The original Hippocratic Oath began with the invocation “I swear by Apollo, the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygeia and Panacea and by all the gods and goddesses…”
The honest truth is that despite it being a solemn oath whose recitation should have warranted moremomentousness but it didn’t as I narrated it robotically along with my peers. I was more caught up basking in the miracle that I made it there in the first place, in the excitement of throwing my hat up and, most crucially, in putting up the much maligned, and all too often seen, Facebook post. If you haven’t seen it, it goes something like this: “I’d like to thank God, my dog and everyone in between that it’s finally ‘Dr’ Rohan D’Souza….”
Satire aside, the oath of Hippocrates is almost ironic in its dedication to Asclepius. His legacy is cemented in medical semiology for clinicians be it as the bearded physician in a cloak or as the snake and rod symbol on logos and our car stickers. However, there’s a cruel caveat in his story that we’ve overlooked.
Asclepius is popularly known as the Greco-Roman god of medicine; Son of Apollo and Princess Coronis. As every good soap opera goes, there was a twist in the tale. Coronis fell in love withIschys while she was pregnant and this enraged Apollo. He sent Artemis, to kill her along with his unborn child but while Coronis burned alive on the funeral pyre, Apollo felt shamefaced that he was killing the child and rescued the foetus by cutting open the womb of the burning body. The first reported Caesarean section in human history.
Apollo entrusted the baby to the centaur Chiron famed for his skills in medicine. Life with the centaur was anything but horseplay! Under Chiron’s strict tutelage, he mastered the craft of healing. Asclepius went from village to village not only curing the sick but also bringing the dead back to life. He was honoured as a hero and worshipped as a god, eventually becoming the symbol of healing across the Greek and Roman Empires. The cult began to grow, and temples were constructed in his honour. The belief was that Asclepius effected cures of the sick in dreams and hence the practice of ‘incubation’ or temple sleeping became common. His veneration on earth and reincarnation acts among men infuriated Zeus and Hades. Ironically the demi-god who brought men back from the dead was killed by a thunderbolt on Zeus’ orders. His sin: Elevating the status of men to rival the Gods.
Is this so different from the world today?
Critics often blame modern society, the frantic pace of medical advances and the alteration from traditional healing to modern allopathic medicine for the ‘God’-like status conferred upon physicians. Yet, long before the technology-driven wonders of modern medicine, physicians like Aesculapius were expanding the art of healing. Men have constantly looked for new-fangled ways to extend life and defy death in their search for immortality. In OPDs and OTs across the world, patients want cures not options. Physicians aren’t blessed with divine powers like Asclepius and yet are expected to provide healing of the same ilk.