healing aspects. Instead, their symbolism rests on the elaboration of why they had specific functions in healing. The symbology here is more about the why they are important rather than what they represent.

To reiterate, the symbolism of the dog reflects on its’ importance to Asclepius’ life as well as their usefulness to the god himself. It does not represent healing or regeneration per se as the serpent does, but its role is more indirectly symbolic of medicine. One of the most famous statues of Asclepius was created by Thrasymedes and commissioned for the sanctuary of Asclepius. It was built from gold, ivory and marble and depicted the god seated, with a dog under his throne and a snake climbing on his right side (Hart, 2000). Such a famous statue is a testament of the notability of dogs as symbolic to the god. It is more so interesting that it is not only the serpent that is depicted, which leads to the assumption that both animals must been similar in their meaning to the god. Epidaurian coins have also been discovered with comparable representations of Asclepius also seated at his side (Sigerist, 1961).

Finally, in respect to the symbolism of animals held sacred to Asclepius, we have the cock, cockerel or rooster. There do not seem to be any stories of our deity’s upbringing that would explain why the animal is considered one of his totems. Unlike with the other sacred animals, artifacts depicting Asclepius with a rooster, are not common.  There is, however, a little bit of information about the symbolism of the cock, and the possible other reasons why it would make sense as a symbol of Asclepius. Evidence exists that states this bird’s relevance as referring to the Asclepieion cult’s heroic and chthonian aspects (Stafford, 2008). It is supposed to symbolise hope at the start of a new day (Stafford, 2008). According to Risse (1999), cockerels were identified with dawn. The cock is allegedly the animal that spans darkness and light and accordingly, day and night (Tick, 2001). It’s main role in relation to Asclepius is to bring people back to consciousness after incubation (Tick, 2001).

There is another way in which animals were symbolic to both Asclepius and healing, and that was their appearance in patients’ dreams. Sleep was a vital component of the healing rituals in Asclepieion temples as it represented decay, death, and rebirth. Sleep was metaphorical for death, for the reason that it was a temporary death, where, like real death, we lay motionless and unconscious. In this regard, awakening from sleep would be symbolic of rejuvenation, or new life (Askitopoulou, 2015). After being purified and giving a sacrifice, patients would head to the abaton where incubation occurred. This is where they would either sleep or be in a stage between it and being awake. In the dreams, the god would reveal himself and either give them medical advice, heal them miraculously or cure them with surgery or herbs and drugs. When they awoke, the patients would reveal the dream to the priest and he would interpret them (Askitopoulou, 2015).

It was not always Asclepius himself that would make an appearance in the dreams of patients; sometimes it was a snake (Asclepius but in serpent form), and other times it was a priest with a sacred serpent that would emerge (Angeletti, Agrimi, French, Curia, & Mariani-Costantini, 1992). Patients actually often reported that they were touched by the tongues of snakes, and had not seen the god personally (Risse, 1999). Antoniou et al. (2011) also found that the sick attending Asclepius’ sanctuaries were either visited by the physician with his serpent-entwined staff or, the god in form of a snake. It seems to be that in one way or another, the snake was always present, whether it be in rituals, dreams or in form of the god. Asclepius was most often accompanied by snakes, as we have seen on a number of reliefs and depictions of the god. The symbolism of the serpent is probably one of the most salient out of all the animals sacred to Asclepius. It has been carried forward for hundreds of generations and still survives, which speaks to the paramount role this animal still plays in modern society.

In conjunction with the snakes appearing in dreams during incubation, dogs were another that made appearances as well. According to Lonsdale (1979), if a patient dreamt of a dog while sleeping in the abaton, it was a sure indication of impending recovery (Lonsdale, 1979). The power of non-verbal communication this animal had could have possibly played a role in dreams as well, as it perhaps could have been interpreted as a “message from Asclepius” (Lonsdale, 1979). Along with this, since the dog was supposedly another one of the god’s forms, some patients reported being touched by the tongues of dogs instead of seeing him personally (Risse, 1999). The basis that Asclepius had two animal forms, which meant that he could appear as one of them suggests that both the dog and serpent had more than just symbolic meanings. Additionally, since incubation was considered one of the most important parts of the healing rituals, these animals’ appearances in dreams are definitely significant.

No evidence has come to light about the rooster appearing during incubation. This may signify that the role of the cock in healing was not as direct as that of the serpent or the dog. Oddly enough, cocks were kept in the Asclepieion temple in Athens (Simoons, 1961). Could there possibly be a healing role attributed to the cock that has not yet been discovered?  This bird seemed to have more of value in respect to a different part of the whole healing process: ritual sacrifice. While to patients it may not have appeared as important as the dog or the serpent, Asclepius himself may have thought differently, since he was the one receiving these offerings, and to him this would have been important.

The entire healing ritual at Asclepieion sanctuaries was quite the ordeal. Most of the focus on the process is often centered around incubation and sleep for the reason that curation occurs at this step. There are other vital steps as well that, without them, would not complete the rituals. Before arriving to that critical part, patients had to undergo provisions where they would take purifying baths and make sacrifices to the gods (Askitopoulou, 2015). Sacrifice is a fascinating topic to explore as it was central to determining whether or not the god in question would choose to cure the ailing person; it was also part of all ancient religious practices, including the Asclepieia (Hart, 2000).  Sacrifices were brought to the god as part of the preparatory ritual (Sigerist, 1961).

Sacrifice had many different connotations, however it typically took form of animal killings which were then followed by a ritual meal (Risse, 1999). There could also be bloodless ones, called libations, that included honey, cakes or fruits, as well as votive offerings which were more of a thanks for a cure (Sigerist, 1961). The main animals that were offered in these rituals were customarily cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs (Villing, 2017).  The fundamental intention of animal sacrifice was to placate the gods and ensure they were pleased , to increase the chances of a successful incubation (Panagiotidou, 2016). The animal was first delivered to the temple, where a ceremony then occurred that entailed making the animal appear to be willing to be slaughtered (Kalof, 2007). The ideal scenario was that the animal would walk up to the alter without hesitation and quietly. It would agree to being sacrificed by nodding its head. This nodding was usually prompted by being sprinkled with water and/or grain. The victim would be decorated with flowers or ribbons and was led to the alter by a group of joyful people (Kalof, 2007). The priest would then pray and kill the animal by way of slitting its throat or stabbing it with a knife. Immediately following this, the blood was caught in some sort of vessel and poured onto the altar. Organs that contained more blood were removed (such as the heart and liver) and examined. If they appeared healthy, this meant that the god had accepted the sacrifice and that it was successful. Once all this was concluded, the entrails were cooked and everybody feasted. This was also an important aspect of the ritual because sacrifice highlighted the likelihood of communicating with the gods, and this feast meant that both humans and gods could dine together (Kalof, 2007).

Through this detailed description of what a ritual sacrifice consisted of, we can get a clearer picture of how the healing process was divided into a series of equally important steps. If one wanted chances of a successful recovery from whatever ailed them, sacrifice was absolutely necessary to please the gods. Again, we can discern that this is yet another area of healing where animals indirectly held a substantial function through the offering of their lives in order to ensure an effective cure to whatever afflicted the patient. In relation to our healing god Asclepius, some of his sacred animals had roles as sacrificial animals, while others were just part of rituals in general.

The snake for one, was not one of the animals that was sacrificed to the god of healing. It did have a role however in the whole ritual process. The serpent was said to be the sacred servant of Asclepius, helping the god when needed (Hamilton, 1942). The snake’s role is a little bit mysterious, as there are many references to it being integral in the incubation, but no specific mention of what its function was (Hart, 2000). One theory presented by Hart (2000) is that the type of snake that was used in the temple, E. longissimi, had an appetite for rodents that kept the areas free from rats and mice. This was crucial as these vermin were known to carry plague-transmitting bacteria which was a huge issue during that time period (Hart, 2000). As we have seen previously, patients were not allowed to enter the abaton for incubation unless they had been purified. Furthermore, people were not allowed to die in the temple, nor were women allowed to give birth (Hart, 2000).  All of this establishes the importance of keeping the abaton a “pure” area. Another theory regarding the animal’s role states that these temple snakes had antiseptic properties (Hart, 2000). Both of these ideas about serpents’ functions in the sanctuaries seem to be quite appropriate for the healing aspect of Asclepius. Even today, hospitals are known to be sanitized and sterilized, especially in surgical settings. Clearly, Asclepius understood the role of cleanliness and its impact on health and transmission of disease. Since the god was famous for ridding people of illness, the snake playing into the purification and decontamination of the site would have been an especially necessary affair.

As mentioned, snakes freely roamed the grounds of the Asclepieion temples (Risse, 1999). We now know why this was so. In Epidaurus, it was said that there was an underground labyrinth in the tholos where a snake pit would have been located (Hart, 2000). This was considered the home of the serpents, who were an embodiment of Asclepius (Hart, 2000). Snakes were held in such high esteem in the healing cult that the priest would even share part of his portion of the sacrifice with them as a small tribute (Edelstein & Edelstein, 1998). It is also alleged that the snakes would circulate among the people sleeping with the priests as they walked around (Hart, 2000). Asclepieion temples were sacred, and sacred places were to be protected, which may be another reason why serpents wandered unrestrictedly: to provide protection from any misfortunes that may have been occurring (Antoniou, Antoniou, Learney, Granderath, & Antoniou, 2011). While this particular animal totem of Asclepius was not sacrificed, it was evidently a prominent part of rituals in general.

Dogs were symbolic as mediators between humans and gods. They were important to Asclepius particularly due to the myths of his birth. As such, it would be peculiar if they did not play a part in the healing rituals. Larger mammals such as cows and oxen, as well as smaller ones like sheep or rams were customarily sacrificed in offering to Asclepius (Sigerist, 1961). Surprisingly, the dogs’ role was not exactly akin to that of the snakes. Dogs were principally used for rites of purification in the setting of sacrifice (Trantalidou, 2006). Specifically, it seemed that dogs were only sacrificed at the Epidaurian sanctuary, which was associated with Apollo Maleatas (the father of Asclepius). Some recent excavations in central Athens may dispute this however, as bones of a dog with a collar set with semi-precious stones were excavated (Tick, 2001). Evidence of dog sacrifice is apparent through the remains of dogs, along with offerings of beef bones and oil flasks that have been unearthed all around Greece (Tick, 2001). The main difference between dog sacrifices and that of other animals is that they were not consumed after being killed (Trantalidou, 2006).

In my thorough investigation of this topic, the reason for sacrificing dogs did not become apparent. One possible reason behind this particular animal as an offering could be its relation to the underworld as its guide. In some stories, Asclepius is labelled a chthonian god, which is where the connection could possibly come in, however this is quite a stretch. It was quite curious to even stumble upon some information regarding the subject, as dogs were said to be a guardian to Asclepius, thus making it quite strange to sacrifice such a sentimental animal. Contrary to this train of thought however, goats were forbidden from being sacrificed at certain temples, namely at Epidaurus and Tithorea in Phokis (Stafford, 2008). The logic for this rule was as expected, and in regards to the story of Asclepius being raised by a goat. What is more is that Cyrenaeans had a custom of sacrificing goats (Stafford, 2008) Here we can see a clear lack of universality. Why were some animals allowed as sacrifices in some places, but forbidden in others? Further investigations into the dog as an oblation would definitely shed some light on this bizarre topic.

It is speculated that the main reason for the rooster being symbolic to our healing god is due to its significant role as a sacrificial animal (Hart, 2000).The blood offerings of the cockerel in Asclepieion temples dates back to the late fifth to early fourth centuries BC onwards (Villing, 2017). “Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it and do not neglect it, do so!” (Plato, ET 524); this famous saying by Socrates on his death bed is quite explanatory of the role of cocks in ritual sacrifice in healing temples of Asclepius. This is some of the most famous evidence revealing the significance of the cock as a preferred animal of sacrifice in Asclepieion temples (Villing, 2017).  This bird was not considered to be on par with other animal sacrifices such as larger animals which would have more meat and thought to be a bigger offering, however this did not stop it from becoming the standard offering to Asclepius (Villing, 2017). Contrasting another healing deity’s temple such as Amphiaraos, to Asclepius, it is evident that the Amphiareion was more of a business-like model, where larger offerings were, thus suggesting it was for the wealthier people (Renberg, 2017). Asclepius was known for not requiring elaborate prayers or sacrifices (Renberg, 2017). This might attest to the success of this healing cult, as a sacrifice such as a rooster would have been inexpensive enough for most people to offer, meaning almost anyone could come and be healed there (Stafford, 2008).

Sigerist (1961), describes another piece of evidence relating to the offering of cocks, depicted on a votive tablet. It portrays two native women from Cos who walk during sunset to the temple to make a sacrifice as thanks for having been cured of an illness. It further describes the offering as an addition to a meal and how they would have offered a pig, had they had the means to raise one (Sigerist, 1961). This is quite distinctive to Asclepieon temples: people only offered sacrifices according the what they had, and most often it was in form of fruits, honey cakes or cocks (Sigerist, 1961). According to Trantalidou (2006), this was an inexpensive yet appropriate thanksgiving when a person woke up from incubation feeling cured in the morning. Of additional interest is the fact that no matter how small the animal such as a cock was, the alimentary purpose after sacrifice was still executed and a portion was kept for the priest (Askitopoulou, 2015). One more story about the existence of cock sacrifice eludes to a man vowing to sacrifice one to Ascelpius if he remained healthy throughout the whole year (Edelstein, & Edelstein, 1998). After waiting one day, he prayed to the god again asking to never suffer from ophtalmia, vowing to sacrifice another cock. The next night, he dreamt that Asclepius told him: “One cock is sufficient for me.”. After this he was free from disease, however he suffered seriously from ophthalmia, as the god granted one prayer but denied the other (Edelstein, & Edelstein, 1998). These three pieces of evidence relating to this bird being sacrificed, are the most prominent ones. There are likely more, however they are extremely difficult to find. The reason for the lack of  information on the cock sacrifice is likely due to its humble nature as an offering, explaining the lack of records for it (Stafford, 2008).

The larger majority of Asclepius’ animal totems were sacrificed. The dog, and especially the cock, have shown up in stories and/or antiquity about their role in ritual offerings. The extent of the content depicting these animal sacrifices seems to be quite limited. The function of sacrifice in healing is an indirect one, but vital nonetheless. Hypothetically speaking, without these offerings, there would be no way of communicating with the god, and thus no chance of being healed. While the snake seems to have been excluded from this specific part of the healing process, they were still present and actually received some alimentary portion of the sacrifice. They were used ceremonially during the sacrifices (Tick, 2001). Up until now, we have explored the indirect roles of Asclepius’ animals in healing, which now brings us to an examination into the relation between these totems and their direct function in healing practices.

Cures: arguably the most important part of any healing process. It entails being free of disease. This was the main goal of people travelling to Asclepieon sanctuaries. Asclepius was revered for his powers of healing, making him one of the most frequented deities for this purpose. We have looked into all the steps leading up to this crucial point: purification, sacrifice, and incubation. Healing was said to be done in the abaton during incubation, while patients were sleeping, or in a dream-like state where they waited for the god to appear (Sigerist, 1961). He was said to come either alone, accompanied by one of his children, or with a snake or a dog where he would either touch the patient, give them medicine, or operate on them (Sigerist, 1961). The presence of the snake or dog, as we will discover, played a colossal role in curing the sick patients. Information pertaining to the role of cockerels in cures has yet to be discovered.

Asclepius was considered to be an advanced practitioner of snake healing, which involved the alteration of poisons and identity transformations that represented shedding of skin (Tick, 2001). One of the many myths states that he had the blood of the snake gorgon Medusa, which gave him powers to kill and resurrect (Tick, 2001). There has been cases for the mysterious, if not miraculous healing aspects of Asclepius, where a snake would appear (possibly his embodiment) and touch an afflicted body part and then vanish (Meier, 2018). In several instances, it seemed as though healing was not actually done by the god, but by his serpent (Sigerist, 1961).  One of these occasions mentions a lady by the name of Nicasibula, from Messene who was unable to have children, and desperately wanted a son. It is said that the god approached her with his snake and it slithered on top of her. She then went on to give birth to two sons in one year (Sigerist, 1961).

It is clear that the snake played a part in the curing of diseases, however, what part exactly, is unknown (Hamilton, 1942). There is one theory though, as to how they may have been involved in the curing aspect of the healing rituals. Hart (2000) mentions that the Asclepian snake may have been the species of Elaphe longissima and/or Elaphe quattuorlineata, which are said to grow up to 80 inches (corresponds to the large snakes in the temples). The length of the snakes have also been confirmed through the statues depicting Asclepius. Earlier, it was discussed that the serpents had antiseptic properties and this respect has been further verified as well. Specifically, the species Elaphe quattuorlineata, is known to have a growth factor in their salivary glands, which makes a promising case for its “lick” containing well-known healing powers (Hart, 2000). To be more precise, it is the polypeptides of the epidermal growth factor that are perpetrated to augment the rate of wound healing (Angeletti, 1992). One such example of the serpent’s lick being curative is found inscribed on a stele at Epidaurus (Hart, 2000). The inscription outlines the story of a man with a malignant sore on his toe who was healed by a snake’s tongue in the abaton (Hart, 2000). Additionally, Hart (2000) also illustrates evidence of remedies for diseases of the rectum using serpents by Asclepius whereby its skin is used and mixed with vinegar. Through the documentation of these pieces of knowledge, we can recognize the utmost value and usefulness of the snake for curative or healing purposes.

Finally, the dog is mentioned alongside the serpent in much of the literature available on Asclepius in relation to healing and cures. Their primary use was as a means of healing (Walton, 1965). Dogs were considered magical creatures with therapeutic functions and were used as an integral part of the medical practices (Lonsdale, 1979). When the patients were licked by dogs, their health was restored (Lonsdale, 1979). The dog’s lick was thought to be especially useful for eye diseases such as blindness (Hart, 2000; Trantalidou, 2006). Furthermore, if a dog also sucked on an affected area, it would then be healed (Trantalidou, 2006). A stele was found in the 6th to 4th century BC, inscribed by temple priests describing a patient being cured by a dog (Hart, 2000). This patient was a boy from Aegina who had a growth on his neck. He was cured when one of Asclepius’ sacred dogs healed him by using its tongue. The big difference here between other stories is that the boy was said to be awake when this happened (Hart, 2000). Not unlike the healing properties of snakes attributed to their physiological makeup, the dog’s saliva is also reputed to have the epidermal growth factor, which aids in recovery (Angeletti, 1992).

One reference to cocks and their use in ritual performances or cures has been mentioned in Walton’s (1965) book on the cult of Asclepius, but it fails to go into detail about the possibilities of how they were used. It might be possible to find some information about this subject through some texts in the original language. As it stands, it would be safe to say that out of Asclepius’ sacred animals, the snake and the dog had the biggest parts to play in healing.

To reiterate everything that has been touched upon in this analysis of animals’ roles, they were evidently quite significant in the whole medical procedures of ancient times. Firstly, the fact that these creatures were associated with the top healing deity automatically relates them to the medical practice of Asclepius in Greece during this time frame. Secondly, being involved symbolically to several themes of health, as all the animal totems were, also speaks to this case. Thirdly, since rituals contained the two important aspects of dream healing and sacrifice, the presence of the serpent, dog, and cock in some or all of these, also substantiates the claim that these animals were noteworthy in this particular branch of medicine. Lastly, and quite frankly, most importantly, we cannot dispute the actual use of the dog and the snake in curative measures due to their presence in Asclepian healing culture.

Animals seemed to have a distinct place in the world of healing during that time. It may have been for incredibly different reasons than of those today but with time, medicine has changed and evolved, and accordingly, so would the roles animals play in it. As civilizations advanced and made the transition into rational medicine, the part of animals shifted along with it. They are now used for their practical application in the development of drugs, vaccines and research. It may seem like a dramatic difference and barely even comparable, but we must keep in mind the distinction between healing then and what it is now. More recently, animals have been used in a different field of medicine: psychology. Pets specifically, have been used for pet therapy to help in a number of problems related to physical, social, emotional or cognitive functioning (Anger, & Atkins, 2014). Again, we have witnessed another shift of the applications of animals in the ever-important healing field. Whether we are healing the body, soul or mind, these creatures are always present in some aspect or other. Asclepius would be proud to see the continued use of at least one of his sacred animals (dog) in the healing processes.


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