The caduceus is the staff carried by Hermes in Greek mythology and consequently by Hermes Trismegistus in Greco-Egyptian mythology.

The same staff was also borne by heralds in general, for example by Iris, the messenger of Hera. It is a short staff entwined by two serpents, sometimes surmounted by wings.

In Roman iconography, it was often depicted being carried in the left hand of Mercury, the messenger of the gods, guide of the dead, and protector of merchants, shepherds, gamblers, liars, and thieves.

Some accounts suggest that the oldest known imagery of the caduceus have their roots in a Mesopotamian origin with the Sumerian god Ningishzida whose symbol, a staff with two snakes intertwined around it, dates back to 4000 B.C. to 3000 B.C.

As a symbolic object, it represents Hermes (or the Roman Mercury), and by extension trades, occupations, or undertakings associated with the god.

In later Antiquity, the caduceus provided the basis for the astrological symbol representing the planet Mercury. Thus, through its use in astrology, alchemy, and astronomy it has come to denote the planet and elemental metal of the same name.

It is said the wand would wake the sleeping and send the awake to sleep. If applied to the dying, their death was gentle; if applied to the dead, they returned to life.

By extension of its association with Mercury and Hermes, the caduceus is also a recognized symbol of commerce and negotiation, two realms in which balanced exchange and reciprocity are recognized as ideals. This association is ancient and consistent from the Classical period to modern times.

The caduceus is often incorrectly used as a symbol of healthcare organizations and medical practice, particularly in North America, due to confusion with the traditional medical symbol, the Rod of Asclepius, which has only one snake and is never depicted with wings.

Ancient Near East

William Hayes Ward (1910) discovered that symbols similar to the classical caduceus sometimes appeared on Mesopotamian cylinder seals.

He suggested the symbol originated sometime between 3000 and 4000 BC, and that it might have been the source of the Greek caduceus.

A.L. Frothingham incorporated Dr. Ward’s research into his own work, published in 1916, in which he suggested that the prototype of Hermes was an “Oriental deity of Babylonian extraction” represented in his earliest form as a snake god.

From this perspective, the caduceus was originally representative of Hermes himself, in his early form as the Underworld god Ningishzida, “messenger” of the “Earth Mother“.

The caduceus is mentioned in passing by Walter Burkert as “really the image of copulating snakes taken over from Ancient Near Eastern tradition“.

In Egyptian iconography, the Djed pillar is depicted as containing a snake in a frieze of the Dendera Temple complex.

India

The caduceus also appears as a symbol of the punch-marked coins of the Maurya Empire in India, in the third or second century BC. Numismatic research suggests that this symbol was the symbol of the Buddhist king Ashoka, his personal “Mudra“.

This symbol was not used on the pre-Mauryan punch-marked coins, but only on coins of the Maurya period, together with the three arched-hill symbols, the “peacock on the hill“, the Triskelion and the Taxila mark.

Mythology

The Homeric hymn to Hermes relates how Hermes offered his lyre fashioned from a tortoise shell as compensation for the cattle he stole from his half-brother Apollo.

Apollo in return gave Hermes the caduceus as a gesture of friendship. The association with the serpent thus connects Hermes to Apollo, as later the serpent was associated with Asclepius, the “son of Apollo“.

The association of Apollo with the serpent is a continuation of the older Indo-European dragon-slayer motif. Wilhelm Heinrich Roscher (1913) pointed out that the serpent as an attribute of both Hermes and Asclepius is a variant of the “pre-historic semi-chthonic serpent hero known at Delphi as Python“, who in classical mythology is slain by Apollo.

One Greek myth of the origin of the caduceus is part of the story of Tiresias, who found two snakes copulating and killed the female with his staff.

Tiresias was immediately turned into a woman, and so remained until he was able to repeat the act with the male snake seven years later. This staff later came into the possession of the god Hermes, along with its transformative powers.

Another myth suggests that Hermes (or Mercury) saw two serpents entwined in mortal combat. Separating them with his wand he brought about peace between them, and as a result, the wand with two serpents came to be seen as a sign of peace.

In Rome, Livy refers to the caduceator who negotiated peace arrangements under the diplomatic protection of the caduceus he carried.

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*This article was originally published at en.wikipedia.org.