Happy December, folks. When I was looking up tattoo ideas for the recent Daily Prompt, I was reminded of a strange but all-too common symbol. If you look around enough in your medical institution, you might stumble across this image:
Weren’t expecting to see snake during your check-up, were you? But don’t worry, this one’s here to help. It’s part of the symbol called the Rod of Asclepius. Go ahead, try saying that out loud. If you’re a med student, chances are you’ve seen the name in the Hippocratic Oath. For good reason, too. Asclepius was the god of medicine in Ancient Greece. He inherited his expertise from none other than Apollo, who was no slouch in the health care department. He was married to Epione, the goddess of soothing. Their strangely appropriate relationship resulted in a whole family of healers, particularly Hygieia (the goddess of…well, hygiene) and Panacea, the goddess of universal remedy and pretty much every status effect-curing item in RPG history.
Who says video games aren’t educational?
But here’s the question: Why did it it have to be snakes? Actually, it’s kind of been snakes all along. Snakes and power go way, way back, and not just to the Greeks. You’d be hard-pressed to find an ancient culture that doesn’t use it. Have a bible handy? Try skimming it and see how much snake/power imagery you can find. Here’s a hint: Moses. As for Asclepius, the snake could represent rejuvenation and renewal via the shedding of its skin. Or it could’ve been referencing the supposed medicinal properties of snake products. There have been references to venom being used as an remedy. Can you imagine all the wild snakes slithering around those ancient healing temples? And you thought your medical plan was terrible. At least the rod is more straightforward (no pun intended); it’s always been associated with things like wisdom, knowledge, age, etc.
Now, here’s the tricky thing. Let’s say you go to doctor and see this in the waiting room:
See the difference? The Caduceus looks pretty badass, doesn’t it? It got two snakes, and wings! If you’re in the Medical Corps, you probably see it every day. The symbol especially prevalent in American medicine, where it’s been in use since the 1850s. And yeah, people noticed. The Caduceus is associated with Hermes, the famed messenger of the gods. He was in charge of transitions, usually from life to the afterlife. He’s the patron of many things, among them travelers, literature, sports, thieves, invention, trade, and commerce…but not medicine. The reason for the two snakes? He saw them fighting and put his staff between them, thus ensuring peace. It’s a classic commentary of the necessity of knowledge and communication. It’s also a chilling but oddly appropriate prediction of the state of modern medicine. Associations with commerce, theft, and death aren’t exactly reassuring when you’re getting a physical. However, no one can dispute that health care has come a long way since Ancient Greece. We may not use snakes for medicine anymore, but they’re still all around us.
Oh, fun fact: Asclepius was supposedly killed by Zeus because he started bringing people back from the dead. Imagine if our modern medicine symbols were for necromancy instead. Suddenly, getting flu shots doesn’t seem so bad.