Image - Rod of Asclepius
Rod of Asclepius

 

There are many hypotheses behind the origin of the medical symbol, among which two are most popular – The rod of Asclepius and Caduceus of Hermes.

 

 

The rod of Asclepius

Asclepius (also spelled as Asklepios or Aesculapius) was the Greek god of medicine. Homer mentioned the name of Asclepius with Greek medicine. Hippocrates wrote his famous oath starting as “I swear by Apollo the physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods…”.

Asclepius and Hygieia
Asclepius and Hygieia

In many ancient artworks, Asclepius holds a staff with one snake entwined around it. This staff is known as The Rod of Asclepius or Asklepian or Staff of Asclepius.

Asclepius
Asclepius holding his staff

Meaning

Snake – Ancient Greeks believed snakes have healing power. Snakes represented regeneration (relate to ecdysis or molting of skin in snakes), a symbol of life and death (snakes venom were used both as a medicine and poison) and wisdom. This hypothesis is supported by the use of a species of non-venomous snake called Aesculapian snake in their healing temple (Asclepieia). Hygieia (goddess of health and hygiene) and Panacea (goddess of healing), two daughters of Asclepius, also has snakes in their sculptures. So it is clear that snake had a strong association with medicine.

Staff – it is popularly believed that the staff was later added in the symbol by Asklepian cults. Some believe staff represents determination (representing doctor’s role in life-death decision).

 

 

Caduceus or Herald’s Staff

Claducius
Caduceus

Caduceus is the symbol of Hermes (the Greek god of border and transition). Later Romans adopted him as their god of commerce and negotiation and named him Mercury. So Caduceus is the symbol of both Hermes and Mercury. It represents a staff entwined by TWO snakes and a pair of wings at the top.

Hermes with Claducius
Hermes with Caduceus

Now the question is how the symbol of business or negotiation was associated with medicine?

There is actually very few mentions of Caduceus with medicine in ancient works. A seal from the third century is kept at Guildhall museum of London. It is believed to be used for marking eye ointments. 

Later Hermes became as the god of alchemy. Alchemists believed in the elixir of life. They were also involved with medical practice at that time. So this can be an association between Caduceus and medicine.

Azoth the universal solvent was believed to have healing properties. Caduceus was a symbol of Azoth.

Swiss medical printer Johann Frobenius used Caduceus symbol in his printed works.

US Army Medical Corps
US Army Medical Corps

It was later adopted by the medical department of United States Army.

In 1912 AMA abandoned Caduceus and took Asklepian as the symbol of medicine. WHO also uses Asclepian in their flag.

 

Meaning

Staff and snakes – as the symbol originates in Greece so this association can be understood from the above discussion on Asklepian

Wings – represent agility and activity.

 

 

Dracunculiasis

Treatment of Dracunculiasis
Treatment of Dracunculiasis

Even before Greeks, there is there is mention of treatment of dracunculiasis in Syria and India where a stick was used to wind around the worm as it emerged from the lesion. This resembles with the rod of Asclepius.

 

Further Reading

  1. Rod of Asclepius – Wikipedia,
  2. Caduceus – Wikipedia,
  3. Hermes – Wikipedia,

 

 

For More Interested People

 

 

Author

Arnab Mukherjee

LinkedIn Account

 

NoteCasuceus in Commerce

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Image Attributions

“Asclepios with hygieia” By PriorymanOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

“Asclepius holding his staff” original file by Michael F. Mehnert – File:Asklepios – Statue Epidauros Museum 2008-09-11.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

“Hermes with Caduceus” By Marie-Lan Nguyen (2009), Public Domain, Link

“US Army Medical Corps” United States Navy By USG – US Government, Public Domain, Link

“Treatment of Dracunculiasis” By CDC – Public Health Image Library #1342This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), with identification number #1342.Note: Not all PHIL images are public domain; be sure to check copyright status and credit authors and content providers.English | Slovenščina | +/−, Public Domain, Link.

“Caduceus in Commerce” Public Domain, Link.

“Caduceus as Astrological Symbol” By LexiconOwn work, Public Domain, Link.

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2 Comments

  • Ivy Smith Reply

    Thank you. The first image is awesome

  • Anonymous Reply

    Great article..indeed. shall read the links one by one. thanks

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