The Caduceus

The Caduceus

This article discusses caduceus, a Greek religious symbol which literally means a ‘herald’s staff’. The symbol’s relevance cuts across two religio-cultural back grounds. These are  the Greek mythology and the Greco- Egyptian mythology. The staff was reportedly borne by heralds and other generals.


Various accounts have been forwarded to explain the origin and the use of the symbol. Some of them point to Mesopotamia as the ultimate source of the symbol. This is ostensibly supported by the fact that Sumerian god, Ningishzida, was always depicted to bear a staff. Ningishzida, literally means ‘messenger’ of ‘Mother Earth’ and was, in those Babylonian oriental setups, an underworld snake god! The staff had two snakes coiling round about the staff and dates back to as many as four millenniums before the birth of Christ.

Some accounts, on the other hand, pointed to the fact that the staff, called the Kerukeion, was in itself a depiction of a god.This is probably relevant in the context of the pre- anthropomorphic era. This is in a stark contradiction to the earlier position adopted by Lewis Richard Farnel who had opined that the two entwining snakes had apparently grown out of the ornaments common with the shepherd’s crook. The shepherd’s crook was a version of staff used by heralds in those days.

To point out a little further, it ought to be understood that originally, the caduceus was not associated with Hermes. Until the time of conflict between Hermes and his brother Apollo, mythologists with interest on classical antiquity point out that Apollo had given Hermes the caduceus as a gift during their reconciliation. In utter contrast, Greek mythology holds that the Caduceus is part and parcel with the story of Tiresias. Tradition held that Tiresias had found two snakes in an act of copulation. Tiresias killed the female snake with the staff in his hands. Miraculously, he was transformed into a woman and got involved with the male snake in copulation seven whole years later! The staff became to be feared for its powers of transformation and it later fell into the hands of a god, Hermes.

Description & Usage

The symbol is a hand held staff with two snakes entwining around it. At the top, the staff is usually surmounted by some sort of wings. The Romans often used the symbol in their iconography and as the norm was back in the days, the staff was held in the left hand of Mercury!Mercury was considered a messenger of the gods. It was speculated that the use of the staff by mercury was essential in protecting merchants, wandering shepherds and even society’s most foul members— thieves! In addition, Mercury used the staff in protecting dead people. In the ensuing antiquity, the caduceus was in fact used to represent the literal planet, Mercury.

Other accounts point to the fact that the symbol was used to represent Hermes and associated crafts, trades and or dealings of the god. This symbol was widely used in medicinal healing. It was believed that the wand would, when correctly applied, awaken those that slept and send to sleep those that were awake.

Further, other accounts point to the fact that the staff symbol was used o solemnize negotiations and other commercial dealings. Arguably, the association of the staff with both Hermes and Mercury lent so much credence to it that is application was thought to be in situations where ideals were cultivated. In trading, balanced negotiations, fairness and honesty were deemed the basic tenets and ideals of commercial undertakings.The symbol, again by virtue of association with Mercury and the attributes thereof, was used to represent the art of printing, writing and the fluency required in communication.


Various accounts exist, therefore, to explain not only the use of the caduceus but also its origins. Just as the origins of the symbol are diverse, the uses of the staff are as varied. The bottom line, however, is the idea that the staff was heavily associated with the gods. Some accounts, in fact, point out that the staff was a god! A point of convergence, perchance, between the uses of the staff is that it has remained relevant from the classical antiquity to the modern day.