by Heinz Insu Fenkl

     "Here we see his full power of transcendence, whereby the lower transcendence from underworld snake-consciousness, passing through the medium of earthly reality, finally attains transcendence to superhuman or transpersonal reality in its winged flight."
-- Joseph L. Henderson, "Ancient Myths and Modern Man" in
Carl Jung's Man and his Symbols
1.  Hermes and Aesculapius

     If you've ever been to a hospital or flipped through a phone book looking up a physician, you've seen the image: two serpents criss-crossed around a staff topped by a round knob and flanked by wings. This is known as the caduceus, and it has been the symbol of the American medical profession for nearly a hundred years -- a decidedly odd symbol for doctors, until you begin to investigate its underlying meanings.

     According to Walter Friedlander, in The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine, this connection can be traced back to 1902, when the U.S. Army adopted the caduceus as the insignia of its Medical Corps, which had previously used the cross. Earlier, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the caduceus had been used by printers because it was the staff of Hermes (Mercury) the messenger god, and hence the divine deliverer of information. In the 19th century, a medical publisher used the symbol prominently on its texts, and thereby began the association of the caduceus with medicine, an association made firm by the prevalence of the image in the American Medical Corps during World War I. A symbol first representative of wisdom, eloquence, and communication, thus became the common logo for those in the health profession.

     Citing the history of the caduceus, some physicians are critical of the symbol, because 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 (he is a classic trickster figure in Greek myths). It only makes sense that doctors wouldn't want to be associated with trickery, death, and the accumulation of wealth! Medical purists suggest we should go back to the staff of Aesculapius, which is depicted as a single serpent coiled around a cypress branch.

     The story of Aesculapius and his association with Hermes begins to make the story of the related symbols quite interesting. According to Greek myth, the god Apollo, in a fit of jealousy, killed his unfaithful mortal lover, a woman named Coronis (the Greek root of her name, korone, refers to a seabird, or a crow). When Apollo discovered that she was pregnant with his son, he had Hermes deliver the child while her body lay on the funeral pyre. The child was none other than Aesculapius.

     Aesculapius was trained by the wise centaur, Chiron, to become a healer (since his father, Apollo, was the god of health), and over time, he became the god of medicine with his own cult and temples. Hippocrates, regarded as the father of western medicine, was a 20th-generation member of the cult of Aesculapius.

     There are various explanations for why Aesculapius's symbol is the serpent coiled around a staff. The figurative interpretations consider the symbology (the snake's association with rebirth, the cypress branch as representing strength); and the utilitarian approach suggests that the snake was a poisonous one tied to the staff, its venom used for its medical properties. But the fact that Hermes was Aesculapius's deliverer does not quite explain how the messenger god ended up with the symbol for medicine or why the serpents were doubled (though the wings might be explained as a displacement of Hermes/Mercury's winged ankles).

     In light of my last column on serpent symbols, what I've presented above might seem an adequate (though incomplete) explanation of the caduceus. But as it is with most symbols from antiquity -- regardless of how accurately they have retained their original meanings -- the possible truth is far more complex, and to explore it is to go into that interstitial space where folklore, religion, myth, and even science begin to lose their boundaries.

2.  The Tree and the Winged Serpent

     From a purely folkloric angle, it is impossible to ignore an odd fact that one finds in nearly every culture and throughout history: not only are staffs and serpents generally associated, but the juxtaposition or combination of the serpent and the bird symbols is almost always profoundly meaningful. That meaning, except in rare exceptions (which actually seem to prove the rule) is always positive, associated with healing, wisdom, and transcendence. The symbol of serpent and bird is typically reserved for powerful mythic figures, humans of unusual distinction (like shamans and mystics), or for royalty, who are often considered of divine origin.

     First, consider some of the connections between the serpent and the staff or rod -- those that go beyond the predictable explanation that a rod looks like a rigid serpent. In the Old Testament, during the exodus from Egypt (Numbers 21), Moses is told by God to construct a fiery serpent of brass and to display it on a pole so that those who had been bitten by poisonous snakes would be healed by gazing upon it. In the Gospel of John (John 3:14), we find this particular serpent image recalled in relation to Christ: "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up." This allusion not only makes the serpent potentially divine like Christ, but it associates Christ with the serpent (something quite common in Gnostic texts, as I discussed in "The Binary Serpent"). Earlier, in Sumerian and Akkadian representations of the axis mundi (the axis on which the world spins), one finds a pair of serpents criss-crossed over the rod. In Teutonic myth, Odin's universe is supported by Yggdrasil, "The World Ash." At the top of this cosmic tree is an eagle, and in its roots is the great cosmic serpent, Nidhogg, who will devour the bones of humanity after the great fall. In Buddhist folklore, the Buddha once meditated under the tree of the serpent king. When a rainstorm threatened to get the Buddha wet, a giant cobra wrapped himself around the Buddha's body seven times and opened his great hood over the Buddha's head to keep him dry.

     The bird seems already integral to the serpent and rod equation, and it becomes more prominent in other symbology, eventually becoming combined with the serpent. The origin of Kungfu (which is not only martial, but therapeutic and healing), refers to a folktale about a Buddhist monk (or, in some versions, a nun) who observed a crane fighting a snake and designed exercises to emulate their motions. In Sumerian and Babylonian iconography, the gods are often represented by winged disks and figures who are half human and half snake. Egyptian creation myths refer to a serpent and a primordial egg, which contained a bird of light. The Pharaohs of unified Egypt wore the trademark double crown of Horus and Set, represented by the vulture and the cobra. The serpent coiled on the foreheads of the Pharaohs represented divine fire, which originated at the base of the spine and ascended it just as the serpent had crawled up the Tree of Life. In Sanskrit, the coiled serpent is used to represent Kundalini, the energy that rises from the sacrum -- the bone at the base of the spine -- and results in enlightenment when it properly reaches the crown of the head through the practice of Kundalini yoga, which channels the energy along the six chakras, or energy centers, that correspond to the number of intersections of the serpent on the caduceus. Literally, Kundalini means "The Serpent Power."

     Among Egyptian hieroglyphs, one finds a prominent winged serpent, which some say is a precursor of the most famous of winged serpents, the Mesoamerican feathered serpent, Quetzalcoatl, known also as Kulkulcan. Like the Egyptian Pharaoh, Akhanaten, Quetzalcoatl declared that there was only one god, and he did away with earlier forms of sacrifice; he was a healer and a scientist, and he could take on human form. (One of history's great ironies is how the Conquistadors took advantage of the story of Quetzalcoatl's return to destroy a civilization.)

     From a feathered serpent, it is easy to make the next association to a serpent that flies, namely the figure of the dragon (the Greek drakon, which means "serpent"). Since it is a topic for its own future column, I will provide just a few examples here: In the lore of the British Isles, the most prominent dragon is, of course, the mythic king Arthur Pendragon. In Chinese cosmology, there are four Ao, or Dragon Kings (Qin, Kuang, Jun and Xun), each with his own elemental domain. In Korean legend, virtuous serpents eventually become dragons when rising into heaven, ascending a rainbow. The rainbow itself is a profound symbol, though here we can consider its quality of being like the colored ribbons associated with the maypole dance or the colored ribbons on the original caduceus (which also find expression in the red, white, and blue lines on the traditional barber's pole). The rainbow is also associated with flight and presents a winglike quality when it is bisected. In the tradition of Voodoo, one finds prominent connections between rainbow and serpent; among the Australian Aborigines, the rainbow serpent (with a host of different names, depending on language and region), is the most important figure in the Dreamtime. According to some variants of the Dreamtime myths, it is the primary creator of geological features that linger in the mundane world.

     When the symbol of the caduceus is stylized and simplified, it creates another set of linked associations. For decades, anthropologists have tried to decipher the meaning of the symbol found among the ruins of Minoan Crete (one of the primary sources of Greek civilization). This symbol, called the labrys, is often called a double-headed axe because it resembles one. Feminists have reinterpreted it, given the Minoan culture, to represent the wings of a butterfly spread at the top of a rod (which might represent a caterpillar); it is read now as a symbol of transformation and transcendence, which makes it parallel to the caduceus; but scholars have not yet realized that it is, in fact, a simplified caduceus. Less sophisticated renditions of the labrys scratched onto stones and walls look like a sideways hourglass on top of a line. Likewise, in a more modern context, we tend to take the familiar pharmacists's logo to be an overlapping R and X, when, in fact, it is a skewed rendition of the Greek letters Chi (X) and Ro (P), which are actually a representation of Christ (Chi and Ro being the first two letters in his name). The pharmacist's ChiRo is an invocation of Christ's healing power, just as the ChiRo in Chiropracty (in case you've wondered) is a reference to Christ. The Chi and Ro used in Christian iconography look remarkably similar to the simplified labrys, though the connection may seem forced until one examines the symbology of Christ on the cross.

     When the serpent and the bird are forcefully separated, they tend to take on opposite and antagonistic meanings. A good example of this phenomenon is what happens in Genesis, when the serpent is demonized as Satan and the tree of life is taboo. This contrasts with the story of the flood in which the white bird (the dove) bringing back the olive branch is associated with salvation as it finds the place for Noah to land (and note the use of the rainbow symbol as a promise from God never again to flood the earth). In the New Testament, the dove represents the Holy Spirit who, in Catholic symbology, is part of the Trinity. Since I've already pointed out how Christ has been equated with the serpent in my earlier column, suffice it to say that if God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit are one and the same according to the doctrine of the Trinity, then the Catholic crucifix is implicitly a caduceus as well: the cross is the staff, and Christ is simultaneously serpent and bird. And the knob at the top of the caduceus? On the crucifix, that is implied by the presence of God, though it is ironically inhibited by the crown of thorns.

3.  The Science of the Literal

     As is characteristic of traditional scholars in the social sciences and the arts, the general tendency over the years has been to read symbolic meanings a bit too figuratively. But recent work has begun to take a more interesting direction.

     Those who study shamanism find the symbology of the caduceus very familiar because it represents the connectedness of the three worlds: the underworld, the middle world, and the upper world. The serpent represents the netherworld and its connection to water; the staff represents the cosmic tree, which has its roots under the earth and its branches in the sky; the wings represent the spirit and its connection to the divine upper world. Anthropologists like Michael Harner (in The Way of the Shaman) and the McKenna brothers (in The Invisible Landscape) have suggested that this tripart symbology corresponds to the human mind's tripart consciousness. In biological terms, the caduceus happens to suggest an evolutionary scheme, since the reptile "becomes" a bird as it ascends the staff. This would parallel the phylogenetic hierarchy, in which reptiles evolve into birds which, in turn, evolve into mammals. At the top of the mammalian hierarchy is the human, whose next step is to become more conscious or (at least according to religion) is to evolve into a spiritual being. (The human limbic system, which is a vestige of our evolutionary development, is commonly called the "reptile brain," responsible for emotions and instinctive reactions.)

     The caduceus, taken as more literal representation, becomes its own illustration or map. For this interpretation, one only has to read the elements of the caduceus as corresponding to elements of the human body. For example: the two serpents represent the pineal gland and the pituitary gland (which both look snakelike when uncoiled); the staff represents the spinal column; the knob represents the medulla or the cranial orb; and the wings represents the two hemispheres of the brain (the wrinkled cross-section of the brain has the shape and texture of stylized wings); the number of intersections of the snakes corresponds to the endocrine glands or the chakras.

     What does this correspondence mean? My own tendency is to read the symbols as a suggestion that all humans have the potential for healing, wisdom, and transcendence incorporated in their own being. The caduceus may have been an instructive device whose rules of usage have been transformed into religious ritual over the ages.

     Another approach -- one that can yield alarming results -- is to apply a materialistic reading more rigorously. From that perspective, it is clear that the caduceus might initially have referred to an actual tool used to induce healing and transformation. Over the years, a small number of scholars have taken the caduceus as a diagram for a functional tool. During my research, I ran across one of the most recent functional interpretations by a scientist named Joshua Gulick, who actually constructed a caduceus. He says, "It is not just a symbol. It is an archaic blueprint for an infinitely resonant device to create and project fourth dimensional waves…. Those of you who have studied occult science likely know that serpents often represented electricity, while birds represented magnetism. The serpents in the caduceus symbol represent electrified wires with current flowing towards the heads.

     "With these 4th dimensional waves, it might be possible to affect 3 dimensional space.… It might also be extremely easy to affect the human or animal mind at a distance. Research has already shown that fairly strong magnetic pulses can cause firing of neurons in the brain. With one of these staves pointed at one's head, the firings of one's neurons might be controlled fairly precisely by varying the frequency passing through the staff. One could be entranced with theta frequencies, stimulated with alpha frequencies or higher, or actually put to sleep using frequencies around 4-6 Hertz. The staff of Hermes is cited in mythology as having a anesthetic effect…. This device is also has the potential to be immensely useful for healing. Preliminary evidence has shown that when hit at proper resonant frequencies, parasites, bacteria, and viruses may be selectively destroyed.…"

     Gulick's assertions may sound rather fantastic, but he has actually conducted tests of his machine which explain much of the caduceus symbology in a rather unexpected way. He says, "I was hitting my staff (which had a compressed caduceus winding) with pure sine modulated DC current…. During my experimentation, my mother called in from the other room (she didn't know what I was doing) and asked me if I was 'playing sounds on my computer.' I told her no and asked her what she meant. She told me that she was 'hearing tones in her head.' It would seem fairly possible that what she heard might had been caused by my experimentation…. I am in the process of constructing a staff using conductive ribbons rather than wire. This modification will allow much greater efficiency and signal stability."

     From a purely materialistic angle, Gulick's caduceus could explain the link between Hermes' staff and his other trademark, the lyre. It also explains why, prior to the current caduceus, Hermes staff was a staff entwined with colored ribbons.

     Despite what some theorists say, symbolism is not arbitrary. I would go as far as to say that it is never arbitrary when it is a human act because what we consciously believe to be arbitrary connections are almost always unconsciously meaningful. The caduceus, like most symbols from antiquity, has accumulated a spectrum of often conflicting meanings over the ages, becoming, in the process, a frustrating summarizing symbol. But those meanings, as you have seen, are accessible through a variety of approaches.

     So the caduceus could be the blueprint for a machine used for mind control and healing, a diagram of how the human body is its own vehicle for transcendence, or merely an accidental symbol for the medical profession. Take your pick, but apply your caduceus wisely; remember that the most important rule for the physician is, "First, do no harm."

About the Author:

Heinz Insu Fenkl is the author of Memories of My Ghost Brother and other works.

Copyright © 2000 by Heinz Insu Fenkl. This article appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine, 2000. It may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.

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