Rod of Asclepius

Rod of Asclepius



The rod of Asclepius symbolizes the healing arts by combining the serpent, which in shedding its skin is a symbol of rebirth and fertility, with the staff, a symbol of authority befitting the god of Medicine. The snake wrapped around the staff is widely claimed to be a species of rat snake, "Elaphe longissima", also known as the Aesculapian or Asclepian snake. It is native to southeastern Europe, Asia Minor, and some central European spa regions, apparently brought there by Romans for their healing properties.Fact|date=August 2008


There are several different theories as to the origin and development of the rod of Asclepius, any or all of which may have contributed to its development. The symbol is named for an ancient Greek legend, although the legend could be older.

Greek mythology

According to Greek mythology, Asclepius was said to have learned the art of healing from Chiron. He is customarily represented as a surgeon on the ship "Argo". Asclepius was so skilled in the medical arts that he was reputed to have brought patients back from the dead. For this, he was punished and placed in the heavens as the constellation Ophiuchus (meaning "serpent-bearer"). This constellation lies between Sagittarius and Libra. [cite book|first=Bernadette|last=Brady|title=Brady's Book of Fixed Stars|publisher=Weiser Books|year=1999|ISBN=1-57863-105-X] In early Christianity, the constellation Ophiuchus was associated with Saint Paul holding the Maltese Viper. According to some, Asclepius fought alongside the Achaeans in the Trojan War, and cured Philoctetes of his famous snake bite.

"Worm" theory

Some scholars have suggested that the symbol once represented a worm wrapped around a rod; parasitic worms such as the "guinea worm" ("Dracunculus medinensis") were common in ancient times, and were extracted from beneath the skin by winding them slowly around a stick. Physicians may have advertised this common service by posting a sign depicting a worm on a rod. The worm was mistaken for a snake in the Middle Ages and has since been known as a snake entwined round a staff and not a worm. [cite journal|last=Emerson|first=John|title=Eradicating Guinea worm disease: Caduceus caption|publication=Social Design Notes|month = July | year = 2003|accessdate=2007-06-15|url=]


A similar symbol, Nehushtan, is mentioned in the Bible in Numbers 21:4–9. Attacked by a plague of snakes in the wilderness, Moses holds up a serpent coiled around a staff, both made from bronze, so that the Israelites might recover from the bites. [cite web|url=;&version=9;|title=Bible Passage Numbers 21:4-9|publisher=Bible|accessdate=2007-06-28]

Professional usage

A number of organisations and services use the rod of Asclepius as their logo, or part of their logo. These include the:
*American Medical Association
*American Osteopathic Association
*American Veterinary Medical Association
*Australian Medical Association
*British Royal Army Medical Corps
*Canadian Medical Association
*Star of Life, symbol of emergency medical services
*World Health Organization
*Australian Veterinary Association
*Malaysian Medical Council

Confusion with the Caduceus

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).] as the symbol of the god Hermes, 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).] 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.

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. 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.

Further confusion was 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.

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]

tandard representation

The rod of Asclepius has a representation on the "Miscellaneous Symbols" table of the Unicode Standard at U+2695 (Unicode|⚕).

See also

* Aaron's rod


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