What is the Rod of Asclepius? - Meaning & History

Instructor: Jennifer Shaw

Jennifer is a third year PhD student in women's studies and has a a Master's degree in History.

In this lesson we will explore the myth and history behind the Rod of Asclepius, its confusion with the caduceus and the meaning of the Rod in modern times.

Who Is Asclepius?

You're probably familiar with the symbol of many medical associations: a rod with a serpent wrapped around it. But do you know the history of this symbol, called the Rod of Asclepius? Emerging out of Greek mythology, this is a symbol known and trusted the world over.

Asclepius is a figure in Greek mythology. He was the son of the god, Apollo, and the nymph, Coronis. While she was pregnant, Coronis took a second, mortal lover. Jealous of this relationship, Apollo killed Coronis, and as she lay on her funeral pyre, he took pity on the unborn child and rescued him. The baby was named Asclepius, and he was taught about medicine by Cheiron, a learned centaur. Asclepius learned so much that he was eventually able to bring one of his patients back from the dead.

Zeus, the king of the gods, started worrying that the immortality of the gods was about to be challenged by mortals, so he killed Asclepius with a thunderbolt. Apollo requested that his son be placed in the sky as a star called Ophiuchus, the serpent-bearer. In other versions of the myth, Asclepius doesn't actually die, but instead becomes a living god, founding healing centers around ancient Greece. This eventually led to a cult of Asclepius, and its adherents worked to heal people.

Fragment of mosaics of Asclepius in the Public Bath of Kyustendil
asclepius mosaic

The Rod of Asclepius

In Greek art, Asclepius is often seen standing and wearing a robe with his chest bared, and usually carrying a staff with a snake wrapped around it. It is this version of the staff that is the symbol of the medical field.

Statue of Asclepius, ca. 2nd century CE
Asclepius Rhodes

There are many theories on how the staff and serpent came to be connected to medicine. One is called the 'worm theory.' This comes from the Ebers papyrus (ca. 1500 BCE), one of the first ancient Egyptian medical treatises. It details a treatment for parasitic worms that involved cutting into a person and slowly pulling out the worm over time and wrapping it around a stick. Healers of the time would advertise their services by hanging a sign picturing a stick with a worm wound around it. The second theory is related to the Biblical figure of Moses, who carried a bronze staff that had a bronze serpent wrapped around it. If any Israelite was bitten by a venomous snake, they only had to look at the snake on the staff to be cured.

However, most scholars think that the use of a snake as a symbol of Asclepius came from the use of snakes in certain healing rituals done by followers of Asclepius. These snakes also crawled around the Asclepian healing centers and were introduced at the opening of every new temple.

The Rod of Asclepius
rod

Some think that, besides the use of snakes in the healing rituals, a snake was pictured because it sheds its skin, a symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation. Others think that the snake is a symbol of both life and death, as a snake's venom can kill, but can also be used in some therapies. Similarly, the staff could be representative of the itinerant physicians that would travel around the ancient world. At some point in the development of the Asclepian cult, these two images - the serpent and the staff - were combined to become the symbol we're familiar with today.

Flag of the World Health Organization
who flag

The Rod of Asclepius vs. the Caduceus

The Rod of Asclepius consists of a single serpent wound around a staff (as pictured above). A similar symbol, the Caduceus, was the symbol of the Greek god Hermes.

The Caduceus of Hermes
caduceus

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