Posts Tagged With: Greek mythology

Re: Messages or Medicine?

A thought related to my post Messages or Medicine?

A friend, after reading my blog, pointed out the connection between Moses’ staff and serpent and the medical symbol. I’m a little ashamed I have never made the connection, but I feel it is also a story that deserves to be told (as an alternative to the Rod of Asclepius).

This one comes from the Bible, in Numbers 21. The Israelites, while wandering in the wilderness, are plagued by fiery serpents with poisonous, deadly venom. Moses prays in behalf of the Israelites, and then, as instructed by the Lord, he makes a serpent of brass and puts it on a pole. He then tells the Israelites that to be healed from the bite of the fiery serpents, they need only look at the brass serpent on the pole.

The New Testament, in John 3, adds another perspective by teaching that the serpent is a symbol of Jesus Christ. John 3:14-16 says, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Thus, the medical symbol becomes a symbol not of Asclepius the healer but of Jesus Christ the Healer.

As I have studied world religions, these types of connections dominate the stories, traditions, and legends taught by various cultures. They have differences (mostly, I believe, due to passing the stories down verbally before they were ever written), but the similarities are astounding. This is not to lessen the truth of them–as I personally believe the Bible story to be true–it’s just interesting that they seem to sprout from one common thread.

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Messages or Medicine?

Unfortunately, no fantastic backstory on this one–my curiosity was simply sparked by a friend’s Christmas gift.

Recognize this symbol?

caduceus

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:

Rod of Asclepius

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.

Ophiuchus

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.

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