Caduceus vs. Rod of Asclepius

Caduceus, Commerce

Rod of Asclepius, Medicine

These two symbols have very different meanings! If you want to refer to medicine, use the rod with one snake, the Rod of Asclepius! If you want to refer to commerce (or some other things, see below) use the winged staff with two snakes!

The Rod of Asclepius is the symbol on the right. It is a rod with one snake wrapped around it. It is the symbol for the ancient Greek god Asclepius, known as a god of medicine. It is used today as a symbol for the medical profession. You can find the symbol on ambulances in the US and all over the world, and… everywhere.

The Caduceus is the symbol on the left, it is a staff with wings and two snakes wrapped around it. It is the symbol for the ancient Greek god Hermes. Hermes is known for being a messenger of the gods, guide to the dead and protector of merchants, shepherds, gamblers, liars, and thieves. The Caduceus is generally used today as a symbol of commerce.

Why do they get it wrong in the U.S.?
In 1902 the US Army Medical Corp chose the Caduceus as their insignia. Most scholars regard this as a flat-out mistake. The US Army writes that the Caduceus represents “the non-combatant status of military medicine on the battlefield”. The Encyclopedia Britannica notes, “Among the ancient Greeks and Romans [the Caduceus] became the badge of heralds and ambassadors, signifying their inviolability.” So maybe the US Army was thinking the symbol would convey a sense of “… Hey, hey, hey, don’t kill me, I’m just a messenger delivering the wounded to the hospital.” or some such. That feels like quite a stretch to me. The army probably just chose the wrong symbol. More importantly, saying “I’m just a messenger” is, at best, nonsensical on a doctor’s clothing. At worst, it’s terrifying! A person wearing this badge would be, in theory much more likely to kill you (guide to the dead!), sell your organs (protector of merchants!), feed your body to the dogs (shepherds!), hock your jewelry (gamblers!), and tell your mom they haven’t seen you in a week (liars and thieves!) than help you. Seriously!

There are many articles where historians and professionals delve into this issue. Almost all of them say the US Medical Corps are definitely using the wrong symbol. Here’s a few to get you started:

5 Comments

  1. Lee says:

    It’s misinformative and somewhat insulting to see the wrong symbol being used.

    Wikipedia has several good articles that are very well referenced:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus_as_a_symbol_of_medicine
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caduceus
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rod_of_Asclepius

  2. Lee says:

    The Google Search for “medical symbol” prominently shows the wrong symbol. I sent them feedback. Maybe they’ll update it.
    It’s especially important since the page shows lots of Caduceuses but EVERY text reference says that the Caduceus is not the right symbol.

    I wrote to them: The “medical symbol” is the Rod of Asclepius (one snake on a rod), not the Caduceus (two snakes on winged staff). All of the google search links mention that there is often confusion but point out the truth.

  3. Lee says:

    I sent a letter to NPR Corrections https://help.npr.org/contact/s/contact?request=Submit-a-correction&show=All%20Things%20Considered

    https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/12/27/633979867/patients-are-turning-to-gofundme-to-fill-health-insurance-gaps

    I saw this article on the NPR homepage today.
    In this article, NPR erroneously used the wrong stock image for “medicine”. You used 2 snakes on a winged staff, known as the Caduceus. That is the symbol for Hermes, the god of messengers, commerce and the dead, and NOT a symbol for medicine!! It is particularly macabre and strange when a presumably hopeful medical article shows a symbol for the dead! The correct symbol is a rod and one snake, the Rod of Asclepius. This confusion happens often in the U.S. but it is incorrect usage every single time ;-).

    Here is a short article with pointers to other sources about this subject. https://www.lee.org/blog/2016/06/15/caduceus-vs-rod-of-asclepius/
    In brief:
    – Caduceus = the god Hermes: messenger of the gods, protector of the dead, liars, thieves and others
    – Rod of Asclepius = the god Asclepius, the god of medicine and doctors

    I searched the NPR website and found two good examples of usage!

    (https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/10/12/355635742/striking-mosaic-found-in-greek-tomb-dates-from-4th-century-b-c)
    “The Greek God Hermes is shown leading, for he is the traditional guide to the spirits of the dead, into the underworld of Hades,” according to the website The Amphipolis Tomb. Hermes is depicted wearing a hat and cloak, and carrying a caduceus.”

    Please consider how bizarre and macabre it is to use the symbol for “… the traditional guide to the spirits of the dead, into the underworld of Hades” in a medical article!!

    (https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/02/18/685710243/can-you-guess-the-meaning-of-these-humanitarian-icons)
    “The designers also updated some of the icons, too. The 2012 iconography depicted the wrong snake in a symbol for health, for example. “We erroneously used the ‘Caduceus,’ a symbol of commerce, instead of the ‘Rod of Asclepius,’ the actual symbol of medicine,” says Paolo Palmero, an information management officer at the U.N. who helped work on the project.”

    You can see the icons the United Nations created here (https://www.unocha.org/story/ocha-releases-humanitarian-icons-help-covid-19-response). They got it right, medicine = the rod and single snake.

  4. Lee says:

    I wrote to the NounProject
    Dearest Nounproject,

    I hope this is helpful. I read on your site that your mission is to build a global visual language. It would be great if you could correct this issue for the betterment of all.
    There are two icons that are often mislabeled on your site.

    – The Caduceus is a winged staff with 2 snakes. It is the symbol of the god Hermes. Your Caduceus page has a few rods of Asclepius on it.
    – The rod of Asclepius is a rod with 1 snake. It is the symbol of the god Asclepius. Fully 1/2 of the icons on your Rod of Asclepius page are actually Caduceuses. 

    Along with that, icons like this one are no good at all. This one has the Caduceus in front of the Star of Life, which is nonsensical.
    Here’s more details about the difference between these two icons.  

    Is there any way I can help sort your icons correctly?

  5. Lee says:

    In this NPR article titled, Can You Guess The Meaning Of These Humanitarian Icons? they talk about how, in 2018, the iconographers at UNOCHA, part of the United Nations, “released a redesigned set of 295 icons… The 2012 iconography depicted the wrong snake in a symbol for health, for example. “We erroneously used the ‘Caduceus,’ a symbol of commerce, instead of the ‘Rod of Asclepius,’ the actual symbol of medicine,” says Paolo Palmero, an information management officer at the U.N. who helped work on the project.”

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