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Why are there snakes on iconography related to medicine?

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The emblem of the doctors is the staff of Aesculapius, an attribute of the eponymous god in Greek mythology. And this emblem should not be confused with other symbols of the same kind such as the caduceus of Hermes or the cup of Hygeia. Here is what is behind this symbol known to all.

A mythical staff

For several decades, many medical organizations like the WHO (see main image) have adopted as their emblem what is called the “caduceus”. More precisely, it is the staff of Aesculapius, a stick around which a snake is wrapped. Symbol of the god of medicine Aesculapius (or Asclepius), it has the power to cure all kinds of diseases, according to ancient tradition. As theBelgian Order of Physicians, Aesculapius was possibly a renowned doctor who practiced in Greece around 1200 BC. J.-C. Let us also remember that Aesculapius appears in the Iliad, a famous story recounting the Trojan War, before becoming the god of medicine. Finally, Zeus kills Aesculapius and the latter becomes a snake-shaped constellation.

“In 420 BC. AD, Asclepius received a sanctuary in Athens, located on the southern slope of the Acropolis and near a source. The sick thought they could be cured by sleeping in these temples. Medical centers were often located near sacred springs, with sleep in the temples preceded by a cleansing bath. Patients visited the temples, brought offerings in honor of Asclepius, and were treated by the healing priests, the Asclepius, who were attached to these temples. The priest-doctors knew the sacred secrets of the art of healing which they passed on from father to son.

Aesculapius snake (Zamenis longissimus). – Credit: FelixReimann / Wikipedia

Beware of confusion

The staff of Aesculapius encompasses several symbols. His staff symbolizes the traveler and the doctor spreading medical science in the world. Due to its ability to change skin, the snake is the symbol of life and vigor, but it is also supposed to know the virtues of medicinal plants. Let us also mention the mirror located above the staff of the symbol of the Order of Physicians. This symbolizes prudence and wisdom.

Please note, the medical caduceus should not be confused with the caduceus of Hermes, a stick topped with bay leaves and around which we find two snakes. Indeed, this staff representing the union of heaven and earth has Sumerian origins much older than the staff of Aesculapius. The point is that this confusion arises in the 16th century. From a symbol of peace in the military domain, the staff of Aesculapius gradually became the emblem of the medical profession.

It is also necessary to avoid confusing the staff of Aesculapius with the cup of Hygeia, also originating from Greek mythology. The latter has been in use since 1942 by the pharmaceutical professions and can sometimes replace the traditional green cross. Moreover, the cup in question is actually a glass of wine.


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