Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Caduceus and its Symbolism by Robert Wilson 1922


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THE association of the Caduceus with Hermes, or Mercury, the messenger of the gods, and the patron of trade, seems to give no intimation of its right to become the accepted symbol of the medical profession. This right, indeed, has been called into question and the staff of Aesculapius with a single serpent twined around it, is regarded as the correct emblem. The symbolism of the serpent, however, is the same in both, but the winged Caduceus probably embodies an interesting combination of two primitive cults which were associated with the earliest conceptions of the healing art.

According to Garrison, the Caduceus was first used as a medical emblem in the sixteenth century when Johann Froeben, publisher of medical books, employed it as a title page device; and a little later Sir Wm. Butts, physician to Henry viii, used it on his crest. What suggested its use in these instances instead of the Staff of Aesculapius is not clear.

About the middle of the nineteenth century the medical publishing house of J. S. Churchill, of London, employed the Caduceus, and in 1856 it was used on the chevrons of hospital stewards in the United States Army. Later it was adopted by the U. S. Public Health Service, and in 1902 by the United States Army as a designation of medical officers. The Royal Army Medical Corps use the staff with the single serpent which is the form now appearing on the button of the American Medical Association.

The most ancient illustration of the Caduceus which is known is upon the libation vase dedicated by Gudea, King of Lagash, to the god Ningishzida. This figure does not show the wings which usually appear upon the Caduceus of Greek and Roman mythology. This interesting vase was unearthed upon the site of Lagash and Frothingham thinks it indicates the Assyrio-Babylonian origin of the Caduceus which ultimately found its way from Accad and Sumer into the later Greek and Roman civilizations. The date of this vase he places at 3,500 B.C. which corresponds to the beginning of the dynastic period in Egypt. Other chronologies, however, place the accession of Gudea nearly a thousand years later, or about 2,450 B.C. which is about the beginning of the ninth Egyptian dynasty. But already in pre-dynastic Egypt the symbol of the two serpents appears upon the monuments, although not in the identical form as upon the Lagash vase.

The question of the origin of civilization is still under discussion, but the weight of evidence indicates that the civilization of Egypt antedated that of the Mesapotamian states and was the source from which the latter derived much of their culture. We must therefore revert to the history of the older culture and the symbolism in which its conceptions found expression in order to reach an understanding of the real meaning of the winged Caduceus and of its association with the healing art. This leads us to a consideration of two very early forms of worship in which the struggling faith of man took form, serpent worship and sun worship.

The serpent cult originated very early in Egypt, the proto-Egyptians, according to Elliott Smith, being serpent worshippers. Its origin is obscure and need not be discussed in this connection. What interests us here is its early association with the idea of health. Wake says:

One of the leading ideas connected with the serpent was, as we have seen, its power over rain, but another equally influential was its connection with health. That the idea of health was intimately associated with the serpent is shown by the crown form of the asp, or sacred Thermuthes, having been given particularly to Isis, a goddess of life and healing.

The idea of this association persisted for many centuries and became widespread, appearing for example in Gaelic and German folk-lore as a belief that "the white serpent when boiled has the faculty of conferring medicinal wisdom." In the book of Genesis the serpent personifies the evil one and typifies subtlety and cunning; but in Exodus, Moses sets up a brazen serpent-image as a healing agent and it seems to have occupied a place in the worship of the Israelites down to the time of Hezekiah.

Whether serpent worship originated in phallicism or whether the latter developed at some later time is difficult to determine, but at any rate the serpent very early became a symbol of the phallus, the venerated emblem of life and regenerative power. The particular variety of serpent which seems to have possessed special significance was the cobra di capello; and it is clearly this serpent which is figured on so many Egyptian monuments. The sacred uraeus was doubtless the cobra and not, as Max Muller suggests, the asp.

It is a curious and interesting fact that serpent worship and sun worship are found invariably and universally associated. The worship of the sun was probably of earlier origin. Primitive man soon traced the connection between sunshine and the blessings of life and health, and so set up the source of this beneficent influence as the main object of his worship. In his effort to personify in some familiar form this mighty and powerful being who every day moved across the heavens dispensing light and warmth, health and life, the early Egyptians "sought to describe it as a hawk which flew daily across the sky. Therefore, the most popular forms of the solar deity, Ra and Horus, have the form of a hawk or of a hawk-headed man," and at the beginning of the dynastic period the worship of Horus was general throughout Egypt. Instead of being represented always by the complete figure of a hawk, Horus is often symbolized merely by two outstretched wings, or by a winged disc. This winged disc was carried from Egypt to Assyria and Babylonia where it became a common and familiar emblem. In the predynastic period before the northern and southern kingdoms became united, serpent worship flourished especially in Lower Egypt and the capital Buto with its protecting serpent-goddess was the center of the cult, but in both kingdoms "the hawk-god Horus was worshipped as the distinctive deity of both kings." When the two kingdoms became united under Menes about 3,400 B.C, the symbols of the two cults began to appear side by side, and later the king who was the sun-god's representative upon earth adopted the sacred uraeus of the north, which he wore upon his forehead. Elliott Smith is of the opinion that this union of sun and serpent worship was the beginning of an association which later spread over the world. He says:

The fact that the dominion of the sun-god Ra (or Horus) was attained in the northern capital, which was also the seat of serpent worship, led to the association of sun and serpent. From this purely fortuitous blending of the sun's disc with the uraeus, often combined, especially in later times, with the wings of the Horus-Hawk, a symbolism came into being which was destined to spread until it encircled the world from Ireland to America.

The staff of Aesculapius with its single serpent had doubtless a similar Egyptian origin. The Aesculapian cult may be traced to Egyptian sources and the knotted staff with its serpent of later times was probably derived from the sacred uas staff. An interesting relief from the tomb of Amenemhet 1, shows the hawk-headed god Horus presenting the crux ansata, the symbol of life, to the royal hawk which surmounts the Horus name of Amenemhet, behind which is a uas staff with a serpent twined around it, a symbolic representation of the author and giver of life and health conferring upon his earthly representative these divine powers.

The emblems peculiarly indicative of healing would naturally be associated with the special divinity presiding over health, and hence Hermes, who was worshipped in Boeotia as the averter of disease, and who was identified with the Egyptian Thoth, god of letters and of wisdom in general, who also was said to have invented the healing art, most appropriately carried them. There may be another significance in the association of the serpent with Hermes which we cannot overlook. Herodotus says that he was figured by the Pelasgians, who were the prehistoric inhabitants of Greece, as a phallic deity, in which case when the phallic symbolism of the serpent is recalled we readily understand an association whose real meaning became lost when the original phallic character of Hermes was forgotten. The function of Hermes as messenger later seemed to dominate his other functions, and the emblem which he bore at first because he was a god of healing, or a phallic deity, became the kerykeion, or herald's staff. The winged cap and winged sandals also are generally supposed to have been worn because he was the messenger of the gods, but it is quite probable that these as well as the wings of the Caduceus were originally the emblem of the sun-god Horus. A faint memory of the Horus origin of the wings of the Caduceus perhaps lingers in the myth which narrates that Hermes received the emblem in exchange for the lyre from Apollo, who was a sun-god; and it may be of some significance, too, that the hawk was one of the animals sacred to Apollo.

Whether the Caduceus in its present form originated as an Egyptian or as an Assyrian device, the symbolism which it represents dates back to pre-dynastic Egypt. It bears a silent witness to the union of two ancient kingdoms which marks the beginning of history, and to the fusion of two primitive cults whose emblems indicated to man the divine source of life and health, while the use of these ancient emblems to symbolize the medicine of today brings us into touch across the space of more than fifty centuries with the crude primitive beginnings of the healing art and man's earliest striving after truth. The beneficent influence of the symbolic wings of the sun-god doubtless inspired the beautiful words of the prophet Malachi in which we may now see a new meaning and a deeper significance: "Unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings."

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