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What is the Caduceus of Hermes?


You have probably heard about it in medical school, but not really know the story behind it, let alone the symbolism it holds. The Caduceus is rather controversial than a symbolic one. Some argue it is the right symbol to use in medical emblems, whereas other people argue that it has no correlation with the medical world.

What is the Caduceus? Who is Hermes? And why does a Greek Mythological symbol matter in the modern world? In this article, we will delve into the story of Caduceus, as well as its rightful owner. Make sure to scroll further so you don’t miss out on any information!

Who is Hermes?

In case you missed it during your Literature class, Hermes is one of the 12 Olympian gods: the son of Zeus, the king of the gods. Known as Mercury in the Roman Mythology, he was known as the messenger of the gods, the god of mischief, god of commerce, to name a few. Hermes is the only god who can traverse heaven, earth, and the underworld quickly, all thanks to his winged sandals. Because he was constantly crossing different worlds, he gained his reputation as a trickster god. He then became the patron god of travelers, merchants, and thieves.

What is the Caduceus?

The Caduceus is Hermes’s staff. The god is portrayed with a staff on his hand, which is characterized by a rod with two snakes coiled around it. People deemed it as a symbol of peace.

Before it became the famous symbol that it is today, it was once a common rod, particularly a branch of olive. Later on, serpents encircled the rod and made it the Caduceus that it is today.

It has wings and two snakes. The former is used to symbolize the god’s incredible speed. On the other hand, the snakes have high regard in the ancient world, and most people believe it symbolizes the divinity of Hermes. However, some argue that it symbolizes an Indo-European god or even a Babylonian god.

Homer narrates that the Caduceus was a gift to Hermes by his brother, Apollo. It was a friendship gift after Hermes stole Apollo’s cattle and gave him the lyre he created as an infant.

For ancient Greeks, the Caduceus was a symbol that denotes peace among messengers and diplomats.

However, some believe that Caduceus harnesses magical properties. It was said that when Hermes touches a person, it will automatically fall asleep. His staff could also determine which people have died or had an excruciating death, which was important to know in the ancient world.

The symbolism of Caduceus of Hermes in the traditional world

The Caduceus has graced all industries associated with Hermes, such as trading and commerce. It was also believed that the herald of the Olympian gods had invented coinage, so his staff was often used as a symbol in commerce. And since Hermes is a great orator, his staff also used to symbolize orators.

The caduceus was also associated with alchemy, in which it represented the prime matter. Two snakes represent chaos, wherein they are fighting and wrapping themselves around the rod. To medieval alchemists, this represents the reconciliation of two opposing elements.

The symbolism of Caduceus of Hermes in the modern world

The medical industry has adapted the Caduceus in their emblems, and is often seen in pharmacies. But why, even if Hermes was not associated with medicine and healing?

It turns out that the Caduceus was often confused with the Rod of Asclepius. Both symbols feature a rod with snakes circling around the staff. The Rod of Asclepius has only one snake, whereas the Caduceus of Hermes had to. Though often utilized interchangeably, these two symbols carry different meanings.

Asclepius is the son of Apollo and the god of healing and medicine, which logically makes his rod the most deserving image used in the universal medical logo. But it still confuses everyone as to how the mix-up started and lasted for so long, given the Greek Mythological learnings we learned throughout the years.

Many professionals argue that the use of Caduceus of Hermes as a medical symbol is a sheer misuse.

The first recorded instance of this occurred in the 1850s, when it was represented in the chevrons of the U.S. Army Hospital. And by 1902, it was added to the uniforms of the U.S. Army medical officers. There was even a time when the American Medical Associated used the Caduceus as a symbol.

Following this, many large medical organizations modified their emblems to remove the Caduceus of Hermes, but still the misuse of the symbol is rampant across the United States, particularly in smaller institutions. There was a survey in 1992 which exposed that about 59% logos in the medical field still use the Caduceus, while 41% use the Rod of Asclepius.

Regardless of the confusion and misuse, one thing’s for sure. The Caduceus, nor Hermes himself, has no medical significance in Greek Mythology.

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