AskDefine | Define caduceus

Dictionary Definition

caduceus n : an insignia used by the medical profession; modeled after the staff of Hermes [also: caducei (pl)]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A symbol consisting of a staff with two snakes wrapped around it; symbol of medicine in America.


Extensive Definition

The caduceus (/kəˈduːsiəs/, -ʃəs, -ˈdjuː-; kerykeion in Greek) or Wand of Hermes is typically depicted as a short herald's staff entwined by two serpents in the form of a double helix, and sometimes surmounted by wings. In later Antiquity the caduceus was an astrological symbol of commerce and in Roman iconography was often depicted being carried in the left hand of Greek god Hermes, the messenger for the gods, conductor of the dead and protector of merchants and thieves.
The caduceus has come to be used as a symbol for medicine, especially in North America, by confusion with the traditional medical symbol, the rod of Asclepius, which has only a single snake and no wings.


The distant origin of the symbol adopted by the Greeks was Mesopotamian, as has been known since the discovery of Gudea's green steatite libation vase of c. 2144-24 BCE from Lagash, conserved at the Musée du Louvre; it represents the serpent-god Ningishzida, messenger of the goddess Ishtar and awakener of vegetation after the annual killing drought. Among the Greeks it was originally a herald's staff, sometime surmounted with wings, with two white fillets of wool attached to it. The view of Karl Otfried Müller, that the ribbons eventually "evolved into" snakes, was held for several generations of conservative mythographers, though Jane Ellen Harrison correctly detected that Hermes had originated in snake-form and that the snakes were essential to the caduceus, even though she was unaware of the Near Eastern connections.
The Greek myth of origin of the staff 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 in to the possession of the god Hermes, along with its transformative powers.
In Rome, Livy refers to the caduceator who negotiated peace arrangements under the diplomatic protection of the caduceus he carried.


The meaning, purpose, and esoteric meaning of the caduceus can often be interpreted from the sum of its parts. The staff (particularly the herald's staff) was a symbol of authority carried in the hands of messengers. The winged quality of the wand of Hermes is in keeping with the alchemical or astrological importance of Mercury (whether taken to mean the planet, god, and element), quite often denoting fluidity, transformation, information, and new beginnings (as the elemental quarter of air is often likened to). The snake is often depicted in non Judeo-Christian traditions as a source or deliverer of wisdom. In Gnosticism the serpent represents Sophia or the manifestation of principles of the feminine divine (or Shekinah in the Judaism or Kabbalah). Note that the snakes are bound to each other in a double helix - a shape of stability, creation, and life (notably, the shape of the DNA); coincidentally this follows the arrangement that the King Cobras snake takes: fighting upright and face to face, trying to force the other to submit for sexual rights.
In this it can be seen that the caduceus represents the authority to quickly deliver vital information or wisdom to aid, assist and enlighten. It is no surprise then that the caduceus is used by a variety of professions who have a connection with Hermes or Mercury in his traditional roles as the god of commerce, eloquence, invention, travel and thievery. Contemporary users of this symbol include merchants, journalists, and postal workers.
In the Hermetic tradition, the caduceus is a symbol of spiritual awakening, and has been likened to the Kundalini serpents of Hindu mysticism.


In some vase paintings ancient depictions of the Greek kerykeion are radically different from the modern representation (illustration, top right). These representations feature the two snakes atop the staff (rod), crossed to create a circle with the heads of the snakes resembling horns. This old graphic form, with an additional crossbar to the staff, has become the typographical Mercury-sign widely used in astrological and alchemistic contexts for centuries. Another simplified variant of the caduceus is to be found in dictionaries, indicating “commercial term”: the staff with two winglets attached, the snakes omitted (or reduced to a small ring in the middle).

Confusion with the rod of Asclepius

The caduceus is sometimes used as a symbol for medicine or doctors (instead of the rod of Asclepius) even though there is no connection with Hippocrates or the Greeks; its singularly inappropriate connotations of theft and commerce have provided fodder for academic humor. A 1992 survey of American health organisations found that 62% of professional associations used the rod of Asclepius, whereas in commercial organisations, 76% used the caduceus.
The first recorded use of the caduceus in a medical context was in the printer's vignette used by Johann Frobenius, who used the staff entwined with serpents, not winged but surmounted by doves, with the biblical epigraph "Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves" A silver caduceus presented to Caius College, Cambridge by John Caius and carried before him on the cushion he supplied in official visits to the college remains in the College's possession. Early confusion between the symbols almost certainly arose due to the links between alchemy and Hermes, whose symbol is the caduceus. The alchemists adopted the caduceus because Hermes, the God of Messengers, was also the patron lord of gamblers, thieves, tricksters and alchemists. By the end of the 16th century, alchemy became widely associated with medicine in some areas, leading to some use of the caduceus as a medical symbol. This was brought about by one Captain Reynolds, who after having the idea rejected several times by the Surgeon General, persuaded the new incumbent —Brig. Gen. William H. Forwood — to adopt it. The inconsistency was noticed several years later by the librarian to the Surgeon General, but was not changed. After World War I the caduceus was employed as an emblem by both the Army Medical Department and the Navy Hospital Corps.
There was further confusion caused by the use of the caduceus as a printer's mark (as Hermes was the god of eloquence and messengers), which appeared in many medical textbooks as a printing mark, although subsequently mistaken for a medical symbol.

Examples of usage

Standard representation

There are three Unicode representations of the caduceus: U+2624 () on the Miscellaneous Symbols table, U+263F (☿: the astrological form) and U+269A (⚚: the lexicographical form), all in the same range.

See also


Further reading

caduceus in Catalan: Caduceu
caduceus in German: Hermesstab
caduceus in Modern Greek (1453-): Κηρύκειο
caduceus in Spanish: Caduceo
caduceus in French: Caducée
caduceus in Italian: Caduceo
caduceus in Hebrew: מטה הרמס
caduceus in Latin: Caduceus
caduceus in Hungarian: Caduceus
caduceus in Dutch: Caduceus
caduceus in Japanese: ケーリュケイオン
caduceus in Polish: Kaduceusz
caduceus in Portuguese: Caduceu
caduceus in Romanian: Caduceu
caduceus in Russian: Кадуцей
caduceus in Finnish: Caduceus
caduceus in Swedish: Kaducé
Privacy Policy, About Us, Terms and Conditions, Contact Us
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Material from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Dict
Valid HTML 4.01 Strict, Valid CSS Level 2.1