Monday, October 02, 2006

The Myth of Caduceus?

A majority of medical organizations employ a symbol of a short rod entwined by two snakes and topped by a pair of wings. Known as the "caduceus" or magic wand of the Greek god Hermes, conductor of the dead and protector of merchants and thieves, the caduceus came to be associated with a precursor of medicine, based on the Hermetic astrological principles of using the planets and stars to heal the sick in the 7th century.

However, recent medical observers and physicians have been critical of the symbol, for Hermes also happens to be the god that leads the dead to the underworld and is not only associated with wealth and commerce, but happens to be the patron of thieves (a larcenous figure in Greek mythology). Some medical purists suggest we should go back to the staff of Aesculapius, which is depicted as a single serpent coiled around a cypress branch.

In 2003, Wilcox and Whitham further ignited controversy in the medical community when they published an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, arguing that the design is derived not from the ancient caduceus of Hermes but from the printer’s mark of a popular 19th-century medical publisher. Because of this mishap, the modern caduceus became a popular medical symbol only after its adoption by the U.S. Army Medical Corps at the beginning of the 20th century. The authors contend that a misunderstanding of ancient mythology and iconography has led to the inappropriate popularization of the modern caduceus as a medical symbol. As they argue, the Asklepian is a medical symbol with a heritage stretching well over two millennia while the modern caduceus became a popular medical symbol only in the early years of the 20th century. Scandalous, you say?

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