Why is the Universal Medical Symbol a Snake on a Stick?


We often see the image of a serpent wrapped around a staff whenever we visit clinics and hospitals. This symbol can also be seen on some ambulances, as well as a logo of some pharmacies. This is because it is the universal medical symbol. But have you ever asked yourself or anyone why did they choose snake as a symbol of medicine? It’s quite ironic to represent the medical field because we know that snake bites are dangerous. However, this ancient emblem has some interesting stories behind it.

The Rod of Asclepius

There are two versions of the symbol. One is the Rod of Asclepius – known as the Greco-Roman god of medicine. The Rod of Asclepius has a single serpent around the rod. Based on the legend, Aesclepius learned to heal because of his father and mentor, the Centaur Chiron. He was popular thousands of years ago because a therapeutic tradition grew up around the tales of his mythical abilities which inspired the construction of early hospital-like departments called Asklepios. These provided proto-medical treatments to the sick and injured. Aesclepius’ healing was retained until the fourth century before it was displaced by Christian ideologies.

In one story, it tells that Zeus killed Asclepius using a thunderbolt because he disrupted the natural order of the world by reviving the dead. In another version, Zeus killed him because he accepted money in exchange for conducting resurrection.

The Greeks considered snakes sacred and used them in healing as their way of honoring Asclepius. For them, the snake venom was remedial, and they view skin-shedding as a symbol of rebirth and renewal. However, the Christian tradition sees the depiction of the serpent as the genesis of evil.

The Rod of Asclepius has been passed down to us as an epitome of the healing arts from ancient stories of this mythological figure’s medical exploits.

Caduceus of Hermes

The other form of the symbol is the winged version which is known as a Caduceus which stick is a staff that was carried by the Olympian god Hermes. He was a messenger of gods and humans in Greek mythology, which explains the wings, and he’s also a guide to the underworld, which on the other hand explains the staff. Hermes was also the patron of travelers. This makes an appropriate connection to medicine because, in the olden days, doctors need to walk far distances to visit their patients.

Based on one version of the myth about Hermes, Apollo, the god of healing, gave the staff to him. On another version, Hermes received the staff from the king of gods, Zeus, and the staff was entwined with two white ribbons. Later, the ribbons were replaced by serpents. Based on another story, Hermes used the staff in separating two fighting snakes, which then coiled around it and remained there in harmony.

Confusion Between Rod of Asclepius with the Caduceus

From the 16th century onwards, both Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus of Hermes were used as printers’ marks especially in pharmacies. After some time, the Rod of Asclepius became an independent symbol of medicine. However, Caduceus appears to be the more popular symbol of medicine in the United States. It is the current medical emblem of many prominent US medical organizations. There seemed to be a confusion with the two symbols because for example in the army, the US Army Medical Corps uses Caduceus as their symbol, while the US Army Medical Department uses the Rod of Asclepius.

In fact, twelve medical dictionaries from England, France, and the US were reviewed and there is no medical connection found with the word Caduceus. Therefore, the universal medical symbol should be the Rod of Asclepius.

Snakes as a Symbol of Healing

Snakes are popular to depict evil, but they can be viewed as medical symbols as well which can show life-giving signs of therapeutic renewal. Well, it depends on different perceptions. Some may view them as disgusting and dangerous creatures, and a lot of people have phobias on snakes. However, some groups, like the American Medical Association, consider the Snake-coiled Rod of Asclepius as a universally-recognized symbol of medicine which they use to represent themselves.

Medical Logo Design

Make sure you know how to properly do Medical logo design with caduceus snake and a stick emblem.  You can also consider for example the Caduceus in rhombus logo design.

Who would’ve thought that the story behind the symbol we often see in hospitals are from the Ancient Greek myths?

Facts About Asclepius

  1. He became well-known for his innate and learned abilities in surgery, medicine, and all forms of healing as the son of Apollo and Chiron’s mentee. He was such a powerful healer that he even called into question the gods’ control over life and death.
  2. Asclepius was a demigod who was born to Apollo and Princess Coronis, a mortal woman who was from the Greek region of Thessaly.
  3. Asclepius received superhuman healing powers from his father while learning medicine from Chiron. Asclepius was naturally skilled and well-trained in the use of medication to treat illness, performing surgery, using incantations, and studying medicinal herbs.
  4. His medicinal prowess quickly spread throughout Greece, and he quickly rose to fame for his healing abilities. As a result of these skills, Asclepius attracted a lot of interest and jealousy from other gods.
  5. Asclepius could bring the dead back to life.
  6. Despite all the good that Asclepius was doing, the gods did not look favorably upon his actions, and his reputation suffered as a result. The sudden appearance of a demigod who was capable of curing and reviving mortals had a direct influence on the activities of several gods.
  7. Asclepius’ method of raising the dead made Zeus furious. Zeus forbade him from doing so because he believed it would jeopardize the Gods’ and humans’ eternal separation. Zeus struck Asclepius with a thunderbolt in retaliation for his actions.
  8. To honor Asclepius, the ancient Greeks constructed healing temples. The temples were known as Asclepeions.
  9. Many people might think of Hermes’ staff, also known as the Caduceus, as a medical symbol. However, Hermes and his Caduceus have never been associated with medicine.
  10. Hermes is a common character in Greek myths because he was the gods’ main messenger. He was a great messenger because of his rapidity and excellent communication skills.
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