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Posts Tagged ‘Mythology

Bothered by rods

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So today I’m gonna talk about snakes and rods.

– o –

If you’re like most people, you probably recognize this symbol.

Of course you have seen it before. It’s the Caduceus. Hermes’ hot rod, carries it around in all those depictions of him in Ancient Greek statues and pottery? No?

Well, the thing is, if you are like most people who have seen this thing, you probably know the Caduceus as the symbol for medicine and the medical profession, not as the Greek messenger-god’s most recognizable fashion accessory (although I heard his scarves are divine, trololol). And sure enough, it’s in a lot of medical establishments, medical books, medical instruments, etc. But the problem with you recognizing the Caduceus in this perspective is that although it is practically correct, it’s also kinda-almost-sorta-technically wrong. I’ll explain that bit in a minute.

The Caduceus was thought to have originated from Mesopotamian mythologies, probably from an image of two snakes copulating and as a symbol of the messenger for the “Earth Mother”. As ideas got shuffled around between cultures, it so happened that Hermes, messenger god of the Olympians, was depicted with the staff. The staff, during that time, came to represent occupations and trades associated with the god.

However, Hermes was no patron of physicians. Far from it, he was the god of gamblers, liars, thieves, and worst of all, merchants! Not exactly the type of people you would trust to operate on your appendix, is it? I mean, for Zeussakes, almost the first thing that Hermes did after being born was to steal sheep from Apollo! The most positive myth for the Caduceus was that Hermes found two snakes fighting with each other, and put his staff between them, thus bringing peace between the two snakes, but it’s quite a jump between bringing peace between two squamates and healing the sick.

In fact, the original symbol for medicine was a similar looking staff called the Rod of Asclepius.

Single snake, no wings. Doesn't look as familiar, does it?

The origins of this rod are actually quite fascinating. You see, Ancient Greece, for all the glory of its art, philosophy, and mathematics, was just like any other community at that time in that its sanitary conditions were quite poor. Because of that, all sorts of nasty pathogens and parasites were common at that time, including the guinea worm. You don’t wanna know about the guinea worm, by the way, but I’m gonna tell you about it anyway.

Caution, horror ahead:

The guinea worm, Dracunculus medinensis, is a parasitic nematode that likes to lay its eggs in contaminated water, where it hatches into larvae that infect copepods, tiny invertebrates in the water. The copepods, however, are just its intermediate host. It hitches a ride in them as it waits for humans to drink the unclean water (remember, sanitary standards at that time), at which time it leaves the copepods to die, burrows itself out of the intestines, and breeds in your body cavity. The females leave the males to die there and further burrow out to live the rest of life literally crawling under your skin: long, wriggling, and as thick as a strand of spaghetti. It waits for a time when you come in contact with unclean water, at which time it pokes out of your skin to lay eggs into the water, completing the life cycle. No, it doesn’t swim out. After laying eggs it stays in your skin until it dies.

The way to remove guinea worm is to lure the female to poke out of your skin (presumably by dipping in water), grabbing on to its exposed part, and pulling it out. This can be tricky though, (not to mention very painful), because you run the risk of severing the worm, leaving the rest of its body inside your skin. You have to coil the exposed part on a stick and gently turn it to reel in the worm out of your skin, a process that could take days because it’s painful and dangerous to do it all at once. If you somehow find that difficult to imagine, I’ve put a picture here–> (No, don’t click it! It looks horrible. Aaaargh! Aaaargh! Aaaargh!)

Anyway, physicians at that time advertised that they also treat guinea worm infections by putting up a sign with the drawing of a guinea worm wrapped around the stick. This caught on, and then was modified into a snake wrapped around a stick. It’s called the Rod of Asclepius because it became the symbol for Asclepius, the greatest healer in greek myth. He was such a great doctor in fact that Zeus had to kill him because he was bringing people back to life. The change of the symbol into a snake is because snakes were associated with rejuvenation with their ability to molt out of their old skin. Asclepius was also quite fond of snakes, and his temple is filled with them. Besides, the skin-crawling parasite on a stick was probably becoming too yucky.

Anyway, the Rod of Asclepius became the symbol of medicine in western culture up until today. So how is it that most people associate medicine with the Caduceus rather than the more appropriate snake stick? Simple. They looked kind of the same, so people confused them with each other. In fact, the first people to muddle the Caduceus with the Rod of Asclepius were none other than the Americans.

ah, but of course

No really, I try not to bash Americans too much. “Ugh, Americans are so stupid” just loses its impact when you’re from a country that hasn’t even got the Reproductive Health Bill passed yet. I just wish the Americans would not make it so easy for me to mock them. Case in point, in the early 19th century, Army hospital stewards (hospital staff, not actual physicians) began wearing the Caduceus in their uniforms, presumably because they didn’t know the difference between that and the Rod of Asclepius. Eventually, it was deliberately adopted by US Army and the rest is history; the meme spread out from there, presumably because the Caduceus looked “pretty” compared to the other rod, and now only mythology geeks even know the difference between the two.

Now, of course, the Caduceus is everywhere. Generally speaking, it’s more often seen in more commercialized establishments like drug stores and such, while more scholarly establishments maintain the proper Rod. I have to admit, to get medical services from an establishment that uses the symbol of thieves and scoundrels is quite annoying (although surprisingly appropriate in the case of some pharmaceutical companies and hospitals). I just have to live with the fact that, as a symbol of medicine, the Caduceus is here to stay. It’s even the name of the Medivac upgrade in Starcraft II. And I love watching Starcraft II. :(  I feel a surge of hipster anger when I see the Caduceus used this way, and I’m more likely to respect establishments that use the proper rod.

So maybe you should check the medical establishments near you next time. You never know, maybe you’re being treated by scoundrels and charlatans. Or worse, maybe you’re working for them…

…or maybe you are them.

– o –

This post is brought to you by being incredibly thirsty and there’s a cockroach on the floor.


Written by rubiscodisco

February 25, 2012 at 11:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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