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Why this millennia-old symbol is so controversial
Decoding the caduceus, the symbol that won't go away
"Just why the wand of Mercury with its two serpents . . . was selected as a symbol of the medical staff of the army is hard to understand, and no one seems to be able to explain it to the entire satisfaction of scholars.” - Frances E. Sabin, 1927
The caduceus is a symbol you will immediately recognize. It can be found on an enormous number of logos and branding, often medical companies, but many other companies and organizations have used it over the centuries.
In fact, I noticed it just this morning, as I glanced at my tube of toothpaste:
But there has been a major movement in the industry to remove the symbol from healthcare branding.
I will explain why. And explain the very ancient origins of the caduceus, and how it has infiltrated world culture, even in the current day.
The caduceus features are immediately recognizable in the staff with two snakes entwined around it, and wings coming out of the top.
While the caduceus is associated with the staff of the Greek god Hermes, in reality, the strange symbol, or at least some variation, has had a hold on humanity since the beginning of civilization. Here is a Sumerian vase from 3,500 B.C.:
It’s also been seen on coins from Ashoka, the Buddhist Indian emperor.
There are different origin theories. You’ve got the one about the joining of cults when Egypt was united, combining serpents with wings. you’ve got the Roman story of Mercury breaking up a snake fight by throwing his staff between them, to which they became entwined and affixed. Nobody really knows.
But we know that it definitively took off when the Greeks associated the caduceus with the god Hermes, who carries it as a “magic wand”. Hermes, (the Egyptian counterpart is Thoth, the god of wisdom), was the Greek messenger god associated with rhetoric, healing, speed, wit, traveling, thieves, protection, commerce, and communication. He also escorts souls to the afterlife.
It is through Hermes, and later Mercury (his Roman counterpart) that the symbol has come to be associated with certain trades, such as medicine.
The “minimalistic” version seen in some Greek art shown below is related to the astrological symbol for Mercury, from the Hermes/Mercury connection. The horizontal line was believed to be added to make it more “Christian”.
The Caduceus symbol has sparked many imaginations. Many have pointed out the bizarre resemblance to DNA. Compare the shape of the Caduceus with the double helix of the DNA structure:
There was even a study at Rice University on the discovery of snakelike functions of DNA:
“It turns out the coiled snakes often used to symbolize medical knowledge are more than apt. They also mimic a key to life itself ... They found a key protein’s “coiled coils” also braid around each other and writhe like snakes as they form bigger loops in the DNA ... The loops, in turn, bring together sites on DNA that regulate the transcription of genetic messages.”
The Kundalini, in Yoga, some claim has similarities:
“The double serpent on the staff was solely a representation of the kundalini coursing up the body from the perineum and sacrum to the crown of the head.”
Kundalini is the key to liberation … Kundalini is coiled like a snake … Kundalini when excited, rises up …
The caduceus and alchemy
In alchemy, symbolism of opposites is abundant. Sun and moon, man and woman, etc. The union of opposites plays a major role in the aims of alchemy.
Thus, in alchemy you find the caduceus symbolizing the union of opposites with the dual, opposing snakes interlocking, next to other symbols of opposites such as sun and moon, king and queen, as shown below in an 18th-century manuscript:
Caduceus and medical symbolism
The snake has long been associated with healing, ironically, which you’ll see in Moses’ bronze serpent pole used to heal snakebites. In ancient Egyptian traditions, and Celtic, you’ll also find snake/healing associations.
And the Rod of Asclepius, which is one snake wrapped around a pole instead of two, has a completely different origin. It comes from the ancient Greek god Asclepius, who was associated more directly with medicine and healing than Hermes.
But the caduceus is less directly associated with health and healing. Nevertheless, through serpent symbolism, including healing, immortality via shedding of skin, and its use in alchemy, the symbol somehow found its way into modern medical symbolism.
Caduceus vs Rod of Asclepius
Notice the caduceus vs the Rod of Asclepius in the image above. If you think about it, you’ve probably seen both of these used as symbols of medicine, right?
It’s true, and in fact, the Rod of Asclepius is used more often in medical organization branding, and the caduceus more in commercial medicine branding.
The fact that these two symbols are often confused, and both can be found in medical branding, leads to an interesting controversy.
You don’t have to look very hard to find many, many calls within the medical industry to stop using the caduceus, and to use the Rod of Asclepius instead.
The reason is partly because the caduceus, as we’ve seen, is associated with Hermes, and because Hermes is associated with commercialism and thievery, it’s a bad look to use the caduceus in a health and medicine context.
It’s pretty incredible that such an ancient symbol has stuck with humanity for so long and become so ubiquitous. And without many of us really knowing what it is, for that matter.
Finally, let’s tie it all together with a painting by Salvador Dalí which combines the Tree of Life (another famous symbol), the caduceus, the appearance of the double-helix, and alchemy symbolism:
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