SILO: Snakes on Sticks

I’ve started book­mark­ing the in­ter­est­ing Wikipedia ar­ti­cles I stum­ble on. You’ll see them pop up here with the pre­fix “SILO”: “Stuff I Learned On­line”. En­joy the tid­bits.

What’s the deal with med­ical or­ga­ni­za­tions and snakes on sticks? Why is it some­time one snake and some­times two snakes?

Rod of Asclepius

The Rod of As­cle­pius is a wooden rod with a sin­gle snake en­twined around it. It’s a com­mon sym­bol for med­i­cine, used by en­ti­ties such as the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion. As­cle­pius was the Greek god of med­i­cine, son of Apollo. Why did he carry a snake on a stick? Some think it was sym­bolic; for ex­am­ple, the way snakes shed their skin could sym­bol­ize re­ju­ve­na­tion.

Pos­si­bly re­lated (al­though there’s no way to know), the Rod of As­cle­pius re­sem­bles the rod with a bronze ser­pent1 that God told Moses to erect in the wilder­ness. Is­raelites bit­ten by poi­so­nous snakes could be healed by just look­ing at the bronze snake. Fif­teen-hun­dred years later, Je­sus said that the snake was a pic­ture of him­self:

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up. John 3:14

And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. John 12:32


The ca­duceus is a rod with two snakes wrapped around the rod and each other. It was given to Her­mes2, god of com­merce and the mes­sen­ger of the gods, by Apollo3, the fa­ther of As­cle­pius. Why did he carry snakes on a stick? The world is full of mys­ter­ies. The ca­duceus is also used by some mod­ern or­ga­ni­za­tions as a sym­bol of med­i­cine, al­though the Rod of As­cle­pius is more com­mon.

So why is the ca­duceus used as a med­ical sym­bol when it had no con­nec­tion to med­i­cine orig­i­nally? Ap­par­ently in the late 1800’s the US mil­i­tary con­fused the two and started us­ing the ca­duceus as a med­ical in­signia. Oops.

I keep them straight in my mind by re­mem­ber­ing that “caduceus” has a “deuce” in the mid­dle, and it’s the one with two snakes.

  1. The brass ser­pent was later called “Ne­hush­tan”.
  2. Mer­cury is the Ro­man god that cor­re­sponded to the Greek god Her­mes.
  3. The god Apollo was called “Apollo” in both Greek and Ro­man pan­theons.
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