A snake, or serpent, is one of the most widespread and oldest mythological symbols. Back in the day, they were not as feared and loathed as many people do today. Instead, it is believed that the snakes in the symbol of healing were associated with the healing arts.
Why and how are snakes associated with healing despite being one of the deadliest animals on Earth? Keep scrolling and make sure to read further.
The significance of snakes in Greek culture
Think of all the medical symbols you have come across—from the World Health Organization to the US Army Medical Corps—they all have a similarity: a snake. The significance of this creature can be rooted from ancient Greek mythology and religion. Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing arts, has a staff that is wrapped around by a serpent.
There are several mythological stories that tell us about the relationship between Asclepius and snakes. For instance, there was a story wherein the god of medicine killed a snake and observed as the second snake arrived after the killing to feed the dead snake some herbs, thus reviving it. Asclepius did the exact thing he found out, and using the same herbs, he revived a dead man. For what’s worth, Asclepius put his faith and respect for snakes ever since it transpired and carried one on his staff on his journeys.
Contrary to the common medical emblem (which has two snakes), Asclepius’s staff only carried one.
In a separate story, the god of medicine was said to learn all the ins and outs of healing arts from a smart serpent that whispered all the secrets into his ear. And for centuries, Asclepius’s cult maintained healing temples, referred to as Asclepions, where friendly, non-venomous snakes would take refuge while healers perform their healing rituals.
In fact, there is a snake species that was named after this story. Known as the Aesculapian Snake, a harmless snake native in Europe. Ancient doctors and their assistants were referred to as Therapeutae of Asclepius. Even Hippocrates, the father of medicine, was believed to have embarked on his medical career in one of these temples located in the island of Kos.
In the Hippocratic Oath, the god of medicine, along with the god of sun and heling was mentioned:
“I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods…”
Snakes as symbols of rebirth
Another story, this time more rooted from science and reason, was that the snakes are associated with medicine because of ecdysis, the shedding of snake skin performed many times throughout their lives. It has been viewed as a symbol of rejuvenation or rebirth for many years.
On the other hand, snake venom is a double-edge sword, as it can be both a deadly agent and a healing potion in medicinal practices. In fact, there are many people who owe their lives to these creatures. And just in case you don’t know about it yet, snake venom has been correlated with the number of recoveries from heart attacks and high blood pressure.
A was previously mentioned, a snake’s venom can either be lethal or remedial. Because of its entheogenic association, snakes were commonly referred to as the wisest animals, because they are close to divine. Its divine attributes combined with its habitat in the planet between plants has earned it its chthonic properties, which symbolizes immortality and afterlife.
Other than Asclepius, Moses has a staff that has a serpent named Nehushtan as mentioned in Numbers 21:8.
What professionals believe
Snake professionals believe that snakes play beneficial roles in our ecosystem, being exceptional pest-control agents, for instance. They help control the skyrocketing population of rodents and other small mammals that can destroy plants and can cause highly contagious diseases. If you look back on history, rodents were the main cause of plagues, and snakes greatly help in putting a stop to them.
Other signs of snakes
Just like what we were majorly taught in first grade, serpents are faces of death, evil, destruction, and poison. In the Christian tradition, Satan was the motivator of the world’s first-ever sin, and he did it in the guise of a serpent. Therefore, it can represent deceit and temptation.
The serpent or snake is a complex and universal symbol. While others believe snakes represent death and evil, some stories and professionals suggest otherwise. Due to the shedding of their skin, its relevance to the Greek culture, and its positive implications to our ecosystem, snakes are used in medical emblems.
That being said, the sole, standard reason as to why there are two snakes in the symbol of healing is still up for debate. But our research has found out that people are buying the “rebirth” angle. But keep in mind that medicine is full of symbolisms, and they can change their meaning with time.