KL Yong earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
Disease has terrorized mankind since ancient times. Indeed, there are few things more frightening than an invisible enemy that none are immune from. It could even be said that illnesses, i.e. pestilence, are more effective than wars at wiping out entire populations.
In the face of this threat, ancient civilizations prayed to divine beings for protection and miraculous recoveries. Jump forth to today, many gods of healing are still actively worshipped throughout the world; a few could even be considered the patron deities of some cities. The belief in mythical powers of healing continues to be a significant aspect of religions worldwide.
The ancient Greek god of healing and a son of Apollo, Asclepius is till today, still widely associated with medical assistance.
His staff is the de facto symbol of modern paramedic forces. Historically, many temples of Asclepius were also located throughout Ancient Greece. The most famous of these at Epidaurus is today, one of the most visited and important archeological sites in Greece.
Within Greek mythology, Asclepius was born in Epidaurus, the child of Apollo and a Thessalian princess named Coronis. Taught the art of medicine by the legendary Centaur Chiron, Asclepius eventually became so skilled with healing, he could even resurrect the dead.
Regrettably, doing so infuriated Hades, the Lord of the Greek Underworld, and on Hades’ complaint, Zeus struck Asclepius dead with a lightning bolt. The deceased physician was then placed among the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus by Zeus. Later, Zeus also resurrected Asclepius and made him one of the Greek gods of healing.
More commonly referred to in East Asian countries as the “Medicine Buddha,” Bhaisajyaguru is the Buddha of Healing and Medicine in Mahayana Buddhism. One of the “three precious Buddhas” of East Asian Mahayana Buddhism, statues of him are common throughout Buddhist temples in East and Southeast Asia. Most depict him as seated and serenely holding a medicinal bowl.
Of note, the Medicine Buddha Sutra ironically does not describe Bhaisajyaguru as a god of healing. While alleviation from illnesses is mentioned in this ancient text, the Medicine Buddha is described as capable of “curing” the sickness of the world through his teachings. He was not described as a miraculous healer of diseases.
Regardless of this, the Medicine Buddha is still widely prayed to for speedy recovery from illnesses. The Chinese common name for Bhaisajyaguru is also yao shi (药师). Yao means medicine while shi means master. Together, the characters denote an alchemist or a master of healing.
Brigid is an ancient Irish goddess associated with fertility, the spring season, and healing. Theorized by some historians to be an ancient dawn goddess, Brigid was worshipped in pre-Christian Ireland as a patroness of the arts, scared wells, livestock, and medicine. In her modern retelling of Irish myths, author Augusta Gregory described the goddesses as beloved by poets, and a “woman of healing.”
Interestingly, historians and scholars have long been intrigued by the relationship between Brigid the Goddess and Saint Brigid of the Catholic faith. The latter is the patron saint of babies, midwives, cattle, and of Ireland; attributes all associated with the ancient goddess. With syncretism a frequent occurrence in ancient and medieval religions, it’s probably the case that some aspects of the worship of Brigid were indeed integrated into pre-modern Irish Catholicism.
Furthermore, the goddess is credited with the invention of keening, this being a style of mourning that combines intense weeping and singing. In the Irish Book of Invasions, Brigid did so while lamenting the death of her son.
In Hinduism, Dhanvantari is an avatar of the Preserver God Vishnu, as well as a god of healing and medicine. Within the Agni Purana, he is also identified as the God of Ayurveda. Today, Hindus pray to Dhanvantari for good health and physical preservation. In India, his birthday is also celebrated by Ayurvedic practitioners as National Ayurveda Day.
As for the “origin story” of the god, Dhanvantari is said to have come into existence during the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, an event named the Samudra Manthan in Hinduism.
The beloved god of healing rose from the mythical ocean holding a precious pot of amrita, the nectar of immortality. Although the pot was snatched away by the enemies of the gods i.e. the Asuras, it was eventually retrieved. Other stories, such as Dhanvantari teaching humans the science of Ayurveda then led to the god being venerated as a divine surgeon and physician. As well as revered one of the most important gods of healing in the Hindu faith.
Like other mother goddesses from ancient faiths, the Egyptian goddess Isis is associated with many things. Some examples of which include fertility, marriage, the afterlife, and of course, healing.
The most famous and important goddess of the ancient Egyptian pantheon, Isis is also a key character in the Resurrection of Osiris myth, in which she went to extraordinary lengths to revive her slain husband. In later myths, she regularly heals her son Horus too, and it was believed by Egyptian magicians that mentioning such healing could extend the effect to humans.
Following the conquest of Egypt by Greece and then Rome, the worship of Isis was integrated with other faiths, with the veneration of her lasting into the fifth century. Today, some historians believe that Isis had a strong influence on Christian practices; particularly, the veneration of Mother Mary. However, there is scant evidence of this and the hypothesis is often rejected.
Depending on your source of reference, there are different beliefs about Ixchel, a powerful goddess in Mayan mythology.
Some modern Mayans see her as the beautiful goddess of the moon. The wife of the Sun God Ak Kin, with her name meaning “Rainbow Woman.”
Academic interpretations such as the Dresden Codex, however, describes her as a Jaguar goddess. An aged woman with jaguar ears. Occasionally, with claws too.
Regardless of physical interpretation, Ixchel represents fertility in Mayan mythology, as well as medicine, midwifery, and the textile arts. In her capacities as a goddess of healing and medicine, she was also celebrated in the Mayan month of “Zip,” and displayed similarities to other earth goddesses such as the Aztec goddess Cihuacoatl.
In the 16th century, Ixchel’s sanctuary of Cozumel was also highly popular with Mayan women seeking a good marriage and childbirth. Similar to the Greek sanctuary of Delphi, a hidden priest at Cozumel provides prophecies. The popularity of Cozumel additionally resulted in this sanctuary becoming one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Mayan culture.
7. Ji Gong
Historically, Ji Gong was a Chinese Buddhist monk who lived during the Southern Song Dynasty, one who’s credited with mythical healing powers.
Described as a filthy beggar who did not observe Buddhist precepts forbidding the consumption of meat and alcohol, widespread tales of Ji Gong supernaturally healing commoners and standing up to injustice led to him becoming one of the most venerated deities in Chinese folkloric practices. In modern times, over 30 movies and television series based on Ji Gong’s adventures have been produced in East and Southeast Asia.
Among the many outrageous stories associated with the eccentric monk, the most memorable for believers is that of Ji Gong’s dirt pills. In this, Ji Gong would shape an elixir using the dirt rubbed-off his body. Anyone who dares to ingest this will be instantly rejuvenated; that is, if one is worthy of salvation.
Other Chinese folktales also hail Ji Gong as being the reincarnation of a Buddhist Arhat. Coming back to modern times, Lingyin Temple in the Zhejiang Province of China is the most famous temple associated with this Chinese folkloric god of healing. Historically, the temple was where Ji Gong ordained as a monk.
8. Sukuna Hikona
Famous for his diminutive size and knowledge, Sukuna Hikona enjoys many epithets in Shintoism.
According to the Kokiji and Nihon Shoki, he appeared to Okuninushi, the ancient ruler of Izumo while riding on a Metaplexis pod. After an initial fracas, Sukuna Hikona became Okuninushi’s key advisor. The dwarf-like god then taught the legendary ruler many different skills for developing his realm.
Within Shintoism, Sukuna Hikona is also credited with the invention of sake i.e. Japanese rice wine, as well as the discovery of the therapeutic powers of hot springs. The legend goes that the diminutive god fell ill but speedily recovered after soaking in the Dogo Hot Springs.
Last but not least, Sukuna Hikona created many forms of medicine for Okuninushi in his capacity as advisor. He also assisted Okuninushi in perfecting agricultural practices, thus ensuring the prosperity of Ancient Izumo.
9. Wong Tai Sin
“Wong Tai Sin” means “Great Deity Wong” in Cantonese, and refers to many things.
It is the name of a housing district and an MTR subway station in Hong Kong. It is also the epithet of a popular Taoist deity in Southern China. One who’s temple is arguably the most famous and important place of worship in Hong Kong.
Born Wong Cho Ping in AD 328, legends goes that Wong began practicing Taoism at age 15. Upon achieving immortality, he actively administered magical healing to the common people. This soon led to him being hailed as the Immortal of the Red Pine; Red Pine Mountain being the immortal’s place of cultivation.
It is also said that on orders of the Jade Emperor, Wong Tai Sin widely responded to Taoism divinations in Canton i.e. Guangzhou in 1897. Numerous tales of miraculous healing associated with him then ensured enduring worship of the deity, particularly in Hong Kong.
Today, the Wong Tai Sin Temple Complex in Kowloon houses an elaborate shrine as well as numerous Chinese divination stalls. The temple is also incredibly crowded every Chinese New Year’s Eve. Hordes of Hong Kong residents always rush to offer prayers to the deity before the New Year arrives.
© 2020 Yong Kuan Leong
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on April 17, 2020:
Hi Linda, thank you for reading and commenting. Beyond mythology, I think these ancient gods hint at a commonality among all humans. Most gods of healing or mother goddesses of the ancient world share similar traits.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on April 16, 2020:
This is a very informative article. The only god or goddess that I knew from your list was Brigid, though I had heard of two of the others. I enjoyed learning about all of the deities very much.
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on April 16, 2020:
Thanks for reading, Eric.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on April 16, 2020:
This is cool. Thanks.
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on April 16, 2020:
Thanks for reading. :)
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on April 16, 2020: