Caduceus: a Symbol of Commerce
Everyone recognizes the Caduceus as the accepted symbol of healthcare, but in actuality its ancient symbolism embodies commerce, the exchange of money, goods, and services. The Caduceus is rooted in Greek mythology. Most commonly, Hermes, the messenger of the Greek god Zeus, is depicted in sculpture and art carrying the winged staff. The Caduceus was also carried by other messengers, like Iris, the messenger of Hera, queen of the Greek gods. Romans often copied and borrowed from the Greeks, and the staff is later seen being carried by Mercury, a messenger of the Roman gods. The picture below is a Roman copy from the 5th century of a Greek original, depicting Hermes with the Caduceus.
The symbol can represent different ideas. By extension of the messengers, it represents commerce and balanced negotiation or exchange and reciprocity, in which both sides are equal. The Caduceus also became associated with astrology, the planet Mercury, and the metal mercury (due to the Roman god Mercury). In myth, the staff is said to have the power to wake the sleeping, put the awake to sleep, give the dying an easy passing, and bring the dead back to life.
Rod of Asclepius: the True Symbol of Healthcare
The Rod of Asclepius is also from Greek Mythology. The rod was weilded by Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and the healing arts, as depicted below. Temples were erected in tribute to Asclepius and used to shelter the sick and offer the god sacrifices. At the grand opening of each temple, non-poisonous snakes were placed inside and allowed to slither freely around the sick patrons who congregated there. The shedding of the snakes skin was seen as a symbol of rejuvenation.
So how did the Caduceus become a symbol for healthcare?
The misconception surrounding this symbol is mainly in the United States. In 1902, at the insistence of a single officer, the U.S. Army Medical Corps began using the symbol in their insignia.
A survey conducted found that 62% of professional healthcare associations used the Rod of Asclepius for their symbol, and 76% of commercial healthcare organizations used the Caduceus. It was concluded that professional healthcare associations were more likely to know the true meaning behind the symbolism, and commercial healthcare organizations were more likely to be concerned about having a visual impact to sell their products.