Cults Myths and Legends of Ancient Sicily
3.14 Asclepius (Aesculapius)


Marble statue of Aslepius of the second century. BC found in Velletri in the locality of San Cesareo

Origins of the Myth

According to Greek mythology, Asclepius (the Aesculapius of the Romans) is the patron god of medicine. Son of Apollo, was raised by the centaur Chiron who taught him the art of medicine. Asclepius became very skilled in this art and made countless healings. He also discovered the way to raise the dead; in fact, when perseus cut off the head of the Medusa, the gorgon with a head full of snakes who petrified anyone who dared to look into her eyes, collected the blood of the Medusa, which had magical properties, and gave it to Athena who in turn handed it over to Asclepius. The blood of Medusa had the following characteristics: what came out of the left vein was a terrible deadly poison, while what came out of the right vein had beneficial properties and Asclepius was able to use it to resurrect the dead. Many people were brought back to life, but they didn't like it Zeus, the guarantor of universal harmony, who, fearing the upheaval of the order of the world, thundered Asclepius.


Bas-relief - Athens, National Archaeological Museum

Among the attributes of Asclepius, the snake is of particular importance, sometimes coiled into a stick (caduceus) that can happen to be seen in the pharmacy. In fact, this attribute has become the symbol of pharmacists.

The cult of Asclepius was widespread above all in the Peloponnese, where a medical school was born which was initially based on magical rituals but which subsequently marked the advent of a more scientific medicine. The practitioners of this art were called Asclepiadei and one of these was the famous Hippocrates, whose family was linked to that of the god Asclepius. The sanctuaries generally consisted of a spring or a well surrounded by a sacred wood and the Adyon, the sacred clinic where the sick spent a night which, following a dream probably induced with drugs, healing took place.


Roman coin with Aslepius

The Myth in Sicily

 In Sicily the main centers of this cult were Agrigento e SIRACUSA, where the cult of Asclepius was linked to that of Apollo, also considered the protector of medicine [1]. The link between the two deities emerges from the story of Cicerone on the robberies of Glass: he stole the statue of Apollo which was inside the temple of Asclepius [2].

In Syracuse, not far from the temple of Apollo, whose imposing remains are still visible in Largo XXV Luglio, there must have actually been a temple dedicated to Asclepius. In fact, in 1901, two Roman statues were found in Piazza Pancalli, one of which depicted Igea, the daughter of Asclepius, personification of health and whose cult was associated with that of her father.

Another sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius is that of Agrigento, in the center of the plain of S. Gregorio, dated to the end of the 4th century. BC [XNUMX].

aesculapius-agrigentoTemple of Aesculapius - Agrigento

Traces of this cult would also be had to Hymera and Menai.

One of the sanctuaries found in Selinunte, the so-called temple B, is perhaps to be associated with the cult of Asclepius, even if, some speculate that it belongs to Demeter [3].

Ad Eloro, about 8 km south-east of Noto, a small temple was found, perhaps also attributable to Asclepius [5].

 The cult of Asclepius had to be spread also to Messina. In correspondence with the Cathedral, a base belonging to a statue bearing an inscription dedicated to Asclepius was found, while a small sanctuary, dating back to the beginning of the Greek colonization of the city, was excavated at the end of the port, under the statue of the Madonnina [6]. 

[1] Ciaceri Emanuele: Cults and Myths of Ancient Sicily p.162.

[2] Cicero, Verrine, II.IV.93)

[3] F. Coarelli and M. Torelli: Sicily “Archaeological Guides Laterza” p.93.

[4] Vincenzo Tusa and Ernesto De Miro: Western Sicily p.131.

[5] F. Coarelli and M. Torelli: Sicily “Archaeological Guides Laterza” p.287.

[6] F. Coarelli and M. Torelli: Sicily “Archaeological Guides Laterza” p.369.


Ignazio Caloggero


Cults Myths and Legends of Ancient Sicily by Ignazio Caloggero

Asclepius - Aesculapius

Asclepius - Aesculapius

Statue of Aesculapius - Capitoline Museums in Rome



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