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Saturday, July 18, 2020

Asclepius and the Etruscan god Vejovis

Romans believed that the Etruscan god Vejovis was one of the first gods to be born. He was a god of healing, and became associated with the Greek Asclepius after the Romans assimilated Greek deities into their religious practices in the 2nd century BCE.  Vejovis was mostly worshipped in Rome and Bovillae in Latium. On the Capitoline Hill and on the Tiber Island, temples were erected in his honor.   In his temple between the two peaks of the Capitoline Hill in Rome, his statue carried a bundle of arrows and stood next to a statue of a she-goat.  Vejovis had three festivals in the Roman Calendar: on 1 January, 7 March, and 21 May. In spring, multiple goats were sacrificed to him to avert plagues.  The College of Aesculapius and Hygia was an association (collegium) that served as a burial society and dining club that also participated in the Imperial cult.

After Vejovis assumed the healer's mantle of Asclepius, his origin story changed to his heritage as the son of Apollo and a mortal woman named Coronis.  But the Romans believed Coronis betrayed Apollo with a mortal man named Ischys so Apollo slew her with arrows.  As Coronis breathed her last she told Apollo of her pregnancy. So Apollo cut the child from her body before she was consumed by fire.

Apollo taught his son many things about medicine but the boy's formal education was delivered by the centaur Chiron.  Although the child was originally called Hepius, he was renamed  Asclepius after he cured Ascles, ruler of Epidaurus who suffered an incurable ailment in his eyes.  Asclepius became so proficient as a healer that he surpassed both Chiron and his father, Apollo. Asclepius was therefore able to evade death and to bring others back to life from the brink of death and beyond. But his gifts of resurrection angered Zeus (Jupiter) who was afraid that Asclepius would teach the art of resurrection to other humans as well.  So, Zeus killed Asclepius with a thunderbolt.  However, this angered Apollo so much he killed the Cyclopes who made thunderbolts for Zeus.  For this act, Zeus banished Apollo from Olympus and commanded him to serve Admetus, King of Thessaly for a year. After Asclepius's death, Zeus placed his body among the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus ("the Serpent Holder").  But when Apollo completed his labors, he returned and asked Zeus to restore his son to him.  So,  Zeus resurrected Asclepius as a god and gave him a place on Olympus.

Marble relief of Asclepius and his daughter Hygieia. From Therme, Greece, end of the 5th century BC. Istanbul Archaeological Museums courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Prioryman

A sculpture of the Roman healing god Aesculapius restored with the head of Homer photographed by Mary Harrsch at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome.

Famous Statue of Asclepius, exhibited in the Museum of Epidaurus Theatre, in the city of Epidaurus (Greece) courtesy of Ken Russell Salvador with added visual effects.


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