The Caduceus, The staff of Asclepius, and other serpents

 

caduceus medical symbol

If you take a trip to the local medical center or pharmacy, at least in the United States, it will probably involve dealing with several ancient symbols.  The most common is the caduceus, the herald’s staff, featuring opposite, twin serpents entwined around a staff topped by a ball and wings.  If you look up the definition of caduceus, you’ll learn that the symbol comes from Greek mythology and refers to the staff carried by Hermes (caduceus Hermespictured below).
But that’s only part of the story.

Hermes has something of a mixed reputation, being the messenger of the gods, guide of the dead, and protector of merchants, shepherds, athletes, liars, and thieves.  As several writers have pointed out, that doesn’t seem like much of an advertisement for doctors!  They maintain that the use of the caduceus symbol for members of the medical profession is a mistake.  It should be the rod (or staff) of Asclepius, the son of Apollo, pictured below, left.

caduceus staff of Asclepius 2caduceus vs Staff of Asclepius sculpturecaduceus asclepius

As the god of medicine in Greek mythology, perhaps based on a real person, Asclepius does seem to be a better choice, at least at first. He is usually pictured with a serpent-entwined staff because, according to legend, a serpent taught him the secrets of healing.  Snakes were widely respected as sacred beings of healing, wisdom, and resurrection.  Shrines erected to Asclepius always featured non-poisonous snakes.  In the drawing based on a famous sculpture, you can see the frowning Asclepius (center) with his serpent staff in hand, meeting Hermes, holding the caduceus.  Meanwhile three of Asclepius’s daughters, including Hygenia and Panacea, stand off to the right.

One snake or two?

caduceus WHO and AMA

Today, the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association use the staff of Asclepius in their logos (as pictured).  However, many more organizations use the caduceus, and most people in the USA recognize the caduceus as the symbol of the healing power of medicine. So why did the caduceus win over the staff of Asclepius?  Maybe it was an accident of history.  Or maybe the caduceus has more visual impact.  Or perhaps it still carries traces of more powerful magic from the past.

Accident of history?

caduceus medical corps

According to some sources, in 1902, the US Army Medical Corps adopted the caduceus as their official symbol and ordered it to be included on all medical officers’ uniforms and field offices.  From there, the symbol spread to other medical professionals.  However, the Medical Service Corp’s History page describes how the Corps grew out of earlier medical service wartime groups, including the Revolutionary War apothecaries, the Civil War Ambulance Corps, and the World War I Sanitary Corps.  At the end of that war, the permanent medical ancillary organization was formed, morphing into the current Medical Service Corp in 1947, long past the 1902 date.

Today, the caduceus is so central to the Medical Corps that their association is called the Silver Caduceus Association.  Current Medical Corps men and women embracaduceus, drawingce the caduceus, no matter what some folks say about the staff of Asclepius.  One Navy Medical Corps artist posted a stunning tattoo design of it that elicited several requests from current medical corpsmen for permission to use it. Pictured, right, it has a great sense of strength.

 

Actually, the Army Medical Department uses both the caduceus (for their branch insignia) and the staff of Asclepius (for the regimental insignia).  So it doesn’t seem that the Medical Service Corps is responsible for the dominance of the caduceus.

A more dynamic logo

In my opinion, the caduceus is just a more powerful image.  It has symmetry, motion, and balance.  The staff of Asclepius makes a much less dramatic graphic, especially with the snake drooping off the staff.  Note that the AMA, in using the staff, also includes a spiral, to create some sense of motion.

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Gustav Klimt certainly made a powerful image out of the Asclepius serpent in his painting of Hygeia, but the power lies as much in the figure of the young woman and the gold decoration as in the snake.  She seems to evoke the powerful snake goddesses of the past.

 

Long history of magic in both symbols

The serpent staff of Asclepius was thought to possess magical properties. But it wasn’t only that staff.  Serpents were respected – and feared – magical creatures in many ancient cultures, from India, Africa, and Australia, to Persia and Ireland.  In the Old Testament, both Aaron and the pharaoh’s magicians have magical staffs that can turn from staff to snake and back (Exodus 6: 8 – 10).  When the Israelites were bitten by poisonous snakes in the desert, God instructed Moses to build a bronze serpent on a staff and treat the people (Numbers 21: 5 – 7).

 

Most sources say the caduceus comes from Greek myth.  But where did it come from before that?  Take your pick.  Since the eastern Mediterranean was home to many different peoples, including Phoenicians from the Arabian Peninsula, Persians from central Asia, Egyptians from North Africa, and Sumerians from Asia, it was a melting pot of ideas about spirituality, magic, and healing power. And twin snake images abound.

caduceus, Chinese male and female progenitors

The Chinese mythological progenitors were said to be serpent-tailed humans: male and female, Nuwa and Fuxi, shown here on an ancient painting unearthed in Xinjiang.

 

 

In ancient Egypt, twin serpents were associated with Thoth, the god of learning.  In the image shown below, the ibis-headed god’s headdress includes both the center staff and the opposing serpents.caduceus Thoout,_Thoth_Deux_fois_Grand,_le_Second_Hermés

caduceus Tanit_StoneThe powerful North African goddess Tanit, like her counterparts Astarte, Ishtar, and Isis, is often shown with twin snakes. In the stone pictured below, right, the twin snakes rise on both sides of Tanit, while her symbols: the triangle, the crescent moon, and the sun/flower stand over her.

 
cadu Kundalini risingIn the Kundalini yoga practices of India and southern Asia, twin male and female forces/snakes, rise through the chakras of the body until they enter the brain and open the third eye of wisdom, as shown in the illustration.

caduceus pre-Christian serpent cross, IrelandThe pre-Christian sculpture in Ireland (pictured) features twining, opposite snakes culminating in a cross and circle. Other monuments feature crossed snakes leading to an open hand.

In all of these images, the paired snakes are moving, crossing each other, and leading to a circle, sometimes a winged orb.  There is a sense of increasing power and enlightenment.  The caduceus, as a symbol, is a promise of that power bestowed on the supplicant.  In that sense, it’s hard to beat that as a symbol of the healing arts.

caduceus-stained-glass-pattern

So when we see the caduceus on the wall of the medical center or drugstore, we see a symbol that echoes thousands of years of belief in the power of serpents and the pairing of opposites, the dynamic power of yin and yang/male and female, a concept far older and more universal than the Greek god Hermes or his Roman equivalent, Mercury.

 

 

Sources and interesting reading:

Amaro, John A. “The Caduceus, Chakras, Acupuncture and Healing” (Part I), 2002, http://www.iama.edu/Articles/CaduceusCharkrasAcuHealing.htm

Army Medical Department – Medical Service Corps Heraldry, “Insignia and Plaques, Army Medical Department – Medical Services Corps,” http://www.tioh.hqda.pentagon.mil/Catalog/Heraldryld+15396&Categoryld=9362&grp=2&menu=Uniformed%20Services&ps=24&p=0

“Asclepius,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asclepius

Blayney, Keith, “The Caduceus vs the Staff of Asclepius (Asklepian), revised October 2005, http://www.drblayney.com//Asclepius.html

Caduceus drawing for Medical Corps, Bad Medicine (part 1) fnmyalgia.com

“Caduceus,” Pinterest. http://www.pinterest.com/pin/494692340288581428/

“Caduceus,” the photo of a stained glass work from sunlightstudio, to Pinterest, http://www.pintrest.com/pin/444800900673055007/

“Caduceus,” Symbol Dictionary: a visual glossary.  http://symboldictionary.net?p=1131

“Caduceus,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus

“Caduceus as a symbol of medicine,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus_as_a_symbol_of_medicine

Champollion, Jean-Francois. “Thoout, Thoth Deux fois Grand, le Second Hermes,” Brooklyn Museum collection, Wilbour Library of Egyptology, Special Collections imprint 1823 – 1825. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoth#/media/File:Thoout,_Thoth_Deux_fois_Grand,_le_Second_Herm%C3%A9s,_N372.2A.jpg

Gill, Joseph O. “Origins of the Caduceus, as told in the world’s oldest language: symbolism,” June 2011, http://www.worldglobetrotters.com/Links?Caduceus/caduceus.htm

“Hermes,” Wikipedia.  https;//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermes

“Highlights of Medical Service Corps’ History,” Silver Caduceus Association, 2016, http://www.silvercaduceusassociation.com/history.html

Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1989.

“Hygeia,” painting by Gustav Klimt, pinned to Pinterest, https://www.pinterest.com/pin/444800900667632448/

Images of the winged staff with intertwined snakes as a symbol of ancient Indian medicine, as well as a drawing based on the monument by Aubin Louis Millin (1811) showing Mercury (Hermes) and a merchant approaching the disapproving Asclepius, Immune ACCORD, http://www.immuneaccord.com/history.php

Jenkins, Avery. “The problem with mainstream medicine is staring us in the face” 28 March 2013, DocAltMed, http://www.averyjeckins.com/?p=977

“Snakes in Chinese Mythology,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snakes_in_Chinese_mythology

“Tanit,” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanit

The Eagle and The Serpent, Reconsidered

eagle_snake_by_stoffe3337- on deviantart

Several readers of this blog have wondered about the meaning of the battling serpent and eagle, a very dynamic image, especially popular in tattoos.  It turns out there is no simple explanation.  In some cases, it represents a battle of good vs. evil.  In others, a battle of the present vs. the past, or one belief system vs. another.  In others, it is a dynamic combination of opposites that becomes the force that turns the universe.

The Eagle

The eagle is a logical choice for a group’s symbol.  It’s a large, powerful predator.  Like all raptors, it has amazing eyesight, a hooked beak designed to deliver a killing bite and rip flesh off bones, and sharp talons that can pierce and hold prey. An eagle’s wingspan is typically twice the length of its body, allowing it to soar easily.

The eagle stands for admirable, intimidating power, which is why it appears in connection with so many political entities, second only to the sun, moon, and stars in its appearance on official flags and seals.  It might be the black eagle, golden eagle, or bald eagle. It might have one head or two.  In some cases, the two headed eagle represents the combination of secular and religious power.

flag of Russia,_Federal_agency_for_government_communication_and_information,  Flag of Albania

The eagle is sometimes shown with a crown over its head, reinforcing its connection with royal power.  In the same way, the eagle might be holding a royal scepter or orb in its talons.  It often has a shield or emblem on its chest carrying the colors or symbols of the political

eagle -Flag_of_the_President_of_the_United_States_of_America_svgentity.  The United States versions, shown on everything from the official seal of the President of the United States to the dollar bill, feature the eagle carrying a bundle of arrows (a symbol of military might) in one foot, an olive branch (a symbol of peace) in the other.

The Mexican flag carries the image of the golden eagle atop a cactus, grasping a snake, the very image the people had been promised would direct them to the place they would make their new home, Tenochtitlan, now the site of Mexico City.

The eagle is also used as a team name and symbol (e.g. the Philadelphia Eagles), taking the impressive power of the animal and associating it with the sports team, in the same way as the Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Falcons, Memphis Grizzlies, Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers, St. Louis Rams, and many more.

So the eagle symbol seems pretty clear.  It’s powerful, strong, and beautiful.  It demands respect.  It transfers the strength and glory of the eagle to the group, or at least to its leader(s).

The Serpent

Adam and EveThe serpent/snake/dragon is a far more complicated part of the equation.  Many people associate the serpent with evil because of the Bible story in which the snake offers Eve the fruit from the forbidden tree, “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” In the Genesis story of the Fall of Man, the serpent is described as “more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.”   The serpent says to Eve: “Did God really say, ’You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’”  When she replies that God told them not to eat the fruit or even touch the tree in the center of the Garden for if they did, they would die, the serpent replies, “You will not surely die…for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  That’s apparently the selling point, for then Eve, “desirous of gaining wisdom,” takes the fruit, eats it, and gives some to her husband.  (It’s very curious that this image and others portray the fruit as the Amanita muscaria mushroom!)

After that, all the problems of humankind were laid at the feet of the woman – and the snake.

Except that, even in the Bible, the snake is not necessarily evil.  But it is associated with scary power.  When Moses and his brother Aaron go before the Pharaoh to demand he let the Israelites go out of Egypt, Aaron throws down his staff and it becomes a snake, just as God had promised.  In reply, the Pharaoh’s sorcerers throw down their staffs and each one becomes a snake.  In a final show of power, Aaron’s staff/snake swallows up the other staffs/snakes.  Both sides used snakes as tools of power.

In the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples to go forth and be “as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves” (Mathew 10:16).

Admittedly, there are lots more negative serpent images than positive ones in the Bible.  Take the deadly Leviathan in the sea, the Apocalyptic red dragon with seven heads bearing seven crowns that throws a third of the heavenly stars to the earth, and “the dragon, that old serpent, which is Satan and the Devil” from the Book of Revelations.

Still, even in the Bible, the snake is not always a symbol of evil.

Caius College, Cambridge UniversitySerpent Power

Curiously, even with the negative press the Bible gives the snake, its symbolic use is fairly common. It shows up on many flags, including one for Gaius College, Cambridge (illustration).

In 1754, during the French and Indian War, Benjamin Franklin published the famous “Join or Die” cartoon in the Pennsylvania Gazette.  It shows a snakeagle join or die flage cut into eight segments, each labeled with the initials of one of the American colonies. American colonists adopted the rattlesnake and the eagle as symbols of their new land.

The Gadsden American flag, first created in 1775, eagle Gadsden_flag_svgfeatures a coiled rattlesnake on a yellow background, and the words “Don’t tread on me.”  It effectively connected the power of the snake (and the fear it instills in others) with the fledgling American colonies that were facing the much stronger British forces.  It is currently being used by the Tea Party, a right-wing faction of the Republican Party.

 

World Serpents

Buddha_from_Cambodia,_Angkor_kingdom,_Bayon_style,_12th_century,_sandstone,_HAAIn the rest of the world, serpents have a long history as symbols of fertility and rebirth, as well as spiritual power.  The meditating Buddha was shielded by a multi-headed serpent deity, or naga, named Mucalinda (photo).  In Hindu mythology, Vishnu was said to sleep peacefully while floating on the cosmic waters, supported by the serpent Shesha.  In Dahomey mythology (West Africa) the serpent that supports everything is called Dan.  In Vodun of Benin and Haiti, Ayida Weddo, the Rainbow Serpent, is a symbol of fertility, rainbows and snakes, and a wife of Dan, the father of spirits.

In Mesoamerican and North American Indian groups, snakes often served as spirit guides, or Others, during shamanic trances, enabling the shaman to cross over into the spirit realm in order to restore balance between the two worlds. The figure on the right side of the rock art photo has snakes on the left and right side, generally interpreted to be the shaman’s spirit guides.eagle rock art with snakes

The vision serpent curls up from the dish holding a Maya blood offering, allowing the penitent to communicate with the ancestors. In the illustration, the head of the ancestor appears out of the vision serpent’s mouth.Yaxchilan Divine Serpent

In Australian Dreamtime stories, the Rainbow Serpent is the Mother of Life, creator of the waterways and the laws, the humans and the stones.

Then why are Western images of serpents so negative?

Pre-Christian Europeans were animists, believers in spirits that resided in natural elements such as trees, rivers, the sky, and various animals.  Snakes and birds were especially important because they were capable of crossing between worlds: the snake could go above ground or to the Underworld; the bird could be on the earth or part of the sky.  As such, they held special powers. Because they can shed their skins, snakes were associated with the cycle of life and death.   A very old Celtic snake goddess named Corchen was connected with the energy of the earth and rebirth. The Ouroboros, the snake biting its tail, was a symbol of eternity. The Celtic god named Cernunnos was usually portrayed as a man with stag antlers because he could shape-shift into a stag. Typically his legs were snakes, sometimes horned snakes.

Serpent devotion was common in Britain and the continent.  The Druids’ symbol was the snake.

When Christianity arrived in the British Isles, the Catholic Church felt it was important to transfer religious power from the Druids to the new religion.  Saint Patrick is said to have driven the snakes out of Ireland, but actually there weren’t any snakes in Ireland after the last Ice Age.  The driving out was symbolic, one of many such efforts.  The snakes belonged to the old religion. St. George impaled the dragon on his righteous spear.  St Margaret stabbed a dragon with a cross.

Saint_George_and_the_Dragon_by_Paolo_Uccello_(Paris)_01In the painting by Paulo Uccello (shown), the knight arrives on a white horse just in time to slay the dragon and save the maiden in distress.

Meanwhile, Cernunnos, the god with snake legs and stag horns, was made into a devil figure.

Serpent subdued by eagle Byzantine eagleSo the snake/serpent/dragon came to represent the old, pagan, lesser power now subdued by superior, Christian power, as shown in the mosaic floor from the Imperial Palace in Constantinople (photo).

A combination of Old and New

But the dragon refused to be conquered.  Long a favorite of the Celts, Anglo-Saxons, and Norsemen, the dragon continued, even after the advent of Christianity, to be the emblem of the chief.  King Arthur, whose father was Uther Pen-dragon, wore a dragon insignia on his helmet.  Later, the dragon became the symbol of the kings of England, especially those who needed to establish themselves as having a legitimate claim to power.  Henry VII took as his personal symbol the red dragon, which helped to link his family, the Tudors, to the ancient kings.  Later it was used by Henry VIII, Edward V, and Elizabeth I.  (Of course, the imperial dragon was the symbol of the Chinese Emperor, as well.)

Book of Kells snake

More often, the old ways simply merged with the new ones.  The Book of Kells, the beautiful illustrated manuscript made in Ireland (c. 800 AD) features many snakes and birds, as well as other animals, plants, and landscapes in the decorative chapter pages and initial letters of sections.  The snake, always a symbol of rebirth, becomes a symbol of Christ’s death and resurrection in the book.  So while it appears in a Christian book, it continues its original pagan association.

The Eagle and the Serpent as One Entity

Pliny the Elder (c.100 AD), in his work Natural History, refers to a certain large serpent that fights with eagles.  It tries to steal the eagle’s eggs.  In the struggle, the snake wraps itself around the eagle so tightly that the two look like one animal with two heads.  This is a very early reference to the eagle and snake involved in a match of equal, opposite powers.  It’s also a reference to what seems to be the combined animal – the winged serpent.

At this point, when the eagle and serpent are perfectly paired opposites, they represent not victory or defeat but dynamic cosmic completion, the union of spirit and matter, as shown in the Japanese emblem (illustration).

dragon and phoenix, from Vinnycomb book

This is the same combination as the American Indian winged rattlesnakes, the Mesoamerican feathered serpent, the Egyptian winged snake goddess Wadjet, and the paired winged, serpent-tailed creator beings in Chinese myth.  This is the force that drives the universe as the celestial bird and the serpent wheel forever, in perfect balance of opposite energies, around the portal of heaven.

Sources and Interesting Reading:

“Adam and Eve,” painted wood ceiling at  St. Michael’s church, Hildesheim, Germany, 1192 AD www.ambrosiasociety.org/the_fruit_of_the_tree_of_life.html

Birrell, Anne. Chinese Mythology: An Introduction. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993

“Celtic Gods and Goddesses,” www.joellssacredgrove.com

“Dragon,” The Medieval Bestiary http://bestiary.ca./beasts/beast262.htm

“Double-headed eagle,” Wikipedia

“Eagle” A-Z Animals.  A-Zanimals.com/animals/eagle

“Eagle,” The Medieval Bestiary http://bestiary.ca/beasts/beast232.htm

“Eagle Snake” tattoo design by stoffe3337 on deviantart.com

“Gadsden flag,” Wikipedia

Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South.  Richard Townsend (ed.) The Art Institute of Chicago in association with Yale University Press, 2004

Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984.

Oodgeroo Nunukul. Dreamtime: Aboriginal Stories. First published as Stadbroke Dreamtime.  Angus & Robertson, 1972

Power, Susan C.  Early Art of the Southeastern Indians: Feathered Serpents & Winged Beings. University of Georgia Press, 2004

“Rainbow Serpent, The” ferrebeekeeper.wordpress.com (a wonderful blog)

Rock Art images,  http://www.eskimo.com/~noir/southwest/rockart

“Saint George and the Dragon,” painting by Paulo Uccello (c. 1458), Wikipedia Commons

Saint George and The Dragon, retold by Margaret Hodges, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, Little, Brown, 1984.

“Serpent,” New World Encyclopedia. www.newworldencyclopedia.org

“Serpent and Saint Patrick,” I Am An Owl blog, (a very interesting blog) http://amayodruid.blogspot.com

Saunders, Nicholas. J. Animal Spirits. Little, Brown, 1995

“Serpent (symbolism)” Wikipedia

“Snake,” The Medieval Bestiary (1400 AD)  http://besatiary.ca/beasts/beast264f.htm

Taylor, Sea, and Fernando Vilela. The Great Snake: Stories from the Amazon.  Frances Lincoln, 2008