Staff/Rod of Asclepius as a Medical Symbol – The Symbol of Medicine and Its Meaning

The Rod of Asclepius symbol, also known as the Staff of Asclepius, is comprised of two main elements: a rod with a serpent wrapped around it. It is an ancient Greek symbol that is associated with the medical field. The god of healing and medicine in ancient Greek religion/mythology was Asclepius. He had 5 daughters who were goddesses associated with certain aspects of medicine/healing:

  • Panacea: Universal remedy
  • Hygeia: Cleanliness
  • Iaso: Recuperation
  • Aglea: Splendor/adornment
  • Aceso: Healing process

The Myth of Asclepius

Asclepius is the son of the god Apollo and a nymph, Coronis. Apollo is known as the god of prophecy, healing, and truth.

The story goes that when Coronis was pregnant with Asclepius, she took a second lover who was a mortal. Once Apollo learned of this, he sent Artemis to murder her. As she was burning on the funeral pyre, Apollo felt sorry for the child in her womb and rescued him from her corpse. The wise centaur, Cheiron taught the child all about medicine and healing.

In time, Asclepius became so skilled in the area of healing and medicine that he was able to bring a patient back from the dead.

The king of the gods, Zeus, felt that their immorality was being threatened by this, so he struck Asclepius down with a thunderbolt. Apollo requested that Asclepius be placed amid the stars as the serpent-bearer, Ophiuchus.

Homer mentions Asclepius in the Iliad as the father of two Greek doctors and a skilled physician. Later though, he was honored as a hero and worshipped as a god.

The Cult of Asclepius was started in Thessaly, however, it eventually spread to many areas of Greece. Since people believed Asclepius cured the sick in dreams, it became quite common in South Greece for people to sleep in his temples. His cult spread to Rome in 293 B.C.

Frequently, Asclepius has been shown standing and wearing a long cloak, baring his breast. Typically, the symbol most commonly associated with him was a serpent wrapped around a staff, which became a symbol of medicine.

On a side note, the counterpart of Asclepius in Roman mythology was the god of healing, Vediovis. He is typically shown as a young man with a handful of arrows and lighting bolts with a goat at his side. The Romans held the belief that Vediovis was one of the firstborn gods.

The Origins of the Serpent Around a Rod as a Medical Symbol

There are two schools of thought regarding where the Staff of Asclepius came from and how it became the symbol of medicine. One of these theories is the “worm theory” that goes back to the Ebers papyrus of about 1500 BC. This is one of the primary ancient Egyptian medical documents and describes a treatment for worms.

The Guinea worm, as well as other parasitic worms, were very common in ancient times, crawling through a victim’s body just below the skin. Doctors would treat the worms by cutting a slit in the skin of the patient right in front of the path of the worm. Then, as it crawled out of the skin, the doctor would wind it around a stick until it was fully removed. It is believed that these healers/doctors most likely advertised their services by displaying a sign in front of their house with a worm on a stick.

On the other hand, some people believe that the Bible is where the symbol came from. In the Old Testament, Moses carried a bronze staff with a bronze serpent wound around it. Anyone who was bitten by a serpent would only have to look at the staff to be healed.

Today, the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization use the Rod of Asclepius on their logos.

Comparing the Rod of Asclepius with the Caduceus

More often than not, people confuse the Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus symbols. Caduceus is the symbol that represents commerce and is associated with the Greek god, Hermes.

The difference is that the staff of Asclepius is a rod with one snake wrapped around it while the rod in Caduceus was two snakes wrapped around.

The word “caduceus” echoes the ancient Greek word “kerix,” which is translated as herald, or messenger. This word is used to indicate the rod that is assigned to Hermes, patron of commerce and messenger of the gods.

In Greek mythology/religion, Hermes is known as the god of boundaries and transitions. He is thought to offer protection to travelers, invention, trade, and herdsmen. According to the Roman adaptation, Hermes is identified with the god Mercury, who had many of the same characteristics, including being the patron of commerce.

The Caduceus represents the myth that Hermes saw 2 snakes fighting one day, so he touched them with his rod to get them to stop fighting. This indicates that in order for trade to flourish, peace is required. In the beginning, the Caduceus was a rod/olive branch with two shoots decorated with ribbons/garland. Later, the ribbons/garland were interpreted as snakes, with heads facing each other. A pair of wings was then attached to the staff above the snakes.

As it can be understood clearly, the Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus symbols differ in many regards and represent different things.

Confusion of the Two Symbols

From the early 16th century, the Caduceus of Hermes and the Rod of Asclepius were used in general publishing, especially as signs for pharmacopeias in the 17th-18th centuries. As time went on, the Staff of Asclepius began to emerge as the symbol of medicine.

Although the Rod of Asclepius is the symbol that represents/that should represent medicine and healing, the Caduceus seems to be the more widely accepted symbol of medicine and healing in the United States.   This practice has been adopted by medical publishers in the US and therefore, the Caduceus has been accepted as the symbol of medicine by physicians in the US.

The Caduceus is currently the emblem of a variety of prominent medical organizations in the US. According to a survey, more than 38% of American medical associations and more than 63% of American hospitals use the Caduceus in their logos and/or as the symbol of medicine. On a side note, many other organizations use the Caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius together.

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