9 DEITIES OF MEDICINE, Healing + Health Around the World

9 DEITIES OF MEDICINE, Healing + Health Around the World

“We know that our ancestors believed in varying degrees of pantheism. 

Nearly all peoples had their pantheons of gods and goddesses.” 

John H. Raach, Ph.D., M.D.

For centuries, Ancient Greek deities like Apollo (the god of medicine, healing, plagues, prosperity and healing), Asclepius (the god of the medicinal arts), Artemis, Eileithyia and Hera (goddesses of childbirth), Hygieia (the goddess of sanitation and cleanliness), and Iaso and Panacea (goddesses of cures, remedies and medicinal salves) have remained some of the best-known divinities of health and wellness. 

Many believe that “some of the earliest ideas about health and disease lie in Greek mythology”, and that their immortal gods and goddesses, whose stories have been told and retold via imaginative myths, held great influence over their beliefs and even their overall health (Source: Hektoen International). From water and mountain nymphs to muses who later inspired cult and religious figures, these deities were often assigned both human forms and complex personalities. Furthermore, countless elaborate rituals, prayers, and sacrifices have all been created and performed to either appease or celebrate them. 

Perhaps most iconic is the totem of Medicine (also known as the Aesculapian wand), a single serpent winding around a vertical rod, which was once alleged to be seen in the constellation Ophiuchus. Ancient (and some current) civilizations around the world have long revered the serpent as a representation of birth and rebirth, which is also closely tied to fertility. Today, the ubiquitous serpent totem can be found on many modern logos—hospitals, research institutes, councils, emergency services, military medical corps, the flag of the World Health Organization, etc.—a universal emblem for health-related institutions.

But what about the ancient cultures of the East, Black and brown indigenous peoples, and the rest of the Global Majority*? Often, their supernatural figures are eclipsed by more dominant European narratives, so today we’re focusing on cultural stories about deities of medicine passed from one generation to the next throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America, The Caribbean, and the indigenous tribes of North America.

As the Indian author-activist Arundhati Roy teaches us:

There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only 

the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.

Historically, those who believe in deities (plural) have been ridiculed, tortured, or otherwise punished for their spiritual practices, not just in their time, but for generations. Gods and goddesses of medicine, healing and health, we hear you now! We honor and wish to know more about your mighty legacies.

Shining a light on non-Western deities allows us to broaden our perspective and understanding of how people across the planet have regarded their sacred gods and goddesses for better health and healing since the beginning of human history. Below are spirits and otherworldly supreme beings from around the globe who have impacted the beliefs, practices, and physicians of civilizations throughout the ages. Likewise, we’ve woven some of our favorite herbs ethically sourced from the Global South throughout this list to illuminate their potent curative abilities in the context of our internationally-minded exploration.

For more about [people of the] “Global Majority” (PGM) and other inclusive language, see here.

  • Haoma (Iran)
  • Zoroastrian god of health + guardian of mountains

    In Zoroastrianism and Persian mythology, Haoma is a divine plant with origins in Indo-Iranian religion. People pressed and used haoma for its medicinal juices, praying to this god of the harvest, strength, vitality, and health, especially for strong sons. Legend has it that Zoroaster’s father mixed the potent plant with milk, and then drank it with his wife prior to conceiving their son. The elevated states created when the plant was pounded supposedly enhanced connections to higher powers and planes of consciousness.

  • Sukunahikona (Japan)
  • Shinto “kami” of medicine, hot springs + healing

    This “Small Man of Renown” is known by many epithets in Japanese mythology. A dwarf deity believed to have played a crucial role in building the world, protecting animals, and preventing diseases, he’s also associated with brewing sake. Some say when it was revealed that Sukunahikona’s father was a supreme Shinto god, Okuninushi made him one of his key advisors. Sukunahikona then taught Okuninushi how to heal cattle and humans, and he showed him the therapeutic benefits of hot springs. According to legend, he left Japan forever (propelled by a stalk of millet into a mysterious world) when he felt his purpose was fulfilled. He is credited for inspiring countless folktales about fairies and other diminutive spirits. 

  • Dhanvantari (India)
  • Hindu god of health, Ayurvedic medicine deity + physician of the gods

    Ayurveda, India’s ancient medical system, “in its entirety is essentially linked to Dhanwantari who is considered as God of Hindu Medicine” (Source: NIH). This mythical deity was believed to have been born with one hand of Ayurveda, and the other with ambrosia. His legendary lineage of descendants is said to include Divodasa (also known as Dhanwantari), who specialized in Ayurveda’s surgical branch, and Sushruta, who is rumored to have learned both the science and art of surgery from Divodasa.

  • Atabey (The Caribbean)
  • Ancestral Taíno “zemi” of fertility + creation

    In the ancestral Taíno religion of the indigenous Caribbean people who once inhabited present-day Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and neighboring countries, zemi (spirit) worship centered on two supreme beings. This formidable mother figure was one of these two, and is said to have birthed herself, twin sons, and the world without intercourse. She embodies nature, and specifically the sacred waters. To ensure safe childbirth, Taíno women prayed to this zemi, and her depiction in a cross-legged, frog-form birthing position was favored by Taíno midwives. An enduring symbol of fertility, her powers also extend to music, beauty, and creation itself.

  • Patecatl (Mexico)
  • Aztec god of fertility + healing, discoverer of peyote

    While it may seem counterintuitive that the so-called god of drunkenness was also associated with magical plants, medicinal roots and herbs, healing and fertility, the Father of the Octli Deities is also known as the Lord of the Land of Medicines. He is credited with discovering and giving the Aztecs peyote, an essential curative medicine, and pulque, one of the maguey plant’s many gifts and the world’s oldest fermented alcoholic beverage (a.k.a. the “Drink of the Gods”). The hallucinogenic cactus known as peyote, hikuri and other sacred monikers, has been in existence for over 5,000 years. Its use as a psychedelic substance in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican rituals of the past and among indigenous shamans of today has solidified it as one of the most sought after and beneficial plants in the world.

  • Kumugwe (Pacific Northwest)
  • Nuxalk underwater god who heals the sick + injured

    For many Pacific Northwest peoples, Kumugwe represents health and wealth. He was believed to reside deep beneath the ocean floor, inhabiting a home whose hidden wealth was rumored to have caused the death of many mortals seeking his treasures, often in vain. Among the mythology of the Nuxalk and Kwakwaka’wakw indigenous nations, he is also revered by the name “Copper-Maker”. Claiming domain over the ebb and flow of the tides, his powers are said to include seeing into the future, bestowing strength upon those who win his favor, the effects of the sea weather, and healing the sick and injured.

  • Angak (New Mexico)
  • Hopi kachina spirit who heals + protects

    Originally from the Zuni Pueblo, members and mythology of the Hopi Tribe honor Angak (a male kachina spirit) in the form of rain dances, doll figures, and traditional cottonwood root carvings. This spirit’s primary goal is to protect and to heal, mainly through bringing flowers and rain to Hopi villages. In the present day areas of Arizona and New Mexico, Angak remains a popular figure in both ceremonies and folklore.

  • Osanyin (Nigeria, Benin)
  • Yoruba “orisha” of herbal medicines

    African therapeutic systems have long relied on rituals and ritual therapists to invoke the gods. Their abilities to promote social harmony and the holistic health of the community are rooted in ensuring the correct ritualistic acknowledgment of the powers possessed by these deities. Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, phytomedicines are believed to be the provenance of Osanyin, supervisor of plant collection, preparation, and implementation. Afro-Cuban practices call this orisha Osain. Many throughout the African diaspora credit him with the powerful knowledge of all herbs, making him capable of curing any type of ailment. It is also said that Osanyin’s mother was his first patient, even paying him a fee and declaring his life’s work in medicine would only produce results for those able to pay for his services. Conversely, curses are only believed to be effective with the hot-tempered Osanyin’s approval.

  • Sonzwaphi (South Africa)
  • Zulu goddess of healing

    Outside of the Zulu nation, whose primary way to preserve Sonzwaphi’s legacy is through oral histories, it’s exceptionally difficult to uncover the origin stories of this healing deity. What is more accessible in modern records is the overall importance of ancestor worship in the Zulu religion. Residing in the spirit world “below”, ancestors connect with the living in the form of dreams, animals, or illnesses. It is said that diviners known as sangoma first arrive in the form of sickness, and then help to initiate a healing process for the ancestors, which includes learning how to interpret dreams and how to use medicinal herbs.

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