Many people recognize the caduceus as an emblem used to symbolize the medical arts, especially in the United States. However, this is a mistaken interpretation of Greek mythology. A more worthy symbol of medicine is the staff of Asclepius. We will examine the meanings of the words and symbols caduceus and staff of Asclepius, where these terms and emblems came from, why there is some confusion over these motifs, and some examples of their use in sentences.
The caduceus symbol is used primarily in American medical circles to mean the healing arts. The caduceus is found as a medical alert symbol, as a medical school insignia, on the name tag of a doctor, nurse or other practitioner, as well as many other workers in the medical field. Consisting of a rod, staff or wand with two wings and two serpents entwined around it, the caduceus is also known as the staff of Hermes. According to mythology, the Greek god Hermes was a messenger. He was credited with escorting the dead to the underworld, sponsored alchemy and was the protector of thieves, liars and gamblers, as well as merchants. The caduceus is also used as occult symbolism. Hermes’ Latin counterpart is the Roman god Mercury.
Outside of the United States, healing arts are represented by the staff of Asclepius, also known as the rod of Asclepius. Asclepius was a Greek god who was associated with the art of healing, making his staff a more appropriate symbol of medicine and medical practice. Many organizations involved in world health and illness, as well as emergency medical services, have adopted the staff of Asclepius as symbolic of their profession. Asclepius is sometimes spelled as Aesculapius, his emblem is depicted as a wand, rod or staff with a single serpent or snaked coiled around it.
The use of the caduceus in the United States as the insignia that is synonymous with modern medicine may be traced to the mid-1800s. Some believe it was simply confused with the staff of Asclepius, as the symbols are similar. Others cite the intelligence and scholarship of the military leaders, especially in the Army Medical Corps, stating that the caduceus was intentionally adopted as a classical symbol of strength and wisdom, and to distinguish medical personnel from military personnel. While many hospitals, medical schools and other institutions of the healing arts still use the caduceus as their emblem, the American Medical Association has used the staff of Asclepius as its logo since 1912.
Represented at the bottom of the painting are images reflective of Indiana’s history that include a microphone, literature, cars, agriculture, Abraham Lincoln, a mortar and pestle, a physician’s caduceus and a scale of justice. (The Paper of Wabash County)
“I’ll never forget this 95-year-old woman who gave me a needlepoint of the caduceus she made — the medical symbol with the snake and the staff.” (The Chicago Tribune)
When finished in-patient treatment, for instance, they are expected to attend a 12-step program and a “Caduceus” support group specifically for health professionals, and to undergo regular drug screening, he said. (The National Post)
Guinea worm disease is so spectacularly terrifying it is believed to have inspired the symbol of medicine, the Staff of Asclepius. (The Huffington Post)