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Known as the symbol of medicine, the Caduceus depicts the image of two serpents wrapped around a staff with wings. It might seem ironical that destructive creatures like snakes are used to represent a healing purpose, but here’s the history behind it and the symbolism it represents.
History of the Caduceus Symbol
In Greek and Roman mythology, the Caduceus is the symbol of the Greek god Hermes, comparable to the Roman god Mercury. The word Caduceus comes from the Latin caduceus meaning herald. This is because the symbol was assigned to Hermes, the herald (messenger) of the gods.
According to the legend, the emblem Hermes/Mercury wanted to stop a fight between two snakes, and so he threw his rod at them. Originally, the Caduceus was represented as an olive branch with garlands or ribbons, but it was later interpreted as a rod with two snakes and a pair of wings as a representation of Hermes’ speed.
Both Hermes and Mercury are identified as messengers of gods. Mercury is also considered the god of merchants, travelers, and thieves and their partron and protector. As such, the Caduceus symbol is linked to these negative associations. Neither god has anything to do with medicine.
The use of this unrelated emblem in medicine lies in its similarity to another snake and stick symbol – the Rod of Asclepius. The latter belongs to Asclepius, the Greco-Roman god of medicine, and is believed to be the only true symbol of medicine.
The confusion started when both symbols—the Caduceus and Rod of Asclepius—were used interchangeably by many medical organizations. In 1902, the U.S. Army Medical Corps used the Caduceus as a badge of neutrality, referencing the emblem used on ancient, noncombatant merchant ships. It also differentiated their emblem from those of military medicine in other countries.
Unfortunately, it resulted in confusion and misuse of the Caduceus in medicine in modern times. The majority of medical organizations now favor the use of the Aesculapian rod, but some continue to use the Caduceus as a medical symbol. The next time you see a symbol of winged staff with two serpents, you’ll know that it had very different origins.
Meaning and Symbolism of the Caduceus Symbol
While the Caduceus symbol is not the correct symbol to represent medicine, it does have several similarities in how it’s interpreted when compared to the Rod of Asclepius.
This symbol is often thought to have the following meanings:
- Healing – the Greeks regarded snakes as sacred and used them in healing rituals to honor Asclepius.
- Salvation – around 1400 B.C., Moses used the bronze serpent on a rod to save his people from snakes sent by God as punishment. Whenever anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.
- Immortality and Transformation – In ancient Greece, the shedding of snake’s skin represents the slipping of the old self towards a newly healed self. It also symbolizes rebirth and rejuvenation.
- Cure and Recovery – a snake has the ability to change from a lethargic behavior to swift movement, denoting the power of recovering from an illness. The medicinal properties of snake venom also contributed to the use of symbol in medicine.
- Peace and Power – in Roman mythology, Mercury ceased the fight between two serpents with his wand, and brought restoration and peace between them. The rod represents power and unification, while the wings symbolize higher thoughts.
In astronomy, astrology, and alchemy, the Caduceus is believed to have the following symbolism:
- The Caduceus represents the elements of air, water, fire, and earth.
In the 16th century, the study of alchemy includes metals, chemistry, and medicine. The practitioners of the Hermetic arts and alchemists believed that the Caduceus symbolizes the four elements: the wings for the air, the movement of serpents for the water, the snakes for the fire, and the rod for the earth.
- In alchemy, the intertwined serpents symbolize fertility.
It also shows the physical and spiritual connection between masculine and feminine forces, and also represents the concept of yin and yang.
- In Tarot, the Caduceus symbol represents harmony and balance.
The two serpents are intertwined, reminding us that even opposites are unified in some way. The symbol shows the importance of balancing the dualities like sun and moon, good and evil, light and dark, and life and death.
Caduceus Symbol in Jewelry and Fashion
Even though it’s origins as a symbol of medicine occurred by accident, today the Caduceus is accepted as a representation of healing and medicine. It can be seen on hospital coats, uniforms, brooches, and pins. Sometimes, the Caduceus is used as a symbol of identification for healthcare workers, with their initials incorporated into the symbol, as well as the indication of their role as doctors, nurses, or emergency medical technicians.
Wearing such medical jewelry just for fashion and ornamental purposes is discouraged, as it is used by healthcare professionals, medical officers of the U.S. Army, and rescuers in the field of medicine. Some medical professionals show their identification and love for the service with Caduceus pendants, ID bracelets, charms, and necklaces. Below is a list of the editor’s top picks featuring the Caduceus symbol.
However, you might need to wear medical jewelry if you have allergies that might cause an emergency, or a health condition first responders need to know about during an emergency. The details such as your name, medical conditions, medications, and even emergency contact numbers are typically engraved on the piece of jewelry, alongside a symbol of the Caduceus or the Rod of Asclepius.
Medical bracelets and engraved necklaces will save your life, as they are designed to speak for you when you cannot, and will guide healthcare professionals to give you appropriate treatment.
Some medical jewelry designs feature traditional chains with engraved tags, while others come in metal bands and beads with charms. However, those with decorative, intricate designs must have a Caduceus/Rod of Asclepius symbol on it to signify its importance during an emergency.
The Caduceus might be an unrelated emblem for medicine, but its similarity to the staff of Asclepius has resulted in its adoption today as a medical symbol. Even though its origins are unrelated, the snake depicted in the symbol represents healing, salvation, immortality, and cure in various contexts. Another thing to note is that the meanings of symbols are dynamic, changing with the times. They acquire new meanings and lose association with some meanings with the passage of time. At the end of the day, the meaning of a symbol is what is given to it. In this regard, the Caduceus is a symbol of medicine.