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…”.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For More Interested People
- Note the use of snake in Bowl of Hygieia, a symbol of Hygieia, daughter of Asclepius and the goddess of hygiene
(preventive medicine). The picture “Asclepius and Hygieia” is of a 5th century BC marble relief from Therme, Greece. It is now kept in Istanbul Archaeological Museums. Here Hygieia is holding her famous bowl and a snake is drinking from it.
- For more images of use of snakes in relation to Asclepius and Hygieia click on respective hyperlinks.
- The Symbol of Modern Medicine: Why One Snake Is More Than Two – Annals of Internal Medicine.
- Guinea Worm Disease – Treatment and Management.
- Use of Caduceus as a symbol of commerce.Caduceus vs Staff of Asclepius – Keith Blayney
- Other uses of Caduceus – in Commerce and as astrological symbol.
- About Panacea, daughter of Asclepius and goddess of treatment and cure (curative medicine).
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“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
“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., Public Domain, Link.
“Caduceus in Commerce” Public Domain, Link.
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