A favorite graduation gift for nurses, physicians or veterinary students is a caduceus charm, but do you know how it came to be associated with the medical profession? Many people think it is the same as the Rod of Asclepius, the symbol for the ancient Greek god of medicine and healing but, in fact, it is a symbol associated with the god Mercury who was, as one of his many roles, the god of trickery, liars and general misbehaviour. One of his roles was as a psychopomp, the leader of souls to the underworld, so his symbol is particularly inappropriate for use in medicine!

The Rod of Asclepius

A more correct logo is the Rod of Asclepius which is a rod entwined by a snake. Asclepius is the god of medicine in the Greek myths and his daughters were Aceso, Aglea, Meditrina, Laso, Hygieia and Panacea who signify cleanliness, healing and medicine. Panacea means literally 'all healing' and is a well-known word in contemporary English. Asclepius was the son of Apollo and Coronis and was raised by a centaur called Chiron, when his mother was killed for disloyalty. Chiron was the one who taught Asclepius medicine.

In Ancient Greece, around 300 BC the cult of Asclepius was prevalent and temples for healing were called Asclepieia. Snakes were frequently used in the rituals for healing and non-poisonous snakes were allowed to crawl in the temples. Originally the Oath of Hippocrates started with the words 'I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods ..."

The Caduceus

The caduceus is frequently seen as a herald's staff with 2 entwined serpents and frequently a pair of wings. At first the wand was borne by Iris who was the herald of Hera. Only in later myths was it borne by Hermes. It could be the source of the astrological symbol for Mercury, who was the Roman counterpart of the Greek Hermes. It is frequently used as a sign for medicine particularly in America. Why is there confusion between the Rod of Asclepius, a suitable representation for medicine and the caduceus which is unsuitable, connected as it is with Hermes, supporter of thieves and tricksters and escort of the dead to the afterlife?

The Use of the Caduceus by Medical Personnel

It seems that it was used mistakenly as a substitute for the Rod of Asclepius in the 19th century. It was initially used as a medical image somewhere around 1855 in the US on uniforms of army hospital staff and was worn by medical officers from approximately 1902. The Surgeon General was aware of the slip-up a few years later but didn't change it. It was used by the the Army Medical Dept and the Navy Hospital Corps after the first World War. Although the AMA used it for a time, it was exchanged for the proper symbol for medicine, the Rod of Asclepius, in 1912.

Caduceus Charms as Graduation Gifts

Whatever the origins of the medical caduceus it is firmly associated with the medical tradition today. Caduceus charms are given as gifts on the graduation medical personnel and are favorite charms for bracelets, pendants and other types of charm jewelry.