An amusing thing happened not long ago: when I was exploring the Sistine Chapel, I noticed a snake coiled around a pole, the symbol for medicine or doctors or something. I thought it was a caduceus of Hermes, but it turns out it’s the staff of Asclepius! Isn’t that hilarious?
No? Well, I had never before paid attention, but looking into this urgent matter I discovered there are two versions of this symbol: the one-snake staff of Asclepius and the two-snake caduceus, symbol of Hermes.
As you all remember, Asclepius, the God of Medicine, was the son of the god Apollo and a nymph, Coronis. Apollo killed the still-pregnant Coronis for infidelity, but plucked Asclepius from her womb while she cooked on the pyre. He was trained in healing arts and medicine by the centaur’s centaur, Chiron. Finally, Zeus killed Asclepius for restoring Hippolytus from being all dead, which Zeus felt infringed on his territory.
Asclepius is usually depicted holding a staff that has a single snake coiled around it, for reasons that are obscure — one theory holds that doctors of old would deworm a person by slowly pulling it out of a slit in the skin and wrapping it around a stick. That yummy visual is provided free of charge. Thus, his symbol ever since has represented medicine and doctors.
Now, Hermes, different guy altogether. He was the son of Zeus and a different nymph, Maia. The day he was born he invented the lyre and stole Apollo’s immortal cattle. Raising kids is hard. Later, when Zeus ratted him out, he played the lyre for Apollo, who forgave him and traded him the cattle for the lyre. It was a really nice lyre, before they started making them overseas.
Hermes was the messenger of the gods, which makes him the “patron of boundaries” and a trickster god — always with the jokes, that one. Because he delivered messages from the gods to the humans, his name gave us the term hermeneutics, the study of interpretation. Hermes is a mover, helping shepherds, cowherds, and travelers get from one place to another — especially, escorting the dead to the underworld — which attaches his name to commerce and trade. Taken all together, Hermes may not be the best spokesman for the world of medicine.
He’s usually shown with a winged hat and winged shoes, often carrying a caduceus, which is a wand or staff wrapped with two snakes, often with wings at the top. This origin’s even more obscure, but one story has the blind prophet Tiresias using his rod to break up a couple of copulating snakes, which gave it magical properties. The connection to Hermes isn’t quite clear — Apollo may have given it to him with the immortal cattle. Helluva lyre-picker, Hermes must have been.
So, how did the double-snake staff become synonymous with the single-snake staff? Things get murky here. According to one source, in 1871 the US Public Health Service purposely chose a double-snake version, with a fouled anchor instead of a staff, which was meant to represent the ailing seamen of the merchant marine. That is, it was purposely chosen knowing its connotation with commerce. Later the US Army Medical Corps adopted it (though not the medical division of other services), and it passed into general use as a medical symbol. (There are many other possibilities, including the fact that many printers used it as a symbol on their frontispieces.) The AMA used the double-snake briefly before returning to the Asclepian model, shown here in its recent, rather springy redesign (wouldn’t the snake fall off?). This is what happens when you cut classics scholarships in school.
Now, of course, the snake on a staff motif has an earlier Biblical version, namely the Nehushtan of Moses (which seems to be why it’s on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel), and snakes and staffs separately have even more ancient history in many cultures. But I love to see the symbols of the ancients repurposed for modern uses, especially when there seems to be a knowing nod toward their mythic connotations. I mean, that’s gotta be why they chose to illustrate Snakes on a Plane with the commerce-leaning caduceus instead of the medicinal staff of Asclepius, right? Or was it just because it looked cool?