Bowl of Hygieia- What Does It Mean?

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Since ancient times pharmacists and medical practitioners have used symbols to advertise and promote their services. An image of a mortar and pestle, herbs, globe, or a green cross, would be etched onto the doors of public places. Although several of these symbols have been lost with the passage of time, some continue to be used as visual markers in pharmaceuticals and hospitals.

The Bowl of Hygieia (pronounced hay-jee-uh) is one such symbol that has withstood the test of time, and has become an international emblem representing pharmacies.

In this article, we will be exploring the origins of the bowl of Hygieia, its significance in religion, symbolic meanings, its use in pharmaceuticals, and the Hygieia award.  

Origins of the Bowl of Hygieia

Similar to other popular symbols of healing and medicines like the Rod of Asclepius or the Caduceus, the Bowl of Hygieia also has its origins in Greek mythology.

  • Greek Mythology

The Bowl of Hygieia can be traced back to ancient Greek mythology. The Greek God Zeus was jealous and afraid of Asclepius, the god of healing, and out of fear and insecurity, Zeus struck Asclepius with a bolt of lightning. After Asclepius’ death, serpents were kept in his shrine. Hygieia, the daughter of Asclepius, took care of the snakes with a medicinal potion, carried in a bowl. Since then, Hygieia came to be known as the goddess of health, hygiene, and healing.

  • Italy

In Italy, the Bowl of Hygieia could be found on the signs of apothecaries starting around the year 1222. It stood as a symbol of good health and livelihood. The Bowl of Hygieia was also used for the celebration of the 700th anniversary of the University of Padua, for the wellbeing of the students and faculty.

  • Europe

In Paris, the Bowl of Hygieia was imprinted on a coin for the Parisian society of Pharmacy in 1796.  Following this, several other pharmaceuticals across Europe and America adapted The Bowl of Hygieia as an emblem of medicine and healing.

  • Christianity

The Bowl of Hygieia has been incorporated into older Christian narratives. It was mentioned in the Apocrypa, a collection of manuscripts, a text which narrates the story of Saint John, whose wine cup was poisoned by his enemies. According to the story, this proved to be folly when Saint John blessed the wine with holy words and a serpent appeared out of the chalice to warn Saint John about the poison. The cup and the snake were believed to be the origins of the Hygieia healing symbol.

Interestingly, there are no more details about this narrative, and this story has been long forgotten in Christian beliefs. It’s possible that the early Christians tried to Christianize the symbol without success. 

Symbolic Meaning of The Bowl of Hygieia

The Bowl of Hygieia is a meaningful symbol that represents several important concepts. Some of these are as follows:

  • Symbol of Resurrection

The serpent in The Bowl of Hygieia is said to represent resurrection, renewal, and healing. The snake sheds of its filthy skin, just like the body rids itself of diseases and is restored to its full health.

  • Symbol of Life and Death

Many medicinal practitioners believe that the snake stands for life and death, as the snake could either get rid of the diseases and be healthy or get ill and die.

  • Symbol of Healing

The Bowl of Hygieia has the image of a cup or a vessel that is said to be filled with healing potion. In Greek mythology, Hygieia used the potion from the bowl to heal and restore the serpents of her father’s shrine. Due to this association, the symbol became associated with healing and restoration.

  • Symbol of Wisdom

Some people believe that thesnake in The Bowl of Hygieia is a carrier of souls. It carries souls of deceased ancestors from Hades to help those who are sick on earth.  

  • Symbol of the Physician

The snake is said to represent the physician who could either save the patient or leave him to his fate. Ancient Greek practitioners could never guarantee that their medicines would heal the sick, and therefore there was always this uncertainty between life and death.

Usage of the Symbol by Pharmaceutical Associations

The Bowl of Hygieia has been an emblem of pharmaceutical associations across the world. In these symbols the bowl is sometimes replaced by a cup or wine glass, and in some cases, there are two snakes instead of one. The Bowl of Hygieia is used as an emblem to represent healing, health, hygiene and renewal.

These are some of the pharmaceuticals and health organizations that use The Bowl of Hygieia as their symbol:

  • American Pharmacists Association: The American Pharmacists Association has a mortar and pestle as its emblem. The mortar is said to represent The Bowl of Hygieia.
  • Canadian Pharmacist Association: The Canadian pharmacist association has incorporated The Bowl of Hygieia, as well as two snakes as its emblem.
  • Pharmaceutical Society of Australia: The pharmaceutical society of Australia has a cup that is bordered by two snakes.
  • The International Pharmaceutical Federation: The International Pharmaceutical Federation has a logo of Hygieia’s bowl surrounded by the snake, and the acronym FIP.

The Bowl of Hygieia Award

The Bowl of Hygieia award was initiated by E. Claiborne Robins, a pharmacist, in 1958. It was to be awarded to outstanding pharmacists in the United States for their exemplary civic services. The award is known to be the most prestigious in the medical field. It is given as a token of recognition for humanitarian service and serves as an encouragement for all pharmacists.

The award is given in a mahogany plaque, upon which rests a brass model of the Bowl of Hygeia. The award has the name of the recipient engraved upon the plaque. The first Bowl of Hygiea award was given in 1958, during the Iowa Pharmaceutical Association’s Annual Convention.  The candidates for the award are nominated in secrecy by a fellow pharmacist or colleague if he/she feels like the individual is deserving of the award. 

In Brief

The Bowl of Hygieia has been used by medical practitioners since ancient times as an emblem of good health. The Bowl of Hygieia stands as a witness to the transmission of knowledge and practices from ancient traditions.