Unfortunately, no fantastic backstory on this one–my curiosity was simply sparked by a friend’s Christmas gift.
Recognize this symbol?
Thanks to my recent reading of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, I recognized it as the caduceus, the staff carried by the Greek messenger god, Hermes (or of his Roman counterpart, Mercury). According to Mythweb, Hermes was the messenger god and the guide of dead souls to the Underworld. The site gives this background on the caduceus: “Hermes’ symbol of office as divine messenger was his staff, or caduceus. This was originally a willow wand with entwined ribbons, traditional badge of the herald. But the ribbons were eventually depicted as snakes. To support this mythologically, a story evolved that Hermes used the caduceus to separate two fighting snakes which forthwith twined themselves together in peace.”
Theoi.com says Hermes “…was regarded as the author of a variety of inventions, and, besides the lyre and syrinx, he is said to have invented the alphabet, numbers, astronomy, music, the art of fighting, gymnastics, the cultivation of the olive tree, measures, weights, and many other things.” Of his staff, this site also mentions that the snakes were originally ribbons but says the origin of the caduceus is a little questionable. “According to the Homeric hymn and Apollodorus, he received it from Apollo; and it appears that we must distinguish two staves, which were afterwards united into one: first, the ordinary herald’s staff, and secondly, a magic staff, such as other divinities also possessed.”
But what does this have to do with medicine? Okay, I’ll admit I have wondered this on multiple occasions and have never bothered to satisfy my curiosity before. In the United States, the caduceus is often used as a symbol of medicine. In reality, the caduceus has nothing to do with medicine, as Hermes was actually a guide to the Underworld, not a healer.
Here’s the answer. We are confusing the caduceus with the Rod of Asclepius, which looks like this:
No wings, one snake. Before today, I had never even heard of Asclepius. Good ol’ Wikipedia cleared it up for me: “Asclepius is the god of medicine and healing in ancient Greek religion. Asclepius represents the healing aspect of the medical arts; his daughters are Hygieia (“Hygiene,” the goddess/personification of health, cleanliness, and sanitation), Iaso (the goddess of recuperation from illness), Aceso (the goddess of the healing process), Aglæa/Ægle (the goddess of beauty, splendor, glory, magnificence, and adornment), and Panacea (the goddess of universal remedy).”
The snake on Asclepius’ rod symbolizes a renewal of youth, as the snake sheds its skin. As I’ve been researching, Asclepius just gets cooler. According to this site (my apologies for the iffy header image), Asclepius was taught medicine by the centaur Cheiron (Recognize the name as Hercules’ trainer?) and became so good at it that he actually raised a person from the dead. Zeus, convinced that Asclepius was threatening the immortality of the gods, killed him with a thunderbolt. Then, because he was Apollo’s son, Apollo requested that Asclepius be placed as a constellation among the stars–Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer.
So caduceus = two snakes, wings, Hermes the messenger god. Rod of Asclepius = one snake, no wings, Asclepius the healer. You never know when that Greek mythology lesson from middle school will come in handy.