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 (pictured 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.
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?
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?
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 embrace 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.
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.
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.
The 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.
In 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.
The 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.
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