Did you know?


The traditional symbol of the healing professions isn’t the caduceus, but the askelpian, or staff of Asklepios.

Asklepios (or Aesculapius), as you may know, is the Greek god of healing and medicine. Asclepieia, the temples of Asclepius, were healing centers. At these temples, so-called “Aesculapian snakes,” Zamenis longissimus, were allowed to slither all over the dormitories where the sick pilgrims slept. I know some people whose mental health would be very adversely affected by that! This is why there’s a snake entwined around the staff–but only one snake, not the two you see on the caduceus.

So why do most Americans instantly recognize the caduceus as the symbol of medicine? Turns out it’s kind of a funny story.


The caduceus has been mistakenly associated with medicine since 1902, when it was mistakenly incorporated into the insignia of the U.S. Army Medical Corps. Actually the caduceus, the staff of Hermes, is a symbol of trade and commerce. So it might actually be a better symbol for the highly commoditized medical profession nowadays.*

The goddess Hygeia.

The goddess Hygeia.

The snake of Asclepius also appears on the symbol of pharmacists, the cup or bowl of Hygeia. Hygeia was a daughter of Asclepius, who presided over hygiene and health maintenance. I’m not sure whether the cup originally represented a vessel of milk for the snake (people used to believe that snakes drank milk, possibly because they tend to hang out around barns where they are actually looking for rodents), or a receptacle for snake’s venom (which was sometimes drunk as a medicine), or simply a hybrid of a symbol already associated with healing (the snake) and a symbol associated with drinkable medicine (the cup). In ancient Greece, specific shapes of cup had specific uses–think of champagne flutes vs. brandy snifters today–and Hygeia’s is usually represented as a kylix, which was for drinking wine. Does this indicate that Greek medicines were primarily drunk in wine, as was often the case in medieval and early modern times?

The cup, or bowl, of Hygeia.

The cup, or bowl, of Hygeia.

It’s actually a little odd that Hygeia’s symbol was adopted for pharmacy, because Hygeia represents the maintainance of health that is already good. Either of her sisters, Panakeia (Panacea, “All-Cure,” representing medicines themselves), Akeso (“Healing,” representing the action of healing or curing), or Iaso (“Remedy”) would seem a more natural choice. But I guess they don’t have their own nifty symbols.

So, what would you choose as the symbol of herbal medicine?

*This is not intended as a slur against doctors. All the doctors (as in MDs) I’ve known have been idealists who genuinely want to help people. They are as quick as patients to decry the state of what passes for “health care” in the U.S. But they don’t mind getting paid a lot either.


8 thoughts on “Did you know?

  1. Perhaps there is some validity to your argument. However, if you are familiar with the stories in which hermes is a character, you know that he always favors humanity and spites the gods repeatedly in order to protect the vulnerable and otherwise disenfranchised.

    He gave the magical herb Moly to protect Odysseus from Circe’s witchery (a near perfect analogy for nursing/medical interventions that free patients from the grips of disease/disorder). He safeguards Priam as he travels to the camp of the greeks to retrieve the body of his dead son Hector (perfect analogy for nursing patient advocacy). He is also guides the dead to hades (great analogy for hospice care Nurses that ease the passing of those at the end of life). There are many other instances of hermes and his beneficence towards mankind.

    The argument you put forth while based on what you seem to think was an accident, was if anything a serendipitous one. Given primarily due to the fact that the greek god hermes defines his character through his actions, rather than through the titles attached to him. The majority of which reflect the mentality & discipline of those in the profession of healing.

    • Thank you for this interesting and thought provoking comment. I have always instinctively felt a connection between Hermes and healing too, though the Greeks seemed to have conceptualized healing as more Apollonian than Hermetic. For example, one of the things I think of, when I think of healing, is the lifetime of study required for the healer (“the life so short, the craft so long to learn”), and when I think of study I think of Hermes. Then of course, there is the hospice connection which, as you point out, overlaps with Hermes’ role as psychopomp.

      Perhaps it depends on how one conceives of healing, both as a process and a human endeavor. It’s certainly true that Hermes is a friend to humans in their times of need, but the main themes that I see winding through his mythos over and over are liminality and boundary crossing. That is (to my mind) what links all his activities. His patronage of study, communication, the verbal, comic theater, and perhaps also mercantilism all seem to derive from his status as Messenger; but his status as Messenger derives in its turn from his role as the boundary-crosser. To me he is the most obviously shamanic of the Greek deities, moving between heaven, earth, and underworld as well as between urban “civilization” and mountain wilderness as no one else can. So while I feel there is certainly a *connection* between Hermes and the healing arts, and I wouldn’t hesitate to seek his aid if I were sick or to help me heal someone else, fundamentally I think Hermes is most needed and most powerful when physical healing has failed and it’s time to journey on. Or when the healer has to travel spirit roads to find the “medicine”.

      Of course, I would not try to tell a god what he can or can’t do. There is no question that, in one sense (not the shamanic one), healing as we know it in the modern West has become very “Hermetic”, with its reliance on digital imaging and record keeping, outsourcing records and images to be read by analysts in other countries, and, for better or worse, lucre. (Not that I blame Hermes for that.)

      And it’s probably no accident–at least, not in the spiritual sense–that Hermes’ tool and symbol is a staff (long a symbol of wizardly power and of a messenger, and the “world tree”) with snakes (associated with healing, wisdom, rebirth, and travel between worlds), and Asklepios’ symbol is also a staff with a snake; ultimately I think both symbols derive from the same root, I just think they have different historical trajectories. That is, the asklepian derives from the historical use of literal, physical snakes, while the caduceus derives from the spiritual/magical powers symbolized by the snake.

  2. Pingback: Revisiting the topic of deities – Otherwise

  3. hermes, (equivalent to the roman god Mercurius (mercury … thermisol)) God of financial gain, commerce, messages/communication (divination), travelers, boundaries, trickery and thieves. this staff is 100% appropriate to represent western medicine.

    “Conventional Medicine is the Leading Cause of Death… iatrogenic death rate in the US (death caused by doctors and/or medical treatments) is 783,936 a year.” plus 1.5 million murders of unborn children.

    Hermes is identified as equivalent of the Roman god Mercury –

    “The reality of pain memory (and birth memory) is confirmed by a mother whose premature baby was shunted for hydrocephalus without painkillers and while paralyzed with curare. Large incisions were cut in his scalp, neck, and abdomen and a hole drilled in his skull. She writes that ten years after the operation her son will still not allow anyone to touch his head, neck, and abdomen in the areas touched during surgery. The mere sight of the hospital provokes in this child violent trembling, profuse sweating, screaming, struggling, and vomiting.”

    Organ Donation & Medical Murder – BNE TV w guest Dr. Paul Byrne

    “Baby fights for his life during an abortion process”
    “planned parenthood busted for selling body parts of aborted babies”
    “14 Week Fetus Still Alive Outside the Uterus”
    “Babies remember music they heard in the womb up to four months after they are born”
    “Horrifying: Teen Intern at #Gosnell Murder Factory Recalls Hearing Aborted Fetus ‘Screeching’”

    Gosnell was convicted of first degree murder in the deaths of three of the infants and involuntary manslaughter in the death of Karnamaya Mongar. Gosnell was also convicted of 21 felony counts of illegal late-term abortion, and 211 counts of violating the 24-hour informed consent law. After his conviction, Gosnell waived his right to appeal in exchange for an agreement not to seek the death penalty. He was sentenced instead to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

    It was my sad task to publish a case report about a baby who experienced severe vomiting after being circumcised. Following the vomiting spell, the baby stopped breathing and had to be hospitalized for five days so that he could receive intravenous antibiotics. Needless to say, this never would have occurred had the baby been protected from circumcision.
    Infants respond to the pain of circumcision by screaming, just as we would if someone slowly crushed and cut off part of our sex organs without anesthetic. When the crying is especially intense, the baby may swallow air. Then, when the mother tries to soothe her baby by feeding him, it may lead to vomiting, followed by apnea.

    Apnea (Stopped Breathing)
    Apnea is the temporary cessation of breathing. The pain of circumcision is so severe that some babies stop breathing during the surgery. In an important study on the pain of circumcision published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers discovered that serious complications occurred during circumcision. One infant experienced the same level of extreme distress as all the others in the study, but two and a half minutes after the conclusion of the surgery, the baby developed an abnormal posture, stopped breathing, and suffered projectile vomiting even though he had been denied food for more than three hours before the surgery. Another baby experienced a choking spell and stopped breathing three and a half minutes after the surgery.
    The researchers noticed these serious complications because they were looking for them. One wonders how many babies suffer without anyone taking notice or caring, or even thinking there is anything wrong with projectile vomiting, choking, or cessation of breathing.

    Rupture of Internal Organs
    Circumcision is so traumatic, painful, and frightening that it literally terrorizes the baby. Some babies have suffered extreme reactions to this experience that few adults could ever imagine possible.

    Rupture of the Lung
    The medical literature details cases of circumcised babies whose lungs have burst as a result of intense crying. In one case, at Georgetown University School of Medicine, a fifteen-day-old baby with severe respiratory distress was circumcised. He turned blue, started breathing frantically, and cried incessantly. Finally, doctors discovered that the crying had caused the baby’s right lung to burst. A drainage tube was inserted and the baby was hospitalized for nineteen days.

    Blood Clots in the Lung
    A case of life-threatening blood clots in the lung was reported following adult circumcision.

    Heart Damage
    The serious injury that circumcision can cause to other parts of the body is made clear in reports of babies whose hearts were damaged as a result of circumcision . In one case from Rochester, New York, a newborn baby was circumcised in the delivery room, even though the American Academy of Pediatricians has condemned this practice. The baby immediately turned blue, experienced grunting respirations, his temperature dropped to a dangerous level, and his heart muscle was damaged. This baby miraculously survived, but spent eleven days in the intensive care unit of the hospital.
    In another published report, four babies who were hospitalized following circumcision turned blue, were lifeless, had elevated heartbeats, frantic breathing, grunting, and extremely poor breathing. The liver was enlarged in three of the babies, and all babies showed signs of acute heart failure, enlarged heart, and fluid in the lungs. All four babies had been circumcised by the same circumciser, who had tried to controll the bleeding with epinephrine solution. The doctors who fought to save the lives of these babies believe that the drug may have induced the chain of events that nearly killed these innocent babies.

    Rupture of the Stomach
    In Richmond, Virginia, a healthy two-day-old baby was prepared for circumcision by denying him food for five hours. Terrified, the baby began crying hysterically as soon as the circumciser strapped him to the restraining board. After half an hour in this position, the baby vomited. Doctors pumped his stomach. The circumciser proceeded to amputate the baby’s foreskin without anesthesia using a Gemco clamp. The baby cried vehemently throughout the ninety-minute ordeal. After the surgery, the baby refused to feed. His abdomen became distended and doctors discovered that his stomach had ruptured, requiring emergency abdominal surgery and the insertion of a feeding tube. After twenty-five days in the hospital, the baby was released. This baby had a perfectly normal stomach when he was born, but the trauma, excruciating pain of circumcision, and his prolonged crying caused his stomach to burst and spill its contents into the abdominal cavity.”

    Rx = eye of horus
    doctor. doctrine. indoctrinate. doctor of the church.
    nun nurse
    hippocrates hypocrisies
    Pharmakon. in Plato’s dialogues: remedy, poison (either the cure or the illness or its cause), philter, drug, recipe, charm, medicine, substance, spell, artificial color, and paint.
    Pharmakos. A pharmakós (Greek: φαρμακός, plural pharmakoi) in Ancient Greek religion was the ritualistic sacrifice or exile of a human scapegoat or victim.
    Proscription (Latin: proscriptio) is, in current usage, a “decree of condemnation to death or banishment”

    Ritalin C14H19NO2
    Cocaine C17H21NO4

    Adderall C9H13N
    Methamphetamine C10H15N

    …….now, what do the caduceus and staff of Asklepios have in common? snakes. as in snake oil. there’s a reason “doctor” is synonymous with “falsify”.
    take another look at the staff of Asklepios, but cover up 2/3 of it.

    • I would suggest that part of what makes snakes magical is their ambivalent nature as healers and poisoners. So I can see how snake symbolism would be appropriate both for healing in its most noble, compassionate form and “healing” as an exploitative industry. Nevertheless the caduceus is only considered a symbol of medicine in the United States, for specific historical reasons, which was my point with the post. But, sometimes a historical “accident” is no accident. (Not that I lay the blame at the feet of Hermes/Mercury or Asklepios. If anyone is to blame, it’s Mammon.)

      • snakes as healers… you must be talking about Antivenom is created by milking venom from a relevant snake, spider, insect, or fish. The venom is then diluted and injected into a horse, sheep, rabbit, or goat. The subject animal will undergo an immune response to the venom, producing antibodies against the venom’s active molecules which can then be harvested from the animal’s blood and used to treat envenomation… in which case, snakes are healers in the same way that iron ore is a hammer; and can only be used to treat the problem they initially created. Pharmakon: remedy, poison (either the cure or the illness or its cause).
        or is there some other great cure snakes provide that i’ve never heard of? (i know they can cure hunger – by eating them, but i don’t think that’s what you mean)

        2. a treacherous person; an insidious enemy. Compare snake in the grass.
        may i suggest that the healing ability of a snake is mostly in its ability to deceive, con, scam, trick, fool… as in – they don’t heal, they only make you think they do.
        doctor: to falsify; to make appear right.
        “Survey finds 97% of GPs prescribe placebos”

        Mammon doesn’t appear to be a sadistic psychopath. doctors get paid whether they use anesthesia or not; they choose not.

      • Well, you obviously have strong negative opinions about snakes, and your reasons are your own. I won’t bother trying to change your mind. But when I refer to snakes as healers I’m referring to the widespread beliefs, found in cultures throughout the world, that snakes possess magical healing abilities, regenerative powers, and secret wisdom. Snakes are symbolic of eternal life (as the Ourobouros), earth powers, and the underworld in Western esotericism; elsewhere they are esteemed as creator figures, as for example the Rainbow Serpents of Australian and African mythology. I think they are very cool animals, biologically and symbolically, and after working with snakes for a couple of years, I grew to have great affection and respect for them. As it happens, what I learned from those snakes put me on a path of spiritual healing and brought me out of a very dark place. So I regard their reputation as healers to be well-earned.

  4. my strong negative opinions are of the great deceiver. i was raped with a knife, tortured and mutilated the day of/after my birth, i remember, i’m not #$%^ing thankful. doctor : falsify.

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