The caduceus (IPA|/kəˈdjuːsiəs/, -ʃəs, -ˈduː-; "κηρύκειον" 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 may have provided the basis for the astrological symbol representing the planet Mercury and in Roman iconography was often depicted being carried in the left hand of the Greek god Hermes, the messenger of the gods, guide of the dead and protector of merchants, gamblers, liars and thieves.

The caduceus is sometimes used as a symbol for medicine, especially in North America, through confusion with the traditional medical symbol, the rod of Asclepius, which has only a single snake and no wings. Given the historically attested use of this emblem, its adoption as a symbol of medicine is a great irony.


As early as 1910, Dr. William Hayes Ward discovered that symbols similar to the classical caduceus appeared not infrequently on Mesopotamian cylinder seals. He suggested the symbol originated some time between 3000 and 4000 BCE, and that it might have been the source of the Greek caduceus. [William Hayes Ward, "The Seal Cylinders of Western Asia", Washington, 1910] A.L. Frothingham incorporated Dr. Ward's research into his own work, published in 1916, in which he suggested that the prototype of Hermes was an "Oriental deity of Babylonian extraction" represented in his earliest form as a snake god. From this perspective, the caduceus was originally representative of Hermes himself, in his early form as the god Ningishzida, "messenger" of the "Earth Mother". [A.L. Frothingham, "Babylonian Origins of Hermes the Snake-God, and of the Caduceus", in "American Journal of Archaeology", Vol. 20, No. 2, pp.175-211] However, more recent classical scholarship makes no mention of Babylonian origin for Hermes or the caduceus. [For example, the "Oxford Classical Dictionary", Third Edition, Ed. Hornblower and Spawforth, in the article on Hermes, makes no mention of any Mesopotamian origin and refers to the caduceus as having originally been a herald's staff, entirely in keeping with the etymology of the word.]

Among the Greeks the caduceus is thought to have originally been a herald's staff. The Latin word "caduceus" (possibly "caduceum") is an adaptation of the Greek "kerukeion", meaning "herald's wand (or staff)", deriving from "kerux", meaning "herald" or "public messenger", which in turn is related to "kerusso", meaning "to announce" (often in the capacity of herald). [Liddell and Scott, "Greek-English Lexicon"; Stuart L. Tyson, The Caduceus, in The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 34, No. 6, pp. 493] The staff of the herald is thought to have developed from a shepherd's crook, in the form of a forked olive branch adorned with first two fillets of wool, then with white ribbons and finally with two snakes intertwined. [Farnell, Cults of The Greek States, Vol. V, p20, cited in Stuart L. Tyson, The Caduceus, in The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 34, No. 6, p 494] However no explanation as to how such an object would be practically used as a functional crook by shepherds is offered.

One Greek myth of origin of the caduceus is part of the story of Tiresias,cite web|url=|title=The Caduceus vs the Staff of Asclepius|last=Blayney|first=Keith|month=September | year=2002|accessdate=2007-06-15] 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. Another myth relates how Hermes played a lyre fashioned from a tortoise shell for Apollo, and in return was appointed ambassador of the gods with the caduceus as a symbol of his office. [Stuart L. Tyson, The Caduceus, in The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 34, No. 6, p 494] Another tale suggests that Hermes (or more properly the Roman Mercury) saw two serpents entwined in mortal combat. Separating them with his wand he brought about peace between them, and as a result the wand with two serpents came to be seen as a sign of peace. [Stuart L. Tyson, The Caduceus, in The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 34, No. 6, p 495]

In Rome, Livy refers to the "caduceator" who negotiated peace arrangements under the diplomatic protection of the caduceus he carried.


In some vase paintings ancient depictions of the Greek "kerukeion" are somewhat different from the commonly seen modern representation. These representations feature the two snakes atop the staff (or 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, seems to have provided the basis for the graphical sign of Mercury widely used in works on astronomy, astrology and alchemy. [Signs and Symbols Used In Writing and Printing, p 269, in "Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language", unabridged, New York, 1953. Here the symbol of the planet Mercury is indicated as "the caduceus of Mercury, or his head and winged cap".] Another simplified variant of the caduceus is to be found in dictionaries, indicating a “commercial term” entirely in keeping with the association of Hermes with commerce. In this form the staff is often depicted with two winglets attached and the snakes are omitted (or reduced to a small ring in the middle). [For example, see the Unicode standard, where the "staff of Hermes" signifies "a commercial term or commerce".]

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 the symbol has no connection with Hippocrates and any association with healing arts is something of a stretch; [Bernice S. Engle, "The Use of Mercury's Caduceus as a Medical Emblem", "The Classical Journal" 25.3 (December 1929:204-208).] its singularly inappropriate connotations of theft, commerce, deception and death have provided fodder for academic humor. [As in Stuart L. Tyson, "The Caduceus", "The Scientific Monthly" 34.6 (June 1932:492-498).]

Johann Froben]

As god of the high-road and the market-place Hermes was perhaps above all else the patron of commerce and the fat purse: as a corollary, he was the special protector of the traveling salesman. As spokesman for the gods, he not only brought peace on earth (occasionally even the peace of death), but his silver-tongued eloquence could always make the worse appear the better cause. From this latter point of view, would not his symbol be suitable for certain Congressmen, all medical quacks, book agents and purveyors of vacuum cleaners, rather than for the straight-thinking, straight-speaking therapist? As conductor of the dead to their subterranean abode, his emblem would seem more appropriate on a hearse than on a physician's car. [Stuart L. Tyson, The Caduceus, in The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 34, No. 6, pp. 495]

However, attempts have been made to argue that the caduceus is appropriate as a symbol of medicine or of medical practitioners. Apologists have suggested that the sign is appropriate for military medical personnel because of the connotations of neutrality. Some have pointed to the putative origins of the caduceus in Babylonian mythology (as described above), particularly the suggested association with Ishtar as "an awakener of life and vegetation in the spring" as justification for its association with healing, medicine, fertility and potency. [Bernice S. Engle, "The Use of Mercury's Caduceus as a Medical Emblem, in "The Classical Journal", Vol. 25, No.3, pp. 204-208]

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. [cite book|last=Friedlander|first=Walter J|title=The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus symbol in medicine|publisher=Greenwood Press|year=1992|ISBN=0-313-28023-1]

The first known use of the caduceus in a medical context was in the printer's vignette used by the Swiss medical printer Johann Frobenius (1460-1527), who used the staff entwined with serpents, not winged but surmounted by a dove, with the biblical epigraph "Be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves" [Matthew 10:16; Bernice S. Engle, "The Use of Mercury's Caduceus as a Medical Emblem, in "The Classical Journal", Vol. 25, No.3, p 204] The caduceus was also apparently used as a symbol by Sir William Butts, physician to Henry VIII. [Bernice S. Engle, "The Use of Mercury's Caduceus as a Medical Emblem, in "The Classical Journal", Vol. 25, No.3, p 204] 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. [Engle 1929:204f.]

thumb|200px|left|The_U.S. Army Medical Corps Branch Plaque. The 1902 adoption of the caduceus for U.S. Army medical officer uniforms popularized the symbol throughout the medical field.]

But widespread confusion regarding the supposed medical significance of the caduceus appears to have arisen as a result of events in the United States in the 19th century. It had appeared on the chevrons of Army hospital stewards as early as 1856. [Lt.-Col. Fielding H. Garrison, "The use of the caduceus in the insignia of the Army medical officer," "Bulletin of the Medical Library Association" 9 (1919-20:13-16), noted by Engle 1929:204 note 2.] In 1902 it was added to the uniforms of Army medical officers. This was brought about by one Captain Reynolds, [Engle 1929:207 states, however, "The use of the caduceus in our army I believe to be due chiefly to the late Colonel Hoff, who has emphasized the suitability of the caduceus as an emblem of neutrality."] 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 the symbol was not changed. In 1901 the French periodical of military medicine was named "La Caducée." The caduceus was formally adopted by the Medical Department of the United States Army in 1902.cite journal|last=Wilcox|first=Robert A|coauthors=Whitham, Emma M|title=The symbol of modern medicine: why one snake is more than two|date=15 April 2003|url=|journal=Annals of Internal Medicine|accessdate=2007-06-15] After World War I the caduceus was employed as an emblem by both the Army Medical Department and the Navy Hospital Corps. Even the American Medical Association used the symbol for a time, but in 1912, after considerable discussion, the caduceus was abandoned and the rod of Asclepius was prudently adopted instead.

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.

ee also

*Rod of Asclepius
*Bowl of Hygieia
*Aaron's rod
*Serpent (symbolism)


Further reading

* Walter J. Friedlander, "The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine", 1992.
* Bunn, J. T. "Origin of the caduceus motif", JAMA, 1967. [ United States National Institutes of Health: National Center for Biotechnology Information] PMID 4863068* Fenkl, Heinz Insu, [ "Caduceus"]
* Burkert, Walter, "Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual", Translation, University of California , 1979.

External links

* [ Iris and Infant Hermes with Caduceus]
* [ Caduceus] from Encyclopaedia Britannica

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  • Caducĕus — (lat., griech. Kerykeion), der Hermesstab, d. h. der vorn mit zwei verschlungenen und mit den Köpfen einander zugekehrten Schlangen versehene Stab, das gewöhnlichste Attribut des Hermes oder Merkur (Caducifer). Neben dieser durch die ausgebildete …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Caduceus — Ca*du ce*us, n. [L. caduceum, caduceus; akin to Gr. ? a herald s wand, fr. ? herald.] (Myth.) The official staff or wand of Hermes or Mercury, the messenger of the gods. It was originally said to be a herald s staff of olive wood, but was… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • CADUCEUS — Mercurii virga fuisse dicitur, quâ ille ad dissidia, et discordias tollendas utebatur. (unde Caducifer dictus est) a cadendo sic vocata, quod contentiones et bella cadere faceret, nam quemadmodum per Faeciales bella indicebantur, ita per… …   Hofmann J. Lexicon universale

  • caduceus — 1590s, from L. caduceus, alteration of Doric Gk. karykeion herald s staff, from karyx (gen. karykos) a herald, from PIE *karu , from root *kar to praise loudly (Cf. Skt. carkarti mentions with praise, O.E. hreð fame, glory ). Especially the wand… …   Etymology dictionary

  • Caducĕus — (gr. Kerykeion), Stab von zwei Schlangen umwunden, welche oben die Köpfe einander zukehren, ohne den Kamm zu sträuben. Seine Entstehung soll er daher haben, daß Mercur einst in Arkadien zwischen 2 kämpfende Schlangen einen Stab warf, um welchen… …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Caduceus — Caducĕus (lat.; grch. Kerykeion), geflügelter, von zwei verschlungenen und mit den Köpfen einander zugekehrten Schlangen umwundener Stab, Merkurstab [Abb. 306]; Abzeichen des Hermes, Stab der Herolde, Sinnbild des Handels …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • Caduceus — Caduceus, der Stab des Mercur von 2 Schlangen umwunden, Symbol des Friedens, deßwegen von den Herolden getragen; von ihm hat Mercur den Beinamen Caducifer …   Herders Conversations-Lexikon

  • caduceus — [kə do͞o′sē əs, kədyo͞o′sē əs] n. pl. caducei [kə do͞o′sē ī΄, kə dyo͞o′sē ī΄] [L, ? via Etr < Gr(Doric) karykeion, for Gr kērykeion < kēryx, herald < IE base * kar , to praise > OHG hruom, Ger ruhm] 1. the staff of an ancient herald;… …   English World dictionary

  • Caduceus — A rod with two snakes entwined about it topped by a pair of wings. The caduceus served as the symbol of Hermes and Mercury, the Greek and Roman messenger gods. The caduceus was the sign of a herald and hence a logical symbol for the messenger.… …   Medical dictionary

  • Caduceus — Hermesstab mit zwei Schlangen Der Hermesstab (altgriechisch: τὸ κηρύκειον kerýkeion, von ὁ κῆρυξ , Gen …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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