Hygieia, Goddess of health and hygiene

In Greek and Roman mythology, Hygieia was the goddess of health, cleanliness and hygiene. She was associated with the prevention of sickness and the continuation of good health. Her name is the source of the word “Hygiene”. And with a pandemic sweeping the world, it seems like an excellent time learn more about this Goddess of the Moment.

The Hope Hygieia, a Roman marble sculpture (2nd-century copy, circa 130–161) after a Greek original of circa 360 B.C. In the collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art

She was often depicted as a young woman feeding a large snake that was wrapped around her body, or drinking from a bowl containing a medicinal potion. Hygieia’s symbol is a cup or bowl with a snake twined around its stem and poised above it. The serpent is symbolic of resurrection, and the bowl health and medicine. The Bowl of Hygieia is one of the symbols of modern pharmacy, it is one of the most ancient and important symbols related to medicine in western countries.

Goddess of medicine Hygieia, drawing

She was one of the Asclepiadae; the sons and daughters of Asclepius (god of medicine in Greek mythology), and his wife Epione (Greek goddess of the soothing of pain). The symbol Asclepius is a staff or rod with a serpent entwined around it, known as the Rod of Asclepius. The symbol has continued to be used in modern times, where it is associated with medicine and health care, yet frequently confused with the staff of the god Hermes, the caduceus.

Hygieia and her four sisters each performed a facet of Apollo’s art: Hygieia (health, cleanliness, and sanitation); Panacea (universal remedy); Iaso (recuperation from illness); Aceso (the healing process); and Aglaïa (beauty, splendor, glory, magnificence, and adornment).

At Athens, Hygieia was the subject of a local cult since at least the 7th century BC. However, the cult of Hygieia as an independent goddess did not begin to spread out until after the devastating Plague of Athens (430–427 BC) and in Rome in 293 BC.

The caduceus is often incorrectly used as a symbol of healthcare organizations and medical practice, particularly in North America, due to confusion with the traditional medical symbol, the Rod of Asclepius, which has only one snake and is never depicted with wings.

According to the Greek myths, Asclepius, the god of medicine, learnt the art of healing from both his father Apollo and the centaur Cheiron. In time, he became so skilled in surgery and the use of drugs that he was revered as the founder of medicine. It was believed that Asclepios had the power to rise from the dead. A major sanctuary was dedicated to him at Epidaurus, the place where he was born.

Legend tells that Zeus was worried that Aesculapius would make mankind immortal because of his healing power. Out of fear, he killed Aesculapius with a lightning bolt.

Temples were built for Aesculapius, and Hygieia, goddess of health, tended to his temples. Over time, seemingly dead serpents were found inside. When these serpents were picked up and dropped, however, they slithered away. To people this was interpreted as if the serpents were brought back to life by the healing powers of Aesculapius, which ultimately caused them to be associated with healing. Tame snakes were kept in his temples as this animal was regarded as a symbol of regeneration.

Modern people associate the snake with poison, but the animal had a powerful symbolic meaning to ancient people. Snakes have been used for worship, magic potions and, medicine, and they have been the symbol of love, health, disease, medicine, pharmacy, immortality, death and even wisdom since ancient times.

From about 300 B.C. onward, the cult of Asclepius grew very popular and pilgrims flocked to his healing temples (Asclepieia) to be cured of their ills. Sacred Asclepion of Pergamum was an ancient healing center and the world’s first psychiatric hospital.

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