According to Wikipedia, “The rod of Asclepius is an ancient symbol associated with astrology, the Greek god Asclepius, and with medicine and healing.” Greek mythology states Asclepius practiced medicine and chose the symbol because as people heal and become rejuvenated, its the same process a snake goes through when shedding its dry and withered skin.*
Loads of medical organizations across the world use the symbol including the American Medical Association and American Veterinary Association to name a couple.
Although all the organizations use the basic image differently, the rod is always there, just tweaked a little bit.
You’ve probably seen this symbol used for medicine too:
This symbol has two snakes instead of the one, and has wings stretching around the back. It’s called a Caduceus. The US Army medical corps adopted this logo in the early nineteen hundreds and since then, the symbol has spread throughout the medical industry like wildfire.
You may be thinking, like I was at first, that the symbols look the same. Why are medical professionals making such a fuss about other organizations using the Caduceus instead of the Rod?
Because the historical connotation of the Caduceus is that of “commerce, theft, deception and death.”**
Sure, if you go back far enough there are mentions of the wings representing the negotiation and commerce aspect of Hermes (although his means were not honorable) and the snakes representing the alchemist side of Mercury, but researchers have found more associations to trickery and corruption than the healing arts.***
So…as you write, make sure you research well. A few tiny alterations that may not seem like a big thing at the time (adding a serpent and wings) can change a symbol from something innocent and well-intentioned to something corrupt and vile. Get it right. Research the hell out of your genre and the area where your story is set.
And the next time you go into a doctor’s office, take a look at the writing–or symbols–on the wall.
Pretty cool findings, huh?
*”Asklepios’ reptile was a healing creature: in ancient mythology the snake, whose skin was shed and rejuvenated, symbolized eternity and restoration of life and health” Albert R. Jonsen, The New Medicine and the Old Ethics, Harvard University Press, 1990, p122;
**Engle, Bernice (Dec 1929). “The Use of Mercury’s Caduceus as a Medical Emblem”. The Classical Journal 25 (1): 205.
***Friedlander, Walter J (1992). The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine. Greenwood Press