You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Myths ahoy!’ category.
Too long have I yearned for happiness.
Once, I believed in what everyone said brought joy – Wealth. Strength. Power.
Then came the day when the three men killed my brother; and dad, instead of killing them, released them on being compensated with a treasure hoard.
Dad deserved to die, I was only the agent of justice.
The gold was now all mine. But people lusted after what I had.
So, I grew till I was the greatest of all. My armour and weapons were the finest. Now men could only covet my riches from afar.
I now had it all – Wealth. Strength. Power.
But where was happiness?
“Strange, the Dragon actually seemed happy when it died. Kind of…peaceful.” Sigurd told Regin, wiping off the blood from his sword, Gram.
“It must have grown bored of life.” Regin laughed.
“Dunno. Anyway, where did it keep this treasure?” Sigurd replied, more brightly.
- The Online Medieval and Classical Library
Links (Just to be sure):
Two seemingly contrasting characters. Yet, a symbol – sorry, two symbols – have linked them together……quite unwittingly. Let us see how.
International Committee of the Red Cross
The erstwhile symbol of the medical profession
1. The Red Cross
Needs no introduction. Only for those who have just landed on the Earth, a short definition:
The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement – French: Mouvement international de la Croix-Rouge et du Croissant-Rouge – is an international humanitarian movement whose stated mission is to protect human life and health, to ensure respect for the human being, and to prevent and alleviate human suffering, without any discrimination based on nationality, race, religious beliefs, class or political opinions. Perhaps the most notable individual who comes into mind in this context is Henry Dunant. But his story should be dealt separately…..another day, perhaps?
Anyway, I just mentioned this because this is where our story starts. A year, or perhaps two years ago, there was a great uproar about the use of the Red Cross by all physicians, even those who were not registered ICRC members. They were all instructed to use another symbol. The instruction was followed by many. Ironically, the new symbol did not relate to the medical profession. In fact, it symbolized exactly the opposite ideas.
The current symbol of the medical profession
2. The Caduceus
The new symbol adopted by the Medical Community. Even the West Bengal University of Health Sciences uses this.
A definition, for the uninitiated:
A caduceus; kerykeion in Greek; is a (sometimes) winged staff with two snakes wrapped around it. It was an ancient astrological symbol of commerce and is associated with the Greek god Hermes, the messenger for the gods, conductor of the dead and protector of merchants and thieves.
There are two versions of the story of caduceus:
One says that it was originally a herald’s staff, sometimes with wings, with two white ribbons attached. The ribbons eventually evolved into snakes.
The second one is more interesting:
Tiresias, the seer, found two snakes copulating, and to separate them stuck his staff between them. Immediately he was turned into a woman, and remained so for seven years, until he was able to repeat his action, and change back to male. The transformative power in this story, strong enough to completely reverse even physical polarities of male and female, comes from the union of the two serpents, passed on by the wand. Tiresias’ staff, complete with serpents, was later passed on to Hermes.
This staff is, therefore, the symbol of merchants, financial organizations, postal service and journalists. And this same staff is used as a symbol by a majority of doctors and medical organizations. Strange, isn’t it?
Wondering how this happened?
The main reason for the modern confusion over the symbols occurred when the Caduceus was adopted by the Medical Department of the United States Army in 1902. This was brought about by one Captain Reynolds, who after having the idea rejected several times by the Surgeon General, persuaded the new incumbent (W.H. Forwood) to adopt it. The mistake was noticed several years later by the librarian to the Surgeon General, but was not changed. These army men, really!
The second reason (reasons, I should say), a rather old one, are the Alchemists. Along with gamblers, thieves, tricksters and other such charming men, Alchemists were also considered to be under the patronage of Hermes (for a god, he keeps lovely company, doesn’t he?). Which was why they used the Caduceus as their symbol. As their work ultimately aimed at the achievement of immortality, they frequently inserted their rather long noses into the realm of medicine. Which was why alchemy and medicine were so closely associated in the Middle Ages. So, medicine and Caduceus back together, again!
Let us see why the Caduceus should not be used as a symbol of the medical profession.
The Caduceus was the magic staff of Hermes (Mercury), the god of commerce, eloquence, invention, travel and theft, and so was a symbol of heralds and commerce, not medicine. The words ‘caduity’ & ‘caducous’ imply temporality, perishableness and senility, while the medical profession espouses renewal, vitality and health. Well, I suppose we are agreed on that point. At least I am, and that’s final where this essay is concerned!
Again, a question arises. If not the Caduceus, then what should the doctors actually use as their symbol?
This is not a difficult question. Most international health organizations have known the answer since their inception. In fact, another cause of confusion with the Caduceus is the symbol itself, which is remarkably similar to the Caduceus. Yes, we are talking about the ‘Staff of Asclepius’.
3. The Staff of Asclepius
Heard about it before? No? Well, I had not, either, till two months ago. I had just started delving into Greek myths. So I came to know something about Hermes and his Caduceus. Trying to find out how, in the name of Hades, could a God of thieves be carrying the symbol of the medical profession around; I stumbled across this symbol in Wikipedia (it is an online encyclopaedia, for those who do not know).
Firstly, about Asclepius himself, since he is not as famous as Hermes.
Asclepius (Greek Ἀσκληπιός, transliterated Asklēpiós; Latin Aesculapius), a son of Apollo, is the demigod of medicine and healing in ancient Greek mythology. Asclepius represents the healing aspect of the medical arts, while his daughters Hygieia, Meditrina, and Panacea (literally, “all-healing”) symbolize the forces of cleanliness, medicine and healing, respectively.
Coronis (or Arsinoe) became pregnant with Asclepius by Apollo but fell in love with Ischys, son of Elatus. A crow (at that time crows were white) informed Apollo of the affair and he sent his sister, Artemis, to kill Coronis. Her body was burned on a funeral pyre, staining the white feathers of the crows permanently black. Apollo rescued the baby by performing the first caesarean section and gave it to the centaur Chiron to raise.
Chiron taught Asclepius the art of surgery, teaching him to be the most well-respected doctor of his day. Asclepius’ powers were not appreciated by all, and his ability to revive the dead soon drew the ire of Zeus, who struck him down with a thunderbolt. In retaliation for Asclepius’ murder at the hands of Zeus, Apollo killed the Cyclopes, who fashioned Zeus’ thunderbolts. According to Euripides’ play Alkestis, Apollo was then forced into the servitude of Admetus for nine years. After he realized Asclepius’ importance to the world of men, Zeus placed him in the sky as the constellation Ophiuchus. The name, “serpent-bearer,” refers to the Rod of Asclepius, which was entwined with a single serpent.
About the staff:
The rod of Asclepius symbolizes the healing arts by combining the serpent, which in shedding its skin is a symbol of rebirth and fertility, with the staff, a symbol of authority befitting the god of Medicine. So, here’s the final answer – the actual symbol of the medical profession!
There are many theories regarding the snake on the rod of Asclepius. According to Greek mythology, Asclepius was said to have learned the art of healing from Chiron. Asclepius was reputed to have the blood of Medusa in his veins; the blood that flowed on Medusa’s left side was said to be fatal poison, while the blood from her right side could be used as a healing potion, even able to raise the dead. Obviously, Asclepius inherited the blood of the right hand side. Medusa, the Gorgon, had a head full of live snakes instead of hair! Some say that this bloodline of Asclepius is indicated on his staff.
The snake wrapped around the staff is also widely claimed to be a species of rat snake, Elaphe longissima, also known as the Aesculapian or Asclepian snake. It is native to south-eastern Europe, Asia Minor, and some central European spa regions, apparently brought there by Romans for their healing properties. I’d prefer not to be at the receiving end of such healings, by the way.
Let us end with a strange theory of origin of the rod, or staff, of Asclepius. In this theory, called the ‘worm theory’, Asclepius does not play any role! In ancient times infection by parasitic worms was common. The filarial worm Dracunculus medinensis, also called “the fiery serpent”, “the dragon of Medina” and “the guinea worm”, crawled around the victim’s body, just under the skin. Physicians treated this infection by cutting a slit in the patient’s skin, just in front of the worm’s path. As the worm crawled out the cut, the physician carefully wound the pest around a stick until the entire animal had been removed. It is believed that because this type of infection was so common, physicians advertised their services by displaying a sign with the worm on a stick This rather insignificant symbol now has a whole world of myths surrounding it, and figures in the insignia of such great organizations as WHO, the World Health Organization! Amazing how little incidents grow through ages to form great myths, isn’t it!
Flag of WHO, showing the staff of Asclepius
STATUTORY WARNING: The creatures mentioned in this essay may be dangerous. The individual attempting a research on the creatures must do so at his own risk. The author will not be responsible in any way for accidents that might occur.
Do you ever dream of a riding a winged horse or have nightmares of being bitten by werewolves? Do you enjoy reading books about dragons and giants and God knows what else-creatures that according to grown ups do not even exist? If so, be heartened. Many wise men of ancient civilization believed in them too. Here is an account of some of the fabulous creatures they encountered……
DRAGONS: A huge bat-winged fire-breathing scaly lizard or snake with a barbed tail. In the Middle East, the dragon was symbolic of the principle of evil. The Egyptian God, Apepi, for example, for example, was the great serpent of darkness. But the Greeks and Romans at times conceived them as beneficent powers-sharp-eyed dwellers of the inner parts of the Earth. The Chaldean dragon Tiamat had four legs, a scaly body and wings. Dragons were mainly feared because of their ability to breathe fire. No wonder Harry Potter feared facing such a creature!
SPHINX: It is a strange Egyptian creature with a lion’s body and a woman’s head. However it is found in Greece too. The winged sphinx of Baeotian Thebes terrorized the people by demanding the answer to a question: “What is it that has one voice and yet becomes four-footed in the morning, two-footed in the afternoon and three-footed at the dusk?” and devouring a man each time it was answered incorrectly. Eventually Oedipus Rex gave the correct answer, whereupon the sphinx killed herself. The sphinxes are omniscient and their wisdom is proverbial. By the way, try to find an answer to the riddle given, or you could be in mortal danger next time you meet a sphinx.
UNICORN: It is a horse like creature with a single horn on its forehead. Greek historian Ctesius described it as “a creature with the size of a horse, with a white body, purple head and blue eyes; on its forehead was a cubit long horn coloured red at its tip, black in the middle and white at the base”. The European unicorn is however white coloured, and has black pupils. The unicorn is very fleet footed and is therefore very difficult to capture or sighted. Legends tell of the unicorns combat with the elephant, finally speared to death with its horn, and the unicorn’s purifying of poisoned waters with its horn so that other animals may drink. Unicorns may have also been sighted in India, China and the Islamic world.
PEGASUS: A winged horse that sprang from the blood of gorgon Medusa as she was beheaded by the hero Perseus with Athena’s help. Another Greek hero Bellerophon, captured Pegasus and rode him in his first fight with the Chimera (another creature, evil by all accounts) and later for taking revenge on Anteia, who had falsely accused Bellerophon. However in his attempt to fly to heaven on the Pegasus he was killed. The great king of gods Zeus made Pegasus his servant and sent him on errands. Even now, on a clear starry night, you can see Pegasus as a constellation of stars, moving, perhaps to accomplish a mission assigned to him by Zeus. Zeus later presented it to his son Hercules after their reconciliation.
COCKATRICE: Also called Basilisk. Recall the gigantic serpent of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” who could only be controlled by the heir of Salazar Slytherin? Found in Rome and Egypt, it is said to be born from an egg laid by a hen hatched by a serpent, or in some accounts (notably HP 2) by a toad. It has deadly fangs and a murderous stare. It is capable of destroying all plant and animal life by its mere look. However it has to mortal enemies – the weasel, which secretes venom deadly to a basilisk; and the rooster (cock) whose crow is fatal to it. So remember to carry a cock in case you wander into a Basilisk infested area.
PHOENIX: A fabulous and immortal bird which is the messenger of the Egyptian God Ra. It is as large as an eagle, with brilliant scarlet and gold plumage and a melodious cry. Only one phoenix exists in an age of the world. It has a minimum lifespan of 500 years. A dying phoenix flies to the altar of the temple of Ra in Heliopolis (city of the sun), in Egypt. There it sets fire to itself, and is consumed in the flames. From the flames sprang another new phoenix, which embalmed its father’s ashes in an egg of Myrrh, and deposited it on the altar. As stated earlier, the phoenix is one and immortal, so very few sightings are reported. You are really lucky if you have seen it.
GRIFFIN: Also called Griffon, or Gryphon, it is a creature with a lion’s body and a bird’s head, usually that of an eagle. Originated in Levant in the 2nd millennium B.C., the griffin has a mane of spiral curls. Later successors developed wings on the side of their body. It made great friends with the sphinx and the pair of them has been shown together in many ancient sculptures.
HIPPOGRIFF: Most of you must have seen one in the Prisoner of Azkaban. The real hippogriff looks very much the same. It has the foreparts of a winged griffin and hindquarters of a horse. The creature was born when Asiatic griffins mated with Arabian horses. It is thought to be the progeny of the Pegasus. Ludovico Ariosto in his “Orlando Furiosov” first reported the hippogriffs. Take care to be respectful if you meet a hippogriff. They are very proud animals, having been born of high races on both paternal and maternal sides. If you insult a hippogriff it will probably be the last mistake you ever make.
CERBERUS: The hellhound. Son of Typhon (volcanic God) and Echidna (half-woman, half serpent), brother of Orthus, Ladon, Hydra and chimaera. He is the guard of the underworld-servant of Hades, the God of the underworld. He is described as a three headed, dragon-tailed dog. Does it ring a bell? Yes, the monstrous dog guarding the philosopher’s stone at Hogwarts was modeled on Cerberus. Like Fluffy, Cerberus was also enchanted by music. Orpheus, the Greek poet, on his journey to the underworld, in quest of returning his wife Eurydice, to life, charmed Cerberus by his prowess on the harp.
CENTAUR: A race of creatures, half-man and half-horse, dwelling in the mountains of Thessaly and Arcadia. They are the children of Ixion the king of the Lapiths, and are best known for their fight against the Lapiths. They lost the battle and were driven from Mount Pelion. They were men only as far as the waist and the rest of their body resembled a horse. Hercules had to fight with them. Though they are generally wild, lawless and inhospitable beings, a race of Centaurs residing in Greece, exceeds human beings in their intelligence. They can also foresee the future; they rarely explain what they see in the stars.
WEREWOLF: Also known as Lycanthrope. A man who turns into a wolf at night and devours animals, people or corpses but returns to human form with the first rays of the rising sun. Some werewolves change shape at will but most who have acquired the condition after being bitten by one change shape involuntarily, under the influence of a full moon. The werewolves are distributed all over Europe, particularly France that was afflicted with many reports of werewolves in the 16th century.
HYDRA: The offspring of Typhon and Echidna, it is a gigantic monster with nine heads of which the central one was immortal. The monster haunted the marshes of Lena near Argos. The destruction of Hydra was one of the 12 labors of Hercules, which he accomplished with the assistance of Iolaus. As one head was severed, two grew in its place. Finally Hercules burned out the roots of heads with fire and cut off the immortal head from the body. The arrows dipped in the venomous blood of the serpentine monster inflicted fatal wounds. Lucky the creature has been killed. I would not have liked to meet this fantastic beast! Would you?
There are many other such wonderful creatures. However they cannot be accounted for in this short space, so go ahead and find them all if you can.
However, you’ve been warned, there are many fantastic beasts, most of them are nice and friendly BUT NOT ALL. If you hope to compile another account of fantastic beasts, do NOT stray too close to the trolls, the giants, the werewolves, the goblins…