What is the Rod of Asclepius?


You may have already come across this in medical school, perhaps during your science subject wherein it was always associated with the universal medical symbol. It is a rod with a snake coiled around it. But what about its history? And who is Asclepius, by the way?

In this article, we will shed light to the common questions concerning the rod of Asclepius, the story behind it and its owner as well. Make sure to scroll further.

Who is Asclepius?

Before we discuss the rod, it is more important that we start with its rightful owner, which is Asclepius. This Greek mythology figure is the son of the sun god, Apollo, and a nymph named Coronis, who then cheated on her husband for a mortal. Enraged, Apollo ordered his twin sister, Artemis, to kill the pregnant Coronis and save their child, which was then named Asclepius.

The baby went under the custody of Chiron, a centaur who taught Asclepius about the wonders of medicine. Asclepius has learned and grew so much, earning the attention and loyalty of thousands of people in the ancient world. However, Zeus, his grandfather and the king of gods suddenly grew worried about Asclepius’s powers—worrying that his powers may cause mortals to overtake immortals. Therefore, being the god of thunder that he is, he killed Asclepius with a thunderbolt.

What is the deal about his rod?

Asclepius is often represented by a standing man with a bare chest, wearing a robe and carrying a staff with a snake wrapped around it. This staff is commonly found in the symbol of the medical field.

There are various theories snaking around the rod of Asclepius, as well as the serpent wrapped around it. One narrative, named as the worm theory, came from the Ebers papyrus, which is one of the first ancient Egyptian medical stories. It narrates a story about a treatment for parasitic worms, which involves cutting a person then pulling out the worm then wrapping it around a stick. Physicians during that time would usually market their healing services by hanging a sign with a logo depicting a worm wrapped around a stick.

Another theory can be rooted from the bible, particularly in Exodus, wherein Moses was the main character. Moses is known for his bronze staff with a bronze serpent around it. And if any Israelite was bitten by a venomous snake, Moses’s bronze serpent was the only one who can cure them.

Another theory, which is probably the most in-line with the Greek mythological story, is that Asclepius was believed to have gained his medical knowledge from a snake.

This happened when two snakes were fighting to death, and then Asclepius threw his rod in an attempt to stop them. One snake curled itself on his rod and whispered the secrets of medicine to Asclepius.

Another one is a scientific theory. The snake only represents rejuvenation and replenishment, all because they can shed their skin and emerge bigger, shinier, and healthier than before.

How is it different from the Caduceus

Hermes, the messenger of the gods and the god of commerce, is known for his staff, the Caduceus: a rod with two snakes coiled around it. It was commonly used as the symbol of neutrality and peace in a battle. This is usually confused with the rod of Asclepius because of their similarities.

The Caduceus is represented with two wings on its top and two serpents that symbolize prudence and diligence: two key characteristics in trading activities.

The Caduceus is commonly found in U.S. medical organizations. However, there are still nuances. For instance, within the army, the U.S. Army Medical Department utilizes the rod of Asclepius, while the U.S. Army Medical Corps uses the Caduceus. When you think about it, there are many medical organizations that use the Caduceus, although it has really no medical relevance at all.

Both symbols are rooted in Greek Mythology, but only one is an accurate representation of the medical field, which is the rod of Asclepius. However, there has been debates about the Caduceus: some narratives say that Apollo gave it to Hermes as a sign of friendship, while others say that it came from a man whose goal is to stop snakes from multiplying by hitting them with a stick.

Its medical symbolism

The rod of Asclepius gained its reputation in the medical field because of the combination of the rod, which is a symbol of authority, and the serpent, which manifests revitalization, rejuvenation, rebirth, and fertility. As such snake venom is known to be one of the deadliest liquid in the world, and yet ironically, holds a lot of healing properties. Therefore, the snake could be an image of the duality of a physician’s everyday life, which includes dealing with sickness and health, as well as life and death. It also denotes the dual powers of medicine: the situation and dosage that will determine if it will heal or harm the person.

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