The symbol of the caduceus
is defined as a figure whose basic structure consists of two
entwined serpents encircling a wand or rod. Most of the depictions
also have a pair of wings perched atop the rod. This is different
from the depictions of the staff of Aesculapius, which
is traditionally shown as a single snake wrapped around a simple
wooden walking staff. Each of these symbols have both a wooden
staff and a serpent or pair of serpents. The wooden staff is
said to symbolize the tree of life from the Garden of Eden.
Serpents have been said to represent the vital forces in life.
In the Bible, it talks about Moses making a serpent of brass
and placing it on a pole. Any man bitten by a serpent would
live if he looked upon the serpent of brass. (Numbers
1,9). Serpents in medical symbols have been looked
upon as depicting wisdom, rejuvenation, and longevity. (Potter)
The two versions of the staff and serpents have been confused
and interchanged throughout history, despite their vast difference
in meanings and background.
The word caduceus
comes from the Latin word kerykeion, which was originally
used to describe the staff or wand of a messenger. It was later
associated with Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods.
Hermes is described as a diplomatic, peace-bringing ambassador
in many accounts. One such tale describes Hermes stopping two
snakes from fighting by throwing his rod in between them, causing
the snakes to become twisted around the wand. This act gave
rise to the caduceus symbol, and helped to give Hermes a reputation
as a great mediator. Although not associated with medicine,
at least this myth gives a positive impression of the symbol
when looking at its mythological origins.
However, Hermes was also
considered to be the god of commerce and wealth, which in turn
implies a sense of personal self-interest along with the possibility
of stretching the truth to meet one's own needs. Hermes was
known as the patron god of thieves due to his many tricks and
lies. The quality of dishonesty is not one that most people
want to see in their physician, therefore a symbol that is traced
back to representing trickery and deceit should not be used
to represent a profession as highly regarded in trust as medicine.
Additionally, Hermes is also said to have used his caduceus
staff to lead the souls of those who passed away to the underworld,
which is the opposite idea than that stated in the Hippocratic
Oath with which a physician is charged.
Rod of Asclepius
On the other hand, Aesculapius
is considered to be the true god of medicine, trained in the healing
arts by the centaur Chirion. The son of Apollo, god of health,
Aesculapius is said to have been pulled from the womb as his mortal
mother was dying, which came to symbolize a physician's ability
to turn death into life. Throughout his life, Aesculapius used
medicinal herbs and surgical procedures to heal the sick and dying,
with his culmination of the art being the ability to bring the
dead back to life. In one episode of mythology, Aesculapius was
said to have been inside a temple when a serpent came to him and
wound itself up and around his walking staff. He killed the serpent,
only to have a second slither in and use an herb to bring its
dead comrade back to life. This brings forth the explanation for
the revered symbol of Aesculapius' staff, with this herb being
the major discovery of his life. The snake was seen as a servant
to Aesculapius in his healing, and was worshiped as such.
Aesculapius' acts are said
to embody the true spirit of medicine, that is, to use all methods
possible to delay and even defy death. In the depiction of Aesculapius'
staff, the strong cypress branch is said to represent the solid
moral ethic of a physician. This tradition has been improved
upon throughout the years, to the point where human life can
be assisted and even in some ways replaced by machines. Even
though there is controversy today about how medicine should
be practiced, the spirit of healing and helping in whatever
ways possible is still the core of the physician's creed as
it was in the time of Aesculapius. Thomas Carlyle, a
19th century English philosopher, said that "as
physicians, we should emulate the example of Aesculapius by
negotiating the inherent contradictions of human nature and
by understanding the powers and limitations of our profession."
in the 1500s used the caduceus symbol as the insignia on their
publications because it was a noted and commonly used symbol
for merchants, messengers, and businessmen. The confusion between
the two symbols was first noted when the German scholar Johann
Froben used a wingless caduceus symbol as the insignia on
his publications. Some of his books dealt with the medical field,
bringing the caduceus symbol into association with medicine.
From there, medical texts and other publications began to use
slight variations of the caduceus symbol as their insignia,
increasing the identification of the caduceus with medicine.