Posted by Nick Sienty
While walking down the street I noticed on the front of a building a beautiful steel cutout of the Caduceus, the symbol commonly known for its use in the medical field. We’ve all seen it at a hospital, or in medical related advertising; the two serpents winding around the winged staff. The symbol was so well rendered, that I stopped to admire it. With some time to ponder before the end of my walk, this lead to the question “what’s the background of it?”.
Sure enough, it’s another misuse of this symbol, based on its mythical origin. The Caduceus was actually the staff of Hermes, the messenger of the gods. The same staff was also borne by heralds in general, for example by Iris, the messenger of Hera. Another myth suggests that Hermes (or Mercury) saw two serpents entwined in mortal combat. Separating them with his wand he brought about peace between them, and as a result the wand with two serpents came to be seen as a sign of peace. In Rome, Livy refers to the caduceator who negotiated peace arrangements under the diplomatic protection of the caduceus he carried.
It is relatively common, especially in the United States, to find the caduceus, with its two snakes and wings, used as a symbol of medicine instead of the correct “Rod of Asclepius” (below) with only a single snake. This usage is erroneous, popularized largely as a result of the adoption of the caduceus as its insignia by the U.S. Army Medical Corps in 1902 at the insistence of a single officer (though there are conflicting claims as to whether this was Capt. Frederick P. Reynolds or Col. John R. van Hoff).
The proper symbol, with a Single serpent on the staff, is much more representative of healing and medicine, and is most commonly observed on ambulances today. The initial errors leading to its adoption and the continuing confusion it generates are well known to medical historians. The long-standing and abundantly attested historical associations of the caduceus with commerce are considered by many to be inappropriate in a symbol used by those engaged in the healing arts. This has occasioned significant criticism of the use of the caduceus in a medical context. Nowadays, it’s rarely seen in proper use, which makes me wonder what other symbols are “misused” in what they’re meant to represent? And which other symbols are based on mythical objects or ideas?