In Greek mythology, the ambassador of the Olympian gods, Hermes, is often shown carrying a rather interesting serpent bearing staff. The staff is called a caduceus. Sometimes known as a wand, of Hermes’ staff was a powerful weapon symbolizing peace and rebirth.
With such a powerful-looking wand, one would expect Hermes to be a rather serious god. You may be surprised to learn that, despite his prestigious title and noble weapon, In actuality, the bearer of the caduceus was a mischievous cunning trickster. However, this did not stop the messenger god from fulfilling his very serious role in ancient Greek mythology.
The mischievous messenger god’s Roman counterpart, the god Mercury, carried the same staff. This famous staff or wand was not just unique to Hermes and Mercury, the caduceus was the symbol of the Heralds and messengers and so anyone with this title technically could possess one.
As with many aspects of mythology, gods included, the symbol of the caduceus is not believed to have originated in ancient Greece. Hermes appeared with the staff around the 6th century BC.
So, if not the Greeks, who were the first people to imagine this distinctive serpent wand?
The Origin of the Caduceus
The intricate serpent wand carried by Hermes was his most distinctive symbol, even more so than his winged shoes or helmet. The staff has two serpents winding up the rod forming a double helix.
The wand is sometimes shown with wings on top, but in earlier Greek art the snake’s heads form a sort of circle at the top of the rod, giving the appearance of curved horns.
The Caduceus, or in Greek kerukeion, seemingly refers to any herald or messengers staff, not just Hermes’ as Kerukeion translates to herald’s wand or staff. It is believed the symbol of heralds originated in the ancient Near East.
The ancient Near East refers to the ancient civilizations who lived in the geographical area that encompasses much of today’s modern Middle East. Scholars believe the caduceus was adopted by the ancient Greeks from ancient Near Eastern traditions to be used for the messengers of the Greek gods. However, not everyone accepts this theory.
One theory about the origin of the symbol is that the caduceus evolved from a shepherd’s crook. A Greek shepherd’s crook was traditionally made from a forked olive branch. The branch was topped with two strands of wool, and later two white ribbons. It is believed the decorative ribbons were replaced by snakes over time.
Icons and symbols associated with snakes appear in many cultures, Indeed, snakes are one of the oldest mythological symbols. Serpents appear painted on cave walls, and in the first written texts of the ancient Egyptians.
They are traditionally associated with sun gods and symbolize fertility, wisdom, and healing. In the Ancient Near East, serpents were linked to the Underworld. When linked to the Underworld serpents represented harm, evil, destruction, and death.
Ancient Near East Origin of Hermes’ Staff
William Hayes Ward however believed this theory to be unlikely. Ward discovered symbols that mimicked the classical caduceus on Mesopotamian cylinder seals dating back to between 3000 – 4000 BC. The two entwined serpents are a clue to the staffs’ origins, as the serpent is traditionally linked to ancient Near Eastern iconography.
It has been suggested that the Greek god Hermes has a Babylonian origin himself. In the Babylonian context, Hermes in his earliest form was a snake god. Hermes may be a derivative of the Ancient Near Eastern god Ningishzida.
Ningishzida was a god who dwelled in the Underworld for a part of the year. Ningishzida, like Hermes, was a messenger god, who was the messenger of the ‘Earth Mother.’ The symbol for the messenger god of the Underworld was two entwined serpents on a staff.
It is possible that the Greeks adopted the symbol of the Near Eastern god to be used by their messenger god, Hermes.
The Caduceus in Greek Mythology
In Greek mythology, the caduceus is most commonly associated with Hermes and is sometimes referred to as the wand of Hermes. Hermes would carry his staff in his left hand. Hermes was the Hereld and messenger of the Olympian gods. According to legend, he was the protector of mortal heralds, trade, diplomacy, cunning astrology, and astronomy.
Hermes was also believed to protect herds, travelers, thieves, and diplomacy. Hermes acted as a guide for the dead. The herald transported the newly deceased mortal souls from the Earth to the River Styx. Hermes’ staff evolved and came to incorporate wings on top to show the god’s swiftness.
Hermes’ wand was a symbol of his inviolability. The staff In ancient Greece the two serpents intertwined symbolized rebirth and regeneration. The snake is usually associated with Heremes’ half-brother Apollo or Apollo’s son Asclepius.
In ancient Greece, the caduceus was not just a symbol of Hermes. In Greek mythology, other messenger gods and goddesses sometimes possessed a caduceus. Iris, for instance, the messenger of the Queen of the Gods, Hera, carried a caduceus.
How did Hermes Get His Staff?
In Greek mythology, there are multiple stories of how Hermes came to possess the Caduceus. On version is that he was given the staff by the Olympian god Apollo who was Hermes’ half-brother. Snakes are usually associated with the Olympian god of light and wisdom, as he is associated with the sun and healing.
In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, Hermes showed Apollo the lyre fashioned from a tortoise shell. Apollo was so enchanted by the music Hermes created with the instrument, that he gifted Hermes a staff in exchange for the instrument. With the staff, Hermes became the ambassador of the gods.
The second story of how Hermes acquired his staff involves Apollo too, although not directly. In this tale, the blind prophet of Apollo, Tiresias. In this myth of origin, Tiresias found two serpents entwined. Tiresias killed the female snake with his staff.
Upon killing the female snake, Tiresias immediately was transformed into a woman. The blind prophet remained a woman for seven years until he could repeat his actions this time with a male snake. Sometime after this, the staff ended up in the possession of the Herald of the Olympian gods.
Another tale describes how Hermes came across two serpents entwined in mortal combat. Hermes intervened in the battle and stopped the snakes from fighting by throwing his wand at the pair. The wand of the herald forever signified peace after the incident.
What Does the Caduceus Symbolize?
In classical mythology, the staff of Hermes is a symbol of peace. In ancient Greece, entwined serpents symbolized rebirth and regeneration. Serpents are one of the most ancient symbols found cross-culturally. They traditionally symbolize fertility and the balance between good and evil.
The snake was considered a symbol of healing and regeneration because of the snake’s ability to shed its skin. In addition, snakes are also considered to be a symbol of death. The snakes on the caduceus represent balance, between life and death, peace and conflict, trade and negotiation. The ancient Greeks also considered snakes to be the most clever and wisest animal.
Apollo’s son Asclepius, who was the god of medicine, came to possess a rod with a serpent too, further linking snakes with the healing arts. The rod of Asclepius only has one snake wound around it, not two like that of Hermes.
The caduceus became the symbol of all the professions associated with the messenger of the gods. The symbol was used by ambassadors because Hermes was the god of diplomacy. Thus, the herald’s staff symbolized peace and peaceful negotiations. The snakes on the caduceus represent the balance between life and death, peace and conflict, trade and negotiation.
Through the ages, the staff remained a symbol of negotiation, especially in the realm of trade. As an infant, Hermes stole a herd of Apollo’s sacred cattle. The pair entered into a negotiation and agreed upon trade for the safe return of the cattle. The Caduceus also came to symbolize commerce because Hermes is believed to have invented coinage, and he was the god of trade.
The caduceus has been adapted to represent many different things throughout history. In late antiquity, the staff of Hermes became an astrological symbol for the planet Mercury. During the Hellenistic period, the caduceus took on a new meaning because the wand of Hermes came to be associated with a different Hermes, Hermes Trismegistus.
The Staff of Hermes and Hermes Trismegistus
Hermes Trismegistus is a Hellenistic figure from Greek mythology who is linked to the messenger god, Hermes. This Hellenistic author and alchemist represent a combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Ancient Egyptian god Thoth.
This mythical Hermes was closely associated with magic and alchemy. Like the god, he was modeled after he too carried a caduceus. It is because of the association with this Hermes, that the caduceus came to be used as a symbol in alchemy.
In alchemical symbolism, the herald’s wand represents prime matter. Prime matter is similar to the primordial abyss Chaos from which all life was created. Chaos was also considered by many ancient philosophers to be the foundation of reality. In this context, the staff of Hermes becomes the symbol for the base of all matter.
The caduceus evolved from representing the prima materia and became the symbol for the elemental metal, Mercury.
Hermes’ Staff in Ancient Greek Art
Traditionally, the staff appears on vase paintings as a rod with two snakes entwined with their heads joining at the top to create a circle. The heads of the two snakes make the staff appear as if it has horns.
Sometimes Hermes’ wand is shown topped with wings. This is to mimic Hermes’ shoes and helmet that illustrate his ability to flit swiftly between the mortal world, the heavens, and the Underworld.
What Powers did Hermes’ Staff Have?
The staff of Hermes was believed to have transformative powers. The ancient Greeks believed that the staff of Hermes could put mortals into a deep slumber or awaken them. Hermes’ wand could help a mortal die peacefully and it could bring the dead back to life.
The Caduceus in a Modern Context
You may often catch a glimpse of the herald’s staff outside a pharmacy or Doctors’ rooms. In today’s world, the ancient Greek symbol of two snakes intertwined on a rod is usually connected to the medical profession.
In a medical context, the symbolic staff associated with the messenger of the god,s is used by several medical professionals and medical organizations in North America. The Caduceus is used as a symbol by the United States Army Medical Corps and the American Medical Association.
Because of its use within the medical society in North America, the Caduceus is often confused with another medical symbol, the rod of Asclepius. The Rod of Asclepius has only one serpent entwined around it and no wings.