At some point in our lives, we inevitably fall into some form of ill health. This usually necessitates a visit to a local physician or the hospital, and it may sometimes necessitate a visit from emergency medical services. Thus, it is not unreasonable to assume that most of us have seen the symbol of medicine in one of these settings as a logo of sorts. Except there is a slight problem: there are two snakes on that staff. That staff is, in fact, not the symbol of medicine. It is instead the caduceus, the staff of Hermes. The caduceus was the symbol of commerce, for Hermes is the god of commerce (and thieves…). The U.S. military adopted the caduceus as its symbol of medicine in the 1850s, and it erroneously stuck. The real symbol of medicine is the rod of Ascelpius (Gk. Asklepios).
Asclepius was a son of Apollo, and Asclepius took on Apollo’s role as the god of healing in the Greco-Roman pantheon. The etymology behind his name is contested, so I unfortunately have no insights on that matter. There are multiple versions of the story regarding how Asclepius acquired his legendary abilities, and one of the more common ones is this: Asclepius was once asked to cure a man named Glaucus. While doing so, a snake slithered up his staff, and Asclepius promptly killed it. Another snake slithered by with an herb in its mouth and Asclepius placed the herb in the dead snake’s mouth. Sure enough, the dead snake returned to life! Regardless of his “origin story,” long story short, he learned how to raise the dead. Using a snake as a symbol of healing is somewhat paradoxical, since in those days, a snake bite was a death sentence. But Asclepius, utilizing his newfound knowledge, could cure even snake bites—and was thus eventually deified as the god of medicine.
Asclepius (left) and Zeus (right) share many facial features in classical sculptures
Asclepius was so skilled in medicine that he was asked by Artemis to revive Hippolytus, the son of Theseus and Hippolyta. He was able to do so successfully, and when Hades got word of this, he complained to Zeus that Asclepius was robbing him of his souls. Zeus struck Asclepius down with a thunderbolt to end this traveshamockery (travesty + sham + mockery). Apollo was so enraged that he killed the Cyclopes (singular: Cyclops), who fashioned Zeus’s thunderbolts. Outraged in turn, Zeus forced Apollo to be a servant to King Admetus of Thessay for one year. When Apollo returned to Olympus, Zeus revived the Cyclopes and resurrected Asclepius, turning him into a god.
Outside of the myth, why a snake coiled around a stick? One theory is that the symbol represents the painful process of treating dracunculiasis, better known as Guinea worm disease.
Origin: Neo-Latin, draco (dragon) + -cule (diminutive) + -iasis (condition of)
Condition of small dragons/serpents
Perhaps a picture would illustrate why this makes sense:
As a side note, former president Jimmy Carter has been monumental in the global effort to eradicate the Guinea worm, for dracunculiasis is a truly wretched condition. He was recently interviewed and said “I would like the last Guinea worm to die before I do.” (Jimmy Carter was recently diagnosed with melanoma with metastases to the brain and liver.)
Back to our story: many temples were built throughout Greece dedicated to Asclepius. Those who were sick would come and spend a night at the Asclepion, and Asclepius would visit the patient in his or her dreams and relay to them the cure to their disease. One other interesting tidbit is that there were hordes of nonvenomous snakes, colloquially called Aesculapian snakes (Zamenis longissima), that would slither around the temples to promote healing!