As a physician or healthcare worker, chances are you are familiar with one, if not both of these symbols. The caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius have both become known as symbols of medicine but what is the origin of these medical symbols and where did these medical symbols come from? Is one symbol a better representation than the other? Here we take a closer look at these two symbols, their origin, and the meanings behind them.
Where did the medical symbol come from?
Both medical symbols appear to have origins that trace back to Greek mythology, with the caduceus relating back to the Greek god Hermes and the Rod of Asclepius connected to the Greek God Apollo’s son Asclepius.
Caduceus vs Rod of Asclepius
Both the caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius originate from Greek mythology, but which one truly holds a symbol of healing? While both of these symbols are similar in nature, what do they really represent? Let’s take a look at each one and where it came from.
The caduceus is the traditional symbol of the Greek god Hermes. It features two snakes winding around a winged magical staff. Hermes, known as the messenger of the gods, inventor of incantations, conductor of the dead, and the protector of merchants and thieves, doesn’t seem to help much connection to medicine, but rather strong associations with trade, liars, and thieves.
However, a connection to medicine seems to appear sometime in the seventh century A.D., when a connection developed between Hermes and alchemy. At this time, alchemists were referred to as the sons of Hermes.
In more modern times, symbols similar to the caduceus were seen a few times in use during the 16th century by physicians Sir William Butts and John Caius. In the 19th century, the Surgeon General of the United States designated the Rod of Asclepius as its symbol, but confusion over the design led the U.S. Army to include the caduceus on the insignia of hospital stewards. Years later, the Surgeon General designated the caduceus as the seal for the Marine Hospital Service as well.
Today, the caduceus is still used by the United States Medical Corps, Navy Pharmacy Division, and the Public Health Service. Researcher Walter Friedlander wrote in his book The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine, that commercial health organizations and hospitals are more likely to use the caduceus as their symbol, while professional organizations, such as the World Health Organization, are more likely to use the Rod of Asclepius.
Rod of Asclepius
Asclepius, known as the Greek god of healing, is the son of Apollo and the nymph Coronis. In mythology, Coronis took a mortal lover while she was pregnant with Asclepius. When Apollo heard this, he sent Artemis to kill Coronis. As she dies, Apollo felt pity for the unborn child and rescued Asclepius. Asclepius was then sent to be raised by Cheiron, a wise centaur that taught him healing and medicine.
Asclepius become such a skilled healer that her was able to raise mortal patients back from the dead. Zeus believed that this ability threatened the immortality of the gods, and he killed Asclepius with a thunderbolt. Because of his incredible healing powers, medical schools developed in early Greece that became dedicated to Asclepius.
But where did the Rod of Asclepius as a symbol come from? In ancient Greece, infections by the Dracunculus medinensis worm were very common. This worm entered the body and traveled underneath the skin. Healers, like Asclepius, treated the condition by making a small cut in the person’s skin just ahead of the worm’s path. As the worm crawled out, it was wrapped around the small stick, resulting in the image of a single snake wrapped around a stick, known as the Rod of Asclepius.
This single snake symbol is proudly displayed by many professional medical organizations and healthcare workers and is the true symbol of healing.
Why the snake?
As we mentioned above, the snake connection for the Rod of Asclepius relates to the treatment of a common word infection in ancient Greece. But what about the double snakes in the caduceus? These twin snakes come from the story of Tiresias, a seer who found two snakes copulating and separated them with this magical staff. When he did this, he was turned into a woman, remaining that way until he was able to repeat the task seven years later. This staff, complete with the two serpents, was then passed on to Hermes.
Other theories behind the snakes in both symbols refer back to mythologies from Mesopotamia and Egypt that influenced ancient Greece. These myths accepted the snake as a symbol of eternal life and Asclepius, the god of medicine, was often depicted with a snake wrapped around a branch from the tree of life.
Understanding the symbols you wear as a healthcare provider
As a healthcare worker or physician, you may have clothing, prescription pads, or other tools that include one or both of these symbols. Despite which one you represent, both symbols are now widely accepted as signs of the medical community. Hopefully, now you have a little bit of history into what these symbols really mean.
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