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 considers the Snake-coiled Rod of Asclepius as a universally-recognized symbol of medicine which they use to represent themselves.
Who would’ve thought that the story behind the symbol we often see in hospitals are from the Ancient Greek myths?