Asclepius, the Healer

The Tale of Ophiuchus, Serpens, Corvus,
Crater and Hydra

"I am so lonely," confessed Apollo as he sat by the fire in the Temple of Delphi. "I have no one to love and there is no one who loves me." The god was sad, for though he was young he had already learned that being a god did not guarantee happiness.

"Why can't someone see that a god needs love too?" he said to Corvus, his pet crow. Corvus cocked his head in sympathy, listening to his master's sadness.

"Caw cause you look invincible people are afraid to approach you," offered the honest crow in an attempt at helpfulness. Corvus was the voice of the oracle at Delphi. The crow could fly above everything and it was through this ability of his that Apollo could see the past, the present and the future; for when the crow allowed Apollo to inhabit his body, the god could see through time. The crow glided effortlessly through the clouds as the sun glinted off his silvery white feathers, as this was before crow's feathers turned black.

"My sister and I are doomed to lives of loneliness," Apollo said. He bowed his head and began to cry. Corvus shifted his weight from leg to leg. He had never seen his fearless master cry before and it made him nervous.

"It makes me so sad to see my master this way," thought the crow. "He and his sister Artemis bring the world its light, yet they are both alone. I wonder, what can I do to help?"

"Wait, master," the crow said, turning to face the temple fire. "I see something in the flames. I see a beautiful young woman in the town of Larisa. Yes, I see her more clearly now, her black curly hair is billowing across her back. She has a crown resting on her lovely head." The crow now had Apollo's attention. He stopped sobbing and sat up, intently watching his companion's every move. The crow, seeing his success, narrowed his eyes pretending rapt attention as he gazed into the fire. "Someone calls her. 'Come here Coronis,' they say. Ah, it is her father, King Phlegyas."

Full of fantasy and longing, Apollo asked, "Does she love me?"

"I cannot tell," said Corvus. "I think that is up to you to find out."

Apollo lost no time as he raced off to Larisa. It didn't take him long to find and seduce Coronis. He had no time to waste wooing her. After all, time was of the essence. "Now she will love me," thought the god, "for she will have my child."

Returning to Olympus, Apollo could only think of his love for Coronis and that soon she would bear his child. "I will never feel alone and unloved again," he said smiling, pleased with himself. As the evening grew long he started wondering what Coronis was doing. "Maybe she misses me," he happily mused. Then he stiffened, "maybe she doesn't. Maybe she is with another man. Maybe she doesn't even care about me at all." This idea bothered him all night, and kept him from sleeping. For the first time in his life, Apollo was jealous. "Corvus, come!" He commanded. His trusty crow obediently rushed to his master's side. "I want you to go to Larisa and watch Coronis. Report to me everything she does." As Corvus flew away, Apollo confidently went to sleep.

In Larisa there was a young man named Ischys who was also very much in love with Coronis. He had been in love with her since they were children and he spent time trying to win her favor. He took her to see wonderful things. He gave her flowers and told her how much he cared. He was gentle and loving and, in turn, her love had grown to equal his. She went to her father and told him about Ischys and Apollo's love for her.

"But you have been chosen by Apollo," King Phlegyas said with concern. "Gods are not usually very understanding about being rejected," he warned. Coronis didn't care. She left her father in search of Ischys and they peacefully fell asleep in each other's arms.

In the meantime, unknown to the two lovers, Corvus had been watching all of this. Swiftly he flew back to Delphi and told Apollo. "Caw Coronis loves someone else!"

Apollo's face reddened and his hands shook as he listened to the crow's tale. He cursed her unfaithfulness and shouted, "Curse you for letting it happen." He grabbed a handful of ashes from the temple fire, throwing them on the crow and turning his feathers black.

Crazy with rage Apollo grabbed his bow and arrows and sought revenge. Standing high on Mt. Olympus he spied Coronis resting in her lover's arms. His heart was fierce with anger as he grabbed an arrow from his golden quiver and released it straight into her heart. As soon as he saw her body soaked in blood his rage melted away and he raced to earth where he knelt and lifted her lifeless body into his arms. She was so fragile. He tenderly withdrew the arrow from her breast and bent over his dying Coronis. Resting his face against hers he heard her whisper faintly, "Oh Apollo, couldn't I have first borne our child? Now both of us will die." Those were her final words before she died. Ischys died too, for Zeus killed him with a lightning bolt.

Apollo shook her body. He rocked her and he cried. Although he tried desperately to revive her, it was too late. There was nothing he could do to change what he had done. For the first time he knew what it was to be powerless. He built the funeral pyre, poured fragrant incense on her body and gave her a final embrace. The flames shot up and surrounded her. It was then that he heard a baby's cries. Reaching into the flames, he snatched the fetus from its mother's womb and cradled the child gently in his arms. It was a boy. As Apollo drew his son close to his chest, the baby felt the warmth emanating from the sun god and he ceased crying and looked with the same clear blue azure eyes into those of his father. As Apollo looked at his son, he thought of his own helplessness watching Coronis die. "I will dedicate my son to saving lives," the god said. Then Apollo raised his boy over his head and showed him to the stars. "Father Zeus in heaven, I present you with a healer. He is your grandson Asclepius." A crack of thunder answered him and tore open the sky as raindrops baptized the newborn.

Chiron, the centaur, was one of the few on earth who knew the healing arts, so Apollo brought Asclepius to him to raise. For eighteen years the centaur taught the boy and then, one day Athena, clothed in golden armor, materialized before them. "I've come to honor my nephew," she said, placing her hands upon Asclepius' face, and kissing his cheeks. She settled into a carved log chair, looking like a queen upon her throne. Asclepius saw a vial appear in each of her outstretched hands. "These are my gifts to you," she said. "They are filled with Gorgon blood. The blood in my left hand will kill, that in my right will heal."

Asclepius carefully picked up the vial from her right hand and tied a white cloth around it. Then he took the poisoned vial and tied it into a black cloth and placed them in the bag with herbs and potions that Chiron had given him. Asclepius' excitement changed to sadness as he realized that it was time for him to leave. Chiron had given him a suggestion to join the adventures of his former pupil Jason on a ship called the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece. Asclepius took Chiron's advice and, for a few years, was one of the Argonauts. Finally he tired of the ship, the men and the routine so, when the ship docked near Epidaurus, he left to live there and practice medicine. There he met and married Epione, had four sons and two daughters and happily spent his time with his work and his family.

Through the years he was well known for his good work. First the people of Epidaurus came to him to be healed, then those from other nearby cities, and travelers whom he had healed took word home until people came from far away to seek his help. One day old Asclepius answered a knock at his door. It was two armor clad guards. "We are from the battalions of King Minos of Crete," one of the two men said. "We were ordered to bring you back to him. Prepare yourself." Asclepius had no choice but to go. The guards led him to a magnificent ship and, as the evening wind came up, they sailed. The ship finally landed in Crete and the guards led Asclepius to a crypt. They followed a smoking torch through a narrow hall and, as the light reflected off the whitewashed thick stone block walls, it cast a faint glow upon a bent and grayed figure. "Forgive me, your majesty," the guard said as he fell to his knees and bowed his head. "I did not know that you were here."

As Asclepius approached the king, he noted that his eyes appeared dark and hollow; like he had been crying for a long time and the king's hands never left the arm of the body in front of him. It was as if he were protecting the dead young man. The king sadly shook his head and said, "This was my son, Glaucus. He had always been strong and healthy. Then, about a year ago, his muscles began to deteriorate. No matter how much he ate, he kept losing weight and he seemed to get sick constantly. Little by little, he became so weak that he couldn't even walk. He just wasted away to nothing. He finally caught a cold and died." Minos looked into the doctor's eyes and sadly said, "Bring him back to me."

"I'm so sorry," Asclepius said gently. "I wish there were something I could do, but even if I could bring him back to life, his condition would be unchanged and he would just catch another disease and die again. Unfortunately, there appears to be no cure. Indeed, I am very sorry."

Asclepius saw the king's body stiffen and his face changed from grief to anger. "What do you think I brought you here for?" King Minos demanded. "You have a job, sir, and you will perform it." The king turned to his guards. "Take him to the dungeon until he is willing to do something."

This time the guards threw Asclepius into a dark and damp infested hole. The old man felt helpless and wondered if he would ever again see his beloved family or feel the sun or breathe the fresh air. He watched as a snake entered his cell through a small hole in the wall. The snake had its freedom, yet it imposed itself on him in his miserable quarters. He was angry and frustrated. He grabbed his walking stick and struck the snake again and again until it was dead and its pieces were scattered on the floor. "Why did I do that?" he asked himself, for it was unlike him to harm another creature. "I'll die in this cell just like that snake."

As he sat, sadly concerned about his sanity, he noticed a small pointed head with a darting tongue as it poked out from the hole where the snake had entered. A second snake slithered through the hole and into Asclepius' cell. This snake looked like the last one, but it carried an herb in its mouth. Asclepius watched as the snake spread the herb on what remained of its brother. More amazing still, the parts of the first snake began to heal and grow together again. After a few minutes, the first snake was whole and healthy again and both snakes fled back through the hole, but not before the second snake dropped what remained of the healing herb.

Asclepius called the guards to take him to Glaucus and, as he spread the herb upon his body, not only did the prince return to life, but his illness was cured as well. King Minos was overjoyed and Asclepius collected a large supply of the magic herb before he returned home.

By now, the gods of Olympus had heard of Asclepius' powers and they too sought his help. Poseidon, king of the sea, had him bring Theseus' son, Hippolytus, back to life. Regretting his complicity in his own grandson's death, Poseidon remembered when he sent the bull from the sea to frighten Hippolytus' horses so they would drag him to his death. Asclepius, responded to the request just as he did for any patient.

Meanwhile Hades, the king of darkness, had also heard about Asclepius. Returning people from death made him angry and Poseidon's request was the final insult. "Brother Zeus," Hades shouted up to Olympus, "you must do something about that doctor. He's undermining my authority and soon I won't have a kingdom or subjects to rule." Zeus knew his brother was right. He grabbed his thunderbolt, hurling it at Asclepius and striking him in the heart.

"Asclepius," Zeus called to his grandson's soul, "I had no choice but to remove you. My brother would have lost his kingdom and all of the mortals you helped would have become gods themselves. But since you were a good man I will put you in heaven and I'll place the snake in your hands, since he showed you the secret of revival and displays many lives by growing and discarding many skins." Zeus picked up the body of Asclepius and breathed immortality into him. His body began to glow and Zeus placed the glittering body in the sky. Then the king of heaven picked up the snake and placed him in the old man's hands. "You will be called Ophiuchus, the snake holder," proclaimed Zeus, "and the snake will be called Serpens." The constellations have been known by those names ever since.

"Take this gold cup and fetch some water from the river at the foot of Mount Olympus; then give it to Zeus," Apollo said as he handed a gold cup to Corvis, his crow.

But Corvus, after being punished for telling the truth, lost any desire to respond to his master's commands. "Oh sh-sure, send the caw crow," muttered Corvus as he flew off with the cup dangling loosely from his beak. He took his time, lazily circling the mountain. Corvus loved to fly. From so high above the earth, the mountain range looked like a soft veil of pastels and beige, while thick velvet foliage punctuated by the fiery red and yellow flowers took his breath away.

"I forgot how hungry I am," the crow said to himself. Looking down, he spied a fig tree on the riverbank. "I love fresh figs." He grabbed one. "It's OK, but not yet quite ripe. If I wait for a few days they will be perfect. It's much better to eat perfect fruit. I'll wait for them to ripen," so Corvus lounged by the river for two days until the figs became perfectly ripe, then he ate his fill. "I suppose I should fill the caw cup," he lazily yawned after a big burp. "I'll just take a little nap first."

He awoke with a start, realizing that he needed to prepare an excuse for being so late. He looked around for ideas. In the river, a water snake swam by. "Ah-ha," he exclaimed as he grabbed the little creature. Carrying the cup in one foot and with the water snake held firmly in the other, he flew to Olympus and dropped the dead snake at Apollo's feet.

"Oh master, I am lucky to be alive," he said, carefully watching for Apollo's reaction. "The snake kept me from getting water. I risked my life in a battle to the death before I could fill the cup. It was a terrible struggle."

Apollo knew a lie when he heard one. "And how were the figs?" he growled. Corvus gulped as he waited for Apollo to strike him. But Apollo had learned to keep his temper in check. Instead of hitting the crow, Apollo chose a more fitting punishment. He placed the crow in the sky with the cup full of water. Then he placed the snake between the cup and crow so the snake would stop the crow from ever quenching his thirst. To this day, Corvus, the crow, Crater, the cup, and Hydra, the water snake, sparkle their warning that we are bound to our lies.

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Tales of the Immortal Night ©2003, J.J. Kuhl


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