Skilled to heal mankind — The Orphic Hymn to Askepios

Great Esculapius [Asklepios], skill’d to heal mankind,
 all-ruling Pæan, and physician kind;

Whose arts medic’nal, can alone assuage
 diseases dire, and stop their dreadful rage:

Strong lenient God, regard my suppliant pray’r,
 bring gentle Health, adorn’d with lovely hair;

Convey the means of mitigating pain,
 and raging, deadly pestilence restrain.

O pow’r all-flourishing, abundant, bright,
 Apollo’s honor’d offspring, God of light; 

Husband of blameless Health [Hygeia], the constant foe
 of dread Disease the minister of woe:

Come, blessed saviour, and my health defend,
 and to my life afford a prosp’rous end.”

Asklepios is an example of a demigod who rose to the rank of godhood. This is one of the reasons that he is such an accessible god to people. He was so skilled at his craft that he was even able to raise people from the dead. It is for this reason that the focus of the hymn is in his ability to fight disease. That is mentioned no less than three times in these lines where pain itself is only mentioned once. To me that is an indicator that pain was less feared in ancient times than disease because the causes of disease were often more mysterious than the causes of pain.

Asklepios is called a “God of light” because of his association with Apollo, his sire, and also possibly because one of the things that can help people feel better is the natural heat and light of the sun. He is described as being abundant and bright, which further cements this association in my mind. The ending of this hymn is one that indicates to me that Asklepios, while certainly well-loved, was not considered to be a major god as he is specifically asked only to defend the original author’s health and bring a prosperous (good) end to the person’s life. These are both things that are within the purview of Asklepios and are therefore focused upon.

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