Asclepius (Aesculapius) lies almost half-way between gods and heroes; still he may be more properly reckoned among the latter. And the oracular seats where he was believed to instruct men are of peculiar interest, because they furnish the meeting-point between religion and science, as those were conceived in the classical Greek world. For, on the one hand, he was thought of as the god of healing, the son of Apollo, begotten by Apollo that he might heal bodily sicknesses (Menand. Rhet. Epidict. p. 327 Olympiod. Vit. Plat. p. 4, 42); in whose temples the sick would spend a night in hope of being miraculously relieved by the morning (Pausan. ii. 27, § 2). This aspect of him had a tendency to gain ground; to Aeschylus (Agam. 1022) and Pindar (Pyth. iii. 96) he is a faulty man; Aristophanes (Plutus, 662 sqq.), with all his mockery, treats Asclepius as a god. But, on the other hand, Asclepius was the legendary father of a crowd of descendants, the Asclepiadae, who, in whatever degree they considered religious communications important for success in the healing art, had genuinely scientific qualities (Plato, Rep. iii.). These two phases of the doctrine and practice connected with the name of Asclepius were so intermingled, that they cannot now be separated. Epidaurus was the chief seat of the religious worship; there Asclepius had a temple and a grove, and a magnificent gold and ivory statue, and innumerable votive tablets on the walls attested the cures wrought on sick persons by the method of incubation (Pausan. ii. 26, 27), But at Cos the medical school culminated, and there Hippocrates, the first great light of medical science, lived and wrote. Yet Epidaurus and Cos were not hostile to one another, and we read of an embassy sent by the Epidaurians to the Asclepius of Cos (Pausan. iii. 23, § 6). We must assume that in the generality of the shrines of Asclepius (of which nearly a hundred are reckoned: cf. Th. Panofka, Asclepios und die Asclepiaden, pp. 271-361) the religious element, the prophecy by dreams and incubation, greatly outweighed the scientific. It is a question of much interest why, in view of the paucity of oracles of ordinary gods, other than Apollo, so remarkable an exception should be found in the case of Asclepius. The theory was (Menand. Rhet. and Olympiod. l. c.) that Apollo committed to Asclepius this part of his functions; but it is impossible to suppose that persons erecting a temple to Asclepius had any clear theory of delegation. No doubt the truth is, that the worship of Asclepius was antecedent to the worship of Apollo, and his emblem, the snake, had an origin quite distinct from the Apolline worship; and his affiliation to Apollo was a device of the worshippers of Apollo, in order that they might appropriate a power that they could not expel. At Pergamus, another great seat of Asclepius, the celebrated physician Galen, starting from pure faith in the oracular cures, taught himself principles of more exact medical science. In the year 293 B.C. the Sibylline books commanded the Romans to seek Asclepius at Epidaurus. They did so, and brought away a mysterious serpent; then, on the spot where this serpent disappeared, they built a temple to Asclepius (Aesculapius). Oracles were given there through dreams, and miracles performed (C. I. G. 5977, 5980). Serapis was joined with Aesculapius in the worship at this temple (Suet. Claud. 25). This also was the case at Pergamus. F. A. Wolf (Vermischte Schriften, pp. 382 sqq.) endeavours to show that mesmerism was used in the curative rites of Asclepius; but the experiences of Aelius Aristides hardly bear this out.
This text is from: A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (1890) (eds. William Smith, LLD, William Wayte, G. E. Marindin). Cited July 2004 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks
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