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 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?
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.