Written by Ed Whalen, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Hermes was the messenger of the Olympian gods. Hermes, or Mercury, had a powerful staff known as the caduceus, which was considered a magical symbol of his inviolability. The staff became a very potent symbol in the ancient world. We are still familiar with it in the modern world, though we may not realize it.
Hermes was one of the Olympian gods, believed to be the son of Zeus. Some sources claim that his true origin was chthonic – meaning “subterranean” – and that he had two aspects. Later, he was transformed into the messenger of the Olympian gods.
Hermes would move quickly through the heaven and the earth with his famous winged sandals. He was also the guide of the dead into the afterlife. Because he was constantly crossing boundaries, he was seen as something of a trickster god. He was the patron god of thieves, travelers, merchants and heralds, among others.
A very important figure in mythology, Hermes was also the god of boundaries. A sculpture of him, known as a hermae would often stand at crossroads or at entrances. The Romans adopted many Greek gods including Hermes, whom they called Mercury.
By at least the 6th century BC, Hermes was portrayed as having a staff, known as a caduceus. This was a symbol of peace and was meant to demonstrate that the herald Hermes was also an inviolable deity.
Originally, the caduceus was a rod, or simply an olive branch. These were entwined with garlands or ribbons. Later, these became serpents in the iconography of Hermes.
The caduceus was shown winged and entwined with two snakes. This was to symbolize the speed of the herald of the Olympians. The snake was highly symbolic in the ancient world, and may indicate the divinity of Hermes.
Many believe that the origin of the caduceus is either a symbol of an Indo-European god or possibly that of a Babylonian god.
According to Homer, the staff was a gift from Apollo to Hermes. The divine messenger had invented the lyre and Apollo was so enchanted by its music that he gifted him the staff.
It was known to the ancient Greeks as a Kērykeion and became a symbol of peace used by those involved in making peace, such as diplomats and messengers. The staff was also thought to have magical properties. If Hermes touched a person who was awake, the person would fall asleep. The herald of the gods was a powerful figure in his own right. It was widely believed that his staff could determine if a person died well, or had a terrible death, which was of extreme importance in the ancient world.
The Roman god Mercury also had a caduceus, also regarded as a symbol of peace or diplomacy. Hermes Trismegistus, an ancient Graeco-Egyptian author who wrote many hermetic texts associated with spells and magical powers, was also believed to use a caduceus.
The Symbolism of the Caduceus
Over time, the staff began to represent all the trades and professions associated with the gods Mercury and Hermes. It was also used to symbolize the planet Mercury in late antiquity. Hermes was believed to have invented coinage, so his staff was often used to symbolized commerce. Considered a great orator, Hermes and his caduceus became the symbol of orators.
Because of the association with Hermes Trismegistus, the caduceus became associated with magic and above all, with alchemy. In alchemical symbolism, the caduceus represents the elemental, or prime matter. The two snakes were thought to symbolize chaos. The two serpents are shown to be fighting, yet as they are wrap around the staff they are believed to be in equilibrium. To the medieval alchemist, this represented the reconciliation of two opposing qualities or elements, which was one of the aims of alchemy.
Modern Symbolism of the Staff of Hermes
The medical profession adopted the caduceus as its symbol, and it can often be seen in pharmacies. Why? Hermes was not associated with healing. However, his staff is similar to the one owned by the Greek god of healing and medicine, Asclepius.
The US Medical Corps also adopted the staff of Hermes, possibly also mistaking it with the staff of Asclepius. The widespread adoption of the caduceus was likely due to its similarity to the staff of Asclepius, which has only one serpent entwined around it.
The caduceus was a staff wielded by Hermes, the herald of the gods. It was later associated with the Roman god Mercury. The staff became the symbol of the god and his many associations and attributes. The symbol became associated with magic and alchemy and also became the symbol of Mercury in astrology. Later, it became the symbol of medical practitioners due to its similarities with the rod of the Greek god of healing.