In Greek mythology, the god Hermes carried a staff called the caduceus. This was the same one borne by heralds in general, like Hera’s messenger Iris.
The caduceus is a short rod with a couple of snakes wrapped around it and sometimes surmounted by wings. In Roman visual representations, the staff is often depicted being held by Mercury, the messenger of the gods, in his left hand.
If you want to learn more about the Caduceus symbol, read on to find out the meaning, history, and significance of this Greek symbol.
Caduceus Symbol – History And Meaning
In the United States, the caduceus is often used incorrectly as the symbol for medical practice and health care organizations. This is because of the confusion with the asklepian or the Rod of Asclepius, which is the traditional medical symbol.
It is pretty easy to tell these two ancient symbols apart: the caduceus is a rod entwined by two serpents and more commonly surmounted by wings, while the Rod of Asclepius has a single snake coiled around the staff and never with wings.
It has been suggested that the oldest known imagery of the caduceus originated in Mesopotamia, from the Sumerian underworld god Ningishzida, said to be the messenger of the Earth Mother. His symbol, a rod with two snakes winding around it, dates back sometime between 4000 BC and 3000 BC.
This symbolism is identified with the Greek Hermes—or his Roman counterpart, Mercury. It is the symbol of negotiation and commerce—trades, occupations, and all the undertakings identified with the god.
In ancient times, it was believed that the caduceus wand would rouse the sleeping and send the awake to slumber. It provided the dying a gentle death; and if used on the dead, they returned to life.
By extension of Mercury’s attributes, the caduceus symbol is also used to represent printing because of the Roman god’s association with writing and eloquence.
In Greek mythology, the story goes that when the god Apollo got enchanted by his brother Hermes’ lyre music, Hermes kindly gave the instrument to him.
In return, Apollo gave Hermes the caduceus. The association with the snake thus connects these two gods, as later it became associated with Apollo’s son, Asclepius.
Another myth regarding the caduceus came from the story of Tiresias, the blind prophet of Apollo. Tiresias found two mating snakes and he killed the female with his staff, after which he was immediately transformed into a woman. He stayed this way until he was able to repeat the copulation with the male snake seven years later. This staff later became Hermes’ property together with its power of transformation.
It has also been suggested that Hermes saw two fighting snakes. He separated them with his staff, bringing about peace between the two. This resulted in the staff with two serpents to be seen as a symbol of peace.
The caduceus appears to have existed during the Mauryan empire in India, featured on coins that date to the 3rd or 2nd century BC. According to some numismatic research, the caduceus was a representation of the Indian emperor Ashoka the Great’s personal mudra or Buddhist pose. Caduceus symbols are also carved in basalt rock in some temples on the Western Ghats.
The Caduceus Symbol
The caduceus is the staff the god Hermes carried as a symbol of peace and commerce. Association with the messenger of the gods made the caduceus the badge of heralds and ambassadors.
The original caduceus was an olive branch with two shoots and decorated with garlands. The garlands were later interpreted as a couple of serpents coiled in opposite directions with their heads facing. To symbolize Hermes’ speed, a pair of wings was fastened to the branch above the snakes.
In the early modern period, the caduceus symbol was also used to represent rhetoric, in association with Mercury’s eloquence.
Caduceus Symbol Meaning
The caduceus is from the Latin cādūceus; and the Greek kērykeion, which means ‘herald’s wand’ or ‘herald’s staff.’
This staff carried by Hermes, the messenger of the gods, is a symbol of peace and commerce. The caduceus symbol later became the emblem of heralds and ambassadors to signify their sanctity and integrity.