Concerning the myth of or Aesculapius or Asclepios, the Greek god of the medical arts, there is a fundamental idea underlying it and many other myths (like those of Cassandra, Sisyphus, Cassiopeia, etc. – well related, for example, in ‘La sagesse des mythes’, by Luc Ferry, 2008). Two ideas, rather, corresponding to their ‘realities’ (or pseudo-realities, depending on one’s understanding and angle of vision): hubris (or hybris), basically arrogance, pride, pretense, and its subsidiary ‘lack of measure’, both characterizing mankind and bringing about unending struggle, disharmony, and final catastrophe – individual and collective. Human history is rich in the consequences of this pair, as illustrated and reflected in many of the myths and tragedies of Greek literature. These failings are the result of ignoring (never learning) the two precepts inscribed on the frontispiece of the temple of Apollo at Delphos: ‘know thyself’, and ‘everything in measure’. The prototype of the myth having hubris as its motor is that of Prometheus, who stole the fire from the gods and the arts and technology (useful for warfare) from Athena.
The Greeks knew well these defects and the corresponding temptations, which led many in their midst to feel that they were ‘equal to the gods’, or nearly so. Where to find a humble person or, as Socrates kept asking his fellow Athenians, a wise one? At any rate, the greatest danger stemming from hubris is that it, potentially or actually, threatens to upset the cosmic or universal equilibrium, the order of things so intricately devised and developed by Zeus (or Isvara). Why so in the case of Asclepius?
Asclepius, the first and best of physicians, was not only the best of healers, but, given his extraordinary success, he also started to revive the dead, with the consequence that Hades, the god of the underworld, became concerned about the diminishing supply of potential denizens for his domain, so much so that, finally, Zeus, the supreme god and brother of Hades, had to put an end to that subverting occupation: Asclepius, without further ado, was promptly fulminated. His intention, presumably, had not been selfish or inspired by pride, but still, by so doing he was transgressing the limits of what is permissible, that is, was subverting, or threatening to subvert the cosmic order. To be noted that the serpent symbolizes re-birth, the hope of a second birth.
A sad end for that foremost of physicians, son of Apollo and Coronis, who had been forcibly taken from the maternal uterus after she and her lover were found out by the jealous god and were transfixed with an arrow sent by him while embracing in the ecstasy of love (this story has been transmitted to us by Apolodorus). A related and interesting datum is that Asclepius had been educated, on Zeus’ instructions, by the best of educators (he had been so for Achilles and Jason, of epical renown), the centaur Quiron. Nevertheless, Zeus relented somewhat after the fact and allowed for Asclepius to be for ever transformed (apotheosis) into a constellation (Serpentaria); nothing less was merited by such an exemplar physician, father of the healing arts – he is usually represented with a serpent in his hand and also a caduceus (staff) with two serpents coiled around it.