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The Bowl of Hygieia: Medicine’s Time-Honored Symbol

The Bowl of Hygieia is a classic symbol in pharmacy, steeped in history and ancient myths. It represents the heart of healing and medicine. Let’s find out how this symbol evolved from a simple image into a trusted sign of care and safety in healthcare.

Origins of the Bowl of Hygieia

goddess 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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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

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

1. Symbol of Resurrection

The serpent in the Bowl of Hygieia symbolizes resurrection, renewal, and healing. It’s like how a snake sheds its skin and comes out new, showing how our bodies can beat sickness and get healthy again. This idea is common in many cultures, where the snake’s shedding represents life, death, and rebirth.

In medicine, it’s about the journey from being sick to getting better, filled with hope and the promise of healing. The serpent adds to the medical world, highlighting the power of recovery and healthcare.

2. Symbol of Life and Death

The snake in medical symbols stands at the intersection of life and death. It shows the delicate balance doctors face: the power to heal and the risk of failure. This double-edged nature mirrors the unpredictable outcomes in medicine, where things can either turn around or go downhill.

The snake’s dual role matches the doctor’s: a lifesaver who also faces the reality of not always being able to control life and death. It’s a reminder of the fragile nature of health and the heavy responsibility on healthcare professionals.

3. Symbol of Healing

The Bowl of Hygieia often comes with a cup or vessel, believed to hold a healing potion. In Greek mythology, the goddess Hygieia used this potion to heal snakes at her father Asclepius’ shrine. This ties the symbol closely to health and recovery.

It suggests not just healing but also the medicines and methods used. The vessel symbolizes the importance of creating and handling medicines in healthcare. This image is a nod to pharmacists and healthcare providers as keepers of healing knowledge and remedies, playing a key role in bringing back health.

4. Symbol of Wisdom

wisdom and healing

Some say the snake in the Bowl of Hygieia carries souls, connecting the living and the afterlife. It’s thought to guide souls from Hades to help the sick on Earth. This idea of the snake as a soul-carrier adds a layer of wisdom and guidance.

Serpents are often seen as wise in many cultures, linked to knowledge and insight. In medicine, this could mean the deep understanding and wisdom needed for healing. It shows that healing isn’t just physical but also involves spiritual and emotional wisdom, recognizing the connection between body, mind, and spirit.

5. Symbol of the Physician

The snake also stands for the physician, showing the dual potential in medicine: saving lives or facing death. This reflects the ancient Greek view of medicine, where outcomes were uncertain, and life and death often hung in the balance. This symbol points to the ethical responsibilities of medical practitioners, underlining the significance of their choices and actions.

It acknowledges both the power and limits of medicine, where, despite advancements, the unpredictability of life and death is a basic reality. This symbol reminds healthcare professionals of their crucial role and the need to aim for the best care, while also realizing the natural boundaries of human capability in dealing with illness and death.

Usage of the Symbol by Pharmaceutical Associations

German bowl of hygieia
German Pharmacy Logo

The Bowl of Hygieia stands out as a key symbol in the pharmacy world, representing healing, health, and renewal. Different pharmaceutical groups around the world put their own spin on it. The American Pharmacists Association, for example, uses a mortar and pestle in their logo, and they see the mortar as their version of the Bowl of Hygieia.

The Canadian Pharmacist Association, on the other hand, goes for the classic Bowl of Hygieia and adds two snakes to it. The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia uses a cup with two snakes around it. Then there’s the International Pharmaceutical Federation, which sticks to a traditional look with Hygieia’s bowl and a snake, plus the acronym FIP.

Each group tweaks the symbol a bit to make it their own, but they all keep its main message of health and healing in the pharmaceutical field.

The Bowl of Hygieia Award

E. Claiborne Robins, a pharmacist, kicked off the Bowl of Hygieia award in 1958. He aimed to honor exceptional pharmacists in the United States for their standout civic services. Known as one of the most prestigious awards in the medical field, it recognizes humanitarian efforts and encourages pharmacists everywhere.

The award features a brass model of the Bowl of Hygieia on a mahogany plaque, with the recipient’s name engraved on it. The very first Bowl of Hygieia award was handed out at the Iowa Pharmaceutical Association’s Annual Convention in 1958.

When it comes to picking candidates for the award, it’s all done in secret. A fellow pharmacist or colleague who thinks someone deserves the honor can nominate them.

Artistic Representations of the Bowl of Hygieia

The Bowl of Hygieia isn’t just a symbol for pharmacies; it’s a big deal in the art world too, showing up in all sorts of creative forms. Sculptors often place it in pieces that focus on health and wellness, like in hospitals or health-related public spaces.

You’ll see the bowl either held high or cradled, a sign of protecting health. Then there’s jewelry, where designers craft it into pendants, brooches, and bracelets. It’s not only a mark of the medical profession but also a personal charm for health and safety. Paintings and graphic art also feature the Bowl of Hygieia, sometimes alongside other medical symbols, highlighting its role in health and healing.

This wide range of artistic uses shows just how much the symbol means, not only in healthcare but as a general sign of health, care, and our ongoing journey towards healing and wellness.

Wrapping Up

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.

Affiliate Disclosures
Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.