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’.
The Staff of Asclepius
The actual symbol of the medical profession
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