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The Origin of Medical Symbol – Asklepian or Caduceus?

The symbol of medicine changed from time to time, most confusing of which is the change to Rod of Asclepius from Caduceus. This change happened “in the late 19th and early 20th century as a result of documented mistakes, misunderstandings, and confusion” (source: Wikipedia). Even now both these symbols are used in various parts of the world. Below I shall elaborate on the relation of these symbols with medicine.

The rod of Asclepius

Image of Asklepios
Asklepios

Asclepius (also spelled as Asklepios or Aesculapius) is the Greek god of medicine. Homer mentioned the name of Asclepius when writing about 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…” though it was later changed by various authorities.

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. So, it’s not difficult to find the relation between this staff and medicine.

Meaning

The Asklepian contains a staff and one snake – both of which have cultural and symbolic significance.

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 theory is supported by the use of a species of non-venomous snake called Aesculapian (notice the similarity in naming!) snake in their healing temple (Asclepieia). We also find snakes in the sculptures of Hygieia (goddess of health and hygiene) and Panacea (goddess of healing), the two daughters of Asclepius. So it is clear that the 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 a doctor’s role in life-death decision).

Caduceus or Herald’s Staff

Statue of Mercury
Mercury

The 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, we find Caduceus being related to 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, negotiation, or border became the symbol of medicine?

There are actually very few mentions of Caduceus with medicine in ancient works. An earlier one is the seal from the third century, kept at the Guildhall Museum of London, is believed was used for marking eye ointments. 

Later Hermes became the god of alchemy. Alchemists believed in the elixir of life. They were also involved with medical practice at that time. So this became a connection 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 the 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 its 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

Image of Guinea worm
Guinea worm

Even before Greeks, there is mention of the 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 the rod of Asclepius. So, some scholars think this is the origin of this symbol.

If You are more Interested

Asclepius_and_hygieia_relief
Asclepius and Hygieia

Note the use of the snake in the Bowl of Hygieia. As I already mentioned Hygieia was the daughter of Asclepius and the goddess of hygiene. The picture “Asclepius and Hygieia” is from a 5th century BC marble relief from Therme, Greece. It is now kept in Istanbul Archaeological Museums. Here Hygieia is holding the bowl and a snake is drinking from it.

Author

Dr. Arnab Mukherjee

Image Attribution

Asklepios – By original file by Michael F. Mehnert – File:Asklepios – Statue Epidauros Museum 2008-09-11.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Mercury – By Amsterdam Municipal Department for the Preservation and Restoration of Historic Buildings and Sites (bMA), Attribution, Link

Guinea worm – By CDC – This 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

Asklepius and Hygieia – By Prioryman – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

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