Author of the Month

Seraperion I & II (cont.)
By Antoine Gigal


We can find hints of this in the famous Edwin Smith Papyrus. The great Egyptologist James Henry Breasted says of Imhotep: "In priestly wisdom, in magic, in the formulation of wise proverbs; in medicine and architecture; this remarkable figure of Zoser's reign left so notable a reputation that his name is not forgotten to this day." In the canon of Turin, Imhotep is designated as "the son of Ptah". Apart from Amenhotep, he is the only mortal or hybrid Egyptian who managed to attain the full position of a god. The Greeks who settled in Egypt equated the Egyptian Imhotep with their god Asclepius, the god of medicine, and called Imhotep's school of medicine the Asklepieion. It is quite possible that both Asclepius and Imhotep are one and the same person as we shall see...

But first, who was this Asclepius? Nothing less than the son of Apollo, the ancient texts tell us, and of the nymph Arsino・Koronis. (Note in passing, the city of Fayoum in the confines of the Giza Plateau is called Arsino・) Yet another demigod? In any case we are told that his cult, which had already existed on the island of Kos for a very long time, was introduced to Rome in 290 BC during an outbreak of plague. His temple was erected on an island in the Tiber and later it was confused with Serapis. You read correctly, Serapis. So maybe the cult of Serapis is a later disguised version of a cult to Imhotep-Asclepius! But what else is said about Asclepius? That he was raised by the centaur Chiron (the last centaur on Earth according to the ancient Greeks - now that's an "animal" that would fit quite well into our large sarcophagi) in an underground cave, and was taught by him everything about medicine and more besides - because Asclepius was not content just to heal but he also raised the dead. The god Zeus in his heaven, disturbed by Asclepius's enthusiasm for immortalising earthlings and thus upsetting the natural order of things, finally struck him with a thunderbolt. Does this not remind you of how the cow receives a flash of lightning before conceiving the Apis bull? (See previous article, part 1.) The fact is that Ptah is often connected with Zeus and with lightning.

The caduceus

Asclepius appeared in dreams to the priests and revealed to them the remedies for their patients, or else the patients received them in a dream and were cured. He was shown with a rod with a snake coiled round it, the symbol of medicine (not to be confused with the caduceus of Mercury, with two snakes symbolising commerce and communication). Asclepius had three boys and six girls including Hygiene, Panacea and Meditina. Meditina is of particular interest to us here, as you'll see a little further on, for she was said to be a "snake bearer". When Zeus struck Asclepius he was transformed into the constellation Ophiucus ("snake bearer"), also called Serpentarius - strange, isn't it? Ancient Egyptians taught that the gods when they died were transformed into a constellation or a star. And as you'll see, the snake plays a major role in the Serapeum. It is important to emphasize that our Hippocrates (the father of medicine, from whom we derive the oath our doctors take) is recognized as a descendant of Asclepius on his paternal side. Even if it is to him we owe the words chronic, endemic, epidemic, convalescence, paroxysm, etc, and though Western medicine claims him as parent, in reality his concept of medicine was very different from ours. Dr. Houdant for example says that "the Hippocratic treatment is much more of a meditation on death." In fact, Hippocratic medicine was a carbon copy of that of Asclepius and was practised in many places, in temples that had certain features in common. They had to have a temple-sanatorium at ground level and subterranean caves with an underground spring. That is what we also have with the Serapeum of Saqqara. In Athens you can still see the sanctuary of Asclepius today on the southern flank of the Acropolis, beneath the Parthenon, with its grotto and its spring. This grotto has since been taken over by the Orthodox Church.

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