Sunday 16 September 2012

The mystery of the thirteenth constellation of the zodiac and its connection to medicine

The zodiac is that band in the sky followed by the sun, moon and planets. Just 13 of the 88 named constellations cross the ecliptic, its midline.

13? But aren’t there just twelve constellations in the zodiac? Yes indeed – Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces.

So what’s this about a thirteenth?

Well it’s called Ophiuchus and it lies between Scorpio and Sagittarius.

Ophiuchus is the serpent carrier and it has a rather interesting history, with connections both to Christianity and medicine.

According to Greek mythology, Asclepius, the Son of Apollo, was said to have learned the art of healing from Chiron.

Asclepius was so skilled in the medical arts that he was reputed to have brought patients back from the dead. For this he was punished and placed in the heavens as the constellation Ophiuchus (meaning ‘serpent-bearer’).

The rod of Asclepius, a snake on a pole, has been adopted as the symbol of the medical profession and still features in the logo of the British Medical Association and many other medical organisations around the world. Asclepius also features in the Hippocratic Oath.

But the snake on a pole also has three strong Christian associations.

When the Israelites expressed ingratitude for the daily portion of manna during their exodus from Egypt, God punished them by sending fiery serpents that bit and killed many. The story is told in Numbers 21:4-9 as follows:

‘They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.'

Ever since a serpent on a pole has been recognised as a symbol of healing and I was interested just this week to find it referred to in a Jewish website which linked it to the BMA logo.

In early Christianity, the constellation Ophiuchus was associated with Saint Paul holding the Maltese Viper. Paul, after surviving a shipwreck was bitten by a snake which wriggled out from a woodpile and fastened itself on his arm.

The islanders, in seeing that he did not swell up and die, assumed that he must be a God. Medically speaking Paul survived by somehow not mounting an immune reaction to the venom, but as Christians we also see it as a fulfilment of the prophecy given by Jesus in Mark 16:17,18 that the apostles would be able to pick up snakes and not be hurt.

‘And these signs will accompany those who believe… they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.’

In confirmation of this Paul then healed the father of the chief official and later went on to heal all the sick people on the island (Acts 28:1-10).

Finally, and most importantly Jesus himself makes reference to the snake on a pole in explaining the purpose of his coming crucifixion to the Jewish elder Nicodemus in John 3:14-15.

‘Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.’

This account immediately precedes the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, which distils the Gospel message, clearly and concisely.

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’

You may never have heard of Ophiuchus or even Asclepius before, but this set of links is a useful way of getting to explain the Gospel to astrologers and doctors.

Ask the astrologer if they have heard of the thirteenth constellation of the zodiac and take it from there. Or with a doctor, ask about the origin of the ‘snake on a pole’ symbol and its connection with medicine.

One more thing. If someone tries to tell you that the symbol of the medical profession is two snakes on a pole with wings, then tell them that they are confusing the rod of Asclepius with the caduceus of Hermes.

The caduceus was carried by Hermes in Greek mythology and is a short staff entwined by two serpents, sometimes surmounted by wings.

It has mistakenly been used as a symbol of medicine and/or medical practice, especially in North America but this is simply due to historical confusion.

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