The constellation Ophiuchus (pronounced: oh fee yoo cuss) can be found, touching the ecliptic with his foot, in the gap between the constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius. Ophiuchus means “snake bearer” and is another name for Asclepius, the first doctor, god of medicine, and son of Apollo. Ophiuchus is sometimes called the 13th sign of the zodiac.
The constellation is meant to remind us of Asclepius’ transcendent skill as a physician. The defining moment of Asclepius’ life took place when he was gazing at the dead body of Glaucus, the drowned son of King Minos of Crete, and a snake slithered into the room. Asclepius killed it with his staff but then a second snake entered the room with an herb in its mouth and placed the herb on the dead body of the first snake. Miraculously the dead snake revived. Asclepius took the herb and placed it on the body of Glaucus, who also revived.
Asclepius continued to use this herb (along with other treatments) to heal the sick and to raise the dead. But Hades, the god of the Underworld, objected to Asclepius resurrecting the dead and demanded that his brother, Zeus, stop Asclepius before there were no more souls left to populate his kingdom. Because Asclepius had upset the balance between mortality and immortality (which is meant for the gods alone) Zeus struck Asclepius down with a lightning bolt. But to appease the enraged Apollo, Zeus made Asclepius immortal and set him among the immortal stars.
The image of Asclepius, holding the serpent, is significant for several reasons….
First, snakes are traditionally associated with both death and healing because they shed their skin every year suggesting continued vitality despite a sloughing off of the body.
Also Apollo, the god of the Sun, ruler of healing and prophecy (and Asclepius’ father), battled and defeated the fearsome serpent Python who guarded the sanctuary at Pytho (Delphi). Pytho was a sanctuary where prophecies were given by resident seers. By defeating Python, Apollo took on the serpent’s attributes and also assumed responsibility for the oracle at Delphi. Asclepius, as Apollo’s son, is understood to have inherited his father’s abilities. This is important in that both the prophecy and the intervention of Apollo were seen as integral to the healing process in the Classical world.
Even today the staff of Asclepius, with its two coiling serpents, is used as a symbol of the medical profession.
It is interesting to consider whether Ophiuchus should be the 13th sign of the Zodiac….
The number “13” is frequently associated with bad luck and misfortune as seen in superstitions about Friday the thirteenth and the nonexistent 13th floor in many buildings, while the number “12” represents a whole or complete measure.
For example, the number “12” suggests a ‘complete complement’ as in:
- The 12 signs of the zodiac
- The 12 Olympian god
- The 12 labors of Hercules
- The 12 Norse gods
- The 12 tribes of Israel
- The 12 apostles
while “13” suggests a negative addition that dis-harmonizes the balance, as in:
- Ophiuchus (as 13th sign) representing Asclepius who disrupted the natural balance between mortality and immortality
- Loki, who was not invited to a banquet for the Norse gods and caused the death of Baldur, the beloved god of light
- Judas seen as the 13th member and betrayer in the complete group of 12 (Jesus of Nazareth and 11 apostles)
- The uninvited 13th fairy from the fairy tale The Sleeping Beauty who cursed the beloved child of the King and Queen with death.
Myths and fairy tales are meant to communicate something and the contemplation of their irregularities, strange details and impossibilities is the key to understanding just what they are trying to say. So, what is Ophiuchus, the excluded 13th constellation, trying to tell us?
Does Asclepius have his foot ‘in the door’ (the small gap between the constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius) disrupting the closed circle of the astrological signs and the influence of their rulers (Jupiter, Venus, Mars, etc.)?
Does the egress opened by Asclepius represent the possibility of escaping death, which is the fate of all mortals?
According to Peter Kingsley’s study* of the roots of mysticism in Western culture, the path to complete development as a human being was synonymous with the development of a soul that was able to withstand the death of the body. And the means to this development lay in embracing the way of Apollo, or becoming a ‘son of Apollo’ (like Asclepius), and in the practice of turning toward our deep interior longing.
Does Asclepius indicate a way to immortality gained through the discipline of inner questioning which brings the unknown to light?
* In the Dark Places of Wisdom by Peter Kingsley