The Gods Want You to Wash Your Hands (ca. 4th C BC)

By: The Scribe on Saturday, January 12, 2008

The head of a statue of Hygieia, the Greek goddess of hygiene… and the moon.

Apparently, the ancient Greeks were concerned more concerned about cleanliness and bacteria that they’re given credit for! In ancient Greek mythology, the goddess Hygieia was the daughter of the god Asclepius – the god of medicine and healing – and was associated with preventing sickness and the preservation of good health. Essentially, she was the goddess of cleanliness, health, sanitation… and the moon, oddly enough.

It’s thought that Hygieia might have had her own cult as early as the 7th century BC, but it is more likely that during this period, the goddess Athena was associated with this title – in Plutarch’s writings, he mentions a bronze statue of ‘Athena Hygieia’. However, the early years of the cult were strictly local, and it was only after the ‘Cult of Hygieia’ was recognized by the Oracle of Delphi that the goddess’ worship began to spread.

It probably also helped that there were several critically devastating plagues in Athens in 429 and 427 BC, which was when the cult began to rise in prominence. Another plague at Rome in 293 BC also helped to secure her position there – the people were desperate for help in the face of such a dire situation, so naturally they turned to a goddess who was supposed to be in charge of health.

The largest temples and centers of worship for Hygieia were at Epidaurus, Corinth, Pergamon and Cos – and in these temples were statues of Hygieia to which suppliants would bring offerings. The Greek traveler and geographer Pausanias noted something very interesting about these statues – he noticed that in one Asclepion he visited, the statues of Hygieia were covered in women’s hair and piece of Babylonian clothes! According to inscriptions, the same types of offerings were also made on the Cycladic island of Paros.

Hygieia was a popular subject for artists from the 4th century until late in the Roman period. A Sicyonian artist named Ariphon, during the 4th century, even composed a hymn in celebration of the goddess, and a number of renowned ancient sculptors were responsible for creating statues in her image – including Scopas, Timotheus, and Bryaxis.

This modern symbol in pharmacy has its roots in ancient Greek depictions of the goddess Hygieia, who was shown with a snake wrapped around her body which was drinking out of a jar she held in one of her hands.

In terms of representation, she was often depicted as a young woman feeding a very large snake, which happened to be wrapped around her body. In a number of cases, the snake would be shown drinking out of a jar that she carried in her other hand – which is the origin for one of today’s modern symbols of pharmacy, the Bowl of Hygieia.

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Tomorrow: More Ancient Standard


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