Symbols of Ancient Medicine inspire Tourists to Northern Spain
Holistic Spain ...
Most tourists to northern Spain concentrate on the
beaches, bars, and hotel swimming pools. Others immerse themselves
in the food, wine, architecture, and café society of Barcelona,
but why not experience even more ?
"Holistic Holidays" don't have to involve
reiki, meditation, and personal development workshops. We found
relaxation in the sea one day, and the roots of classical medicine
The ruins of the ancient city of Empuries lies just
a few minutes' drive inland from Spain's Costa Brava
coast. Among the remains of this classical civilisation stands
a larger-than-life statue of Asclepius, the popular, dedicated
and successful physician of around 1200 B.C. In fact, Asclepius
was so renowned that Homer names him as the physician to King Menelaus
in his epic "The Iliad" (c. 750 -700 B.C.).
modern pharmaceuticals, X-rays, or chemotherapy, Asclepius and
men using similar techniques in the same tradition
developed the practice of medicine and healing across southern
Ancient Medicine and Asclepius
The Bronze Age priesthood of Thoth followed from the Ancient
Egyptian School of Thoth. (Thoth was the ancient Egyptian God
of Wisdom.) In around 1400 B.C. the Bronze Age priesthood of
established a school in Phoenicia (modern day Tunisia). After
their expulsion from Phoenicia, they took refuge on the Greek
Asclepius is believed to have been a popular and successful
physician at around 1200 B.C. and is thought to have been associated
with the school of Thoth on the island of Ionia.
Not only is the historical Asclepius mentioned in Homer's "The
Iliad", but two of the sons of Asclepius, Podaleirius and
Machaon are also mentioned as physicians in the Greek army and
active in the siege of Troy. These sons of Asclepius are said
to have passed on their secrets for healing to their descendents
who continued in the profession, becoming and establishing the
Asclepiadae, a large order of priest physicians.
There were two kinds of priest physicians (Asclepiads) some
lived and practised in the temples and others lived amongst their
patients in the communities. Both studied the sciences of mathematics,
astrology, astronomy, language and the psychology of religious
The cult of Asclepius was popular and the "temple incubation
ritual' took place in the dormitories within the Temple
buildings (Asclepions). Patients were required to sleep in a
dormitory at night, during which time Asclepian snakes would
be free to wander over the bodies of patients when it is said
that a symbolic death and rebirth would take place. It was also
expected that while asleep the patient would be visited by the
god in a dream. The Asclepiads (priests) would then interpret
the dream, consider the patient's diet, purification practices
and finally provide medicinal treatment. The use of ritual might have involved the use of hypnosis, music, magnet
healing, spiritual incantations and psychological counselling as a means
of focusing energies to return the (whole) patient to a state of 'harmony'.
Patients visited the shrines of Asclepius hoping to find cures for their
There were many centres and schools of medicine at that time.
These were located throughout the Mediterranean, from Trikkis
in Thessaly, to the island of Cos.
In his biography Hippocrates, (recognised by many as "the
father of modern medicine") traced his family lineage to
this same Asclepius.
Medical Symbolism and the Statue of Asclepius
One of the most interesting insights to be gained
from exploration of the ruins of Empuries is the symbolism that
has remained in constant use and similar meaning throughout the
centuries. Today we seldom consider the origin and meaning of
some of the best-known symbols of medicine, such as the serpents
twisting around a staff. Perhaps that is our loss.
The damaged statue of Asclepius (illustrated),
was discovered in 1909 inside one of the compartments of the
large cistern located in front of the temple to Asclepius. The
statue on the site at Empuries today is a copy of the original – which
is displayed in the Museu d'Arqueologia de Catalunya in
Barcelona. The original statue is made of two different Marbles,
one from the island of Paros and the other from Attican Pentelic
quarries. The statue is of Asclepius wearing sandals and a robe
which is draped across his body leaving his chest mainly uncoverd
In his left hand rests on a simple staff which consists of a
roughly-hewn branch of a tree around which is entwined a single,
sacred snake. (The serpant is said to symbolize the renewal of
youth as it casts off its skin.)
The Staff of Asclepius
The staff represented in this statue has been used as a symbol
of medicine from the early 16th century onwards, and is still
used by professional and patient centred organisations around
the world (such as the World
Health Organisation, http://www.who.int). It is also incorporated in the coat
A Sumerian vase, dated around 2000 B.C. depicts
Ningishita with such a staff. The staff of Hermes has two snakes entwined around a staff and is mainly
used by Commercial medical or pharmaceutical organisations.
More about the snakes …
Infection by parasitic worms was a common affliction in ancient
times. Such filial worms (Dracunculus medinensis aka "the
firey serpent," aka "the dragon of Medina" aka "the
guinea worm") crawled under the skin and around the body
of the patient. The Asclepian staff might be associated with those
used by physicians of that age who would locate the worm, slit
the skin in front of the worm's path and twine it round a
stick as it comes out from underneath the patient's skin.
It is believed that physicians carried such a staff to advertise
'Asclepian snakes', as used in the temples, are described
as smooth, glossy and slender and have a brown back with a streak
of darker brown behind the eyes, and belongs to the family of snakes
called 'Colubridae'(classed as 'Elaphe longissima).
The Romans (later defended the Greeks at Empuries) accepted and continued
to use the Asclepian healing methods and took snakes with them as they
colonised Austria and Germany. Snakes which escaped continue survive and
flourish in these
Source: IvyRose History of Medicine Article, 25 Sept 2005.