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History of the Hippocratic Oath

All who are called, are called to be healers…

…and so it is of interest to look back to the traditions of the physician healers for what we may learn. Our Minister’s Oath, and our General Oath, are both extrapolated from the Hippocratic Oath and inspired by the spirit of all Physician’s Prayers.

Let’s examine the background of the Hippocratic Oath. In the Hippocratic Oath and the Ethics of Medicine, Steven Miles notes that swearing by Apollo linked the physician to a ‘moral song’ and “reverberates to a cosmology that sings of the origins, purposes and limits of medicine.”[1]. This is because, according to the legend, Apollo got into trouble with the gods for trying to restore his beloved wife from the dead. We’re human, we suffer grief, and there are limits to the human condition, which we must learn to accept…and there’s a good, gentle humility that results in awareness of this reality.

Psychologist Carl Jung showed deep insight into the healing arts when he proposed the archetype of “wounded healer.” To Jung, our greatest strength in our call to healing may come from our recognition that the healer also suffers, and that the wounds of the healer are a source of the healer’s power to heal. The origins of this archetype trace back to the Greek legend of the physician Asclepius.

The Hippocratic Oath of the physician healers is said to have been written by Hippocrates, who is said to be a descendent of Podalirius, one of two human sons of Asclepius [useless tidbit: the other son died in the battle of Troy, part of the troops in the Trojan horse]. And Hippocrates, through Asclepius, traces his lineage all the way back to Apollo.

Here’s Asclepius’ back story: Apollo was the god of poetry, healing prophecy and reason and was passionate about humans and in love with a mortal, Coronis. Apollo went off, leaving a white crow to watch over her, but he reported she was in love with someone else. Apollo was so enraged he turned the crow black, and had his sister Artemis kill Coronis, but not before news got out she was carrying his son, Asclepius. Apollo plucked Asclepius out and had him raised by Chiron, the wise centaur.

Why would physicians swear by Asclepius, and not by the most powerful war God, Ares? Because the healing arts, at their best, are meant to be gentle and non-harming arts. That is the meaning of Asclepius’ name: ”unceasingly gentle,” and his healing wife’s name is Epione, which means “soothing.” Aside from their two sons, they also had heavenly daughters and a heavenly son: Panacea or ”all health” (goddess of remedies) and Hygeia (goddess of preventative care), Iaso (goddess of medicine), Aigle (goddess of radiance) and Telesphorus (god of convalescence).

Here’s another bit of trivia: of all the medical professionals, only osteopaths add a reference to the spirit in their physician’s oath.

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[1] Miles, Steven. The Hippocratic Oath and the Ethics of Medicine. xiv.