December is here and with it comes the festivities that Christmas and the New Year bring with them. 2012 as we all know was the year of the ‘Dragon’ according to the Chinese Zodiac that assigns animals to the years. And according to the same Chinese Zodiacs, 2013 is the year of the ‘Snake’ that comes up after every 12 years. However, to be more precise, 2013 is the year of the ‘Water Snake’, the first time since 1953.
The image of a snake is familiar for everyone associated with the medical field. It is after all the ‘Rod of Asclepius’, a snake entwined around a rod that represents medicine and healthcare, although quite often the ‘Caduceus’, two snakes around a winged staff is mistakenly used as a symbol of medicine.
We all know that snake-bites are quite often poisonous and spell bad news. This raises a question among many individuals, as to “Why the snake is a symbol of the medical profession?” And if you’re one of the many individuals troubled by this question, you’ll find out soon enough.
The Rod of Asclepius takes its origins from Asclepius, who is the God of healing and medicine and wielded the Rod of Asclepius, according to the Greek mythology.
Some of the most famous Asclepius temples were situated Epidaurus and the island of Kos, where according to some historians, Hippocrates, the ‘father of medicine’ may have started his career. Some more Asclepedia were located in Trikala and Gortys in Greece and Pergamum (today in Turkey). In honour of Asclepedius, a particular non-venomous snake, Asclepian snakes were used as part of the healing rituals. These snakes crawled around freely on the grounds of dormitories and were introduced during the founding of every new Asclepian temple.
In some depictions, the snake and the serpent appear separately, and some believe that these attributes were combined later on at some point during the development of the Asclepian cult.
The significance of the snake has more than one interpretation to it.
The Greeks regarded snakes as sacred because their venom was thought to be remedial and their skin-shedding was seen as a symbol of rebirth and renewal, while other interpretations show represent the snake as a symbol of the dual nature of the work of a physician, dealing with health and sickness, life and death.
The meaning of the rod or the staff also has many more than one interpretation to it.
One theory is that it represented notions of ‘resurrection and healing’, while another theory would have us believe that the staff represents a walking stick associated with itinerant physicians.
Cornutus, a Greek philosopher offers his views on the significance of both the snake and the staff in the ‘Theologiae Graecae Compendium’.
“Asclepius derived his name from healing soothingly and from deferring the withering that comes with death. For this reason, therefore, they give him a serpent as an attribute, indicating that those who avail themselves of medical science undergo a process similar to the serpent in that they, as it were, grow young again after illnesses and slough off old age; also because the serpent is a sign of attention, much of which is required in medical treatments. The staff also seems to be a symbol of some similar thing. For by means of this it is set before our minds that unless we are supported by such inventions as these, in so far as falling continually into sickness is concerned, stumbling along we would fall even sooner than necessary.”Some historians also interpret the symbol as a direct representation of the traditional treatment for Dracunculus Medeninsis, while some others have linked the symbol to Nehushtan, a sacred object wrapped around a pole, mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Numbers.
Confusion with Caduceus as a symbol of medicine
It is quite common the Caduceus which has two snakes entwined around a winged staff to be used as a medical symbol. That does not mean that this usage is free of errors, but strangely it is believed by many that the Caduceus is another symbol that represents medicine, like the Asclepius.
The erroneous usage of the Caduceus as a medical symbol began more than a century ago, when in 1902 the US Army Medical Corps adopted it as the medical symbol. It is however, still not clear whether it was Captain Frederick P. Reynolds or Colonel Hoff who was chiefly responsible for the adoption of the caduceus as the medical symbol by the medical department of the US army. According to ‘The Army and Navy Register of 28 June 1902, there were a number of medical officers unhappy with this choice though, since the two-snake Caduceus design has always been associated with commerce, eloquence, trickery and negotiation and this was considered to be inappropriate in a symbol that would represent those associated with healing and health. The editor of the article however claims that the symbol was not chosen for its medical representations but for another interpretation, ‘the rod represents power, the serpents stand wisdom and the two wings on the staff suggest diligence and activity, qualities that are undoubtedly possessed by our medical officers’.
A few years later, another article suggested that there was no historical evidence to justify the use of the Caduceus as the symbol to represent a physician and it was an unfortunate confusion.
The initial error made more than 110 years ago has continued through the years, so much so that a recently conducted survey suggested that only 62% of all professional healthcare associations in the United States of America used the rod of Asclepius, and a whopping 76% of all commercial healthcare organizations use the Caduceus symbol. The author of the study attributes this enormous volume of the incorrect usage to the concerns among commercial organizations of the visual impact it has in the sales of their products.
The Rod of Asclepius is today widely used and recognized as the symbol of medicine and health in most places in the world, and is also included in the first line of the Hippocratic Oath with Apollo, Hygieia and Panacea.
A number of organizations and services that use rod of Asclepius as a part of their logo, including the American Medical Association, Australian Medical Association, British Medical Association, British Royal Army Medical Corps, Canadian Medical Association, Canadian Forces Medical Service, Pakistan Medical Corps, the Medical Council of India and the World Health Organization among others.
The Year of the Snake is almost upon us, and we all at Asian Heart Institute wish you a very Happy New Year and wish that the snake on the Rod of Asclepius looks after your health for years to come.