Asclepios and Hermes: Presenting Two Sides of Healthcare

Commercial healthcare providers really have it made. They know how to squeeze the most money out of people while still coming off as the good guys, or at least not completely evil. Companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield depict themselves as holy providers of wisdom and life saving services, while using the rod of Asclepios as a symbol of their dedication to health. Sometimes, commercial healthcare providers choose to use the Caduceus, a symbol of Hermes just because it happens to look nicer to whoever is making the sign. Professional healthcare providers also use both the rod of Asclepios and the Caduceus almost interchangeably for many of the same reasons. While the symbols themselves do not seem that different from one another, the figures associated with these symbols and what they symbols represent are in fact quite different.

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Asclepios (the rod) and Hermes (the Caduceus). Asclepios, and by extension the rod of Asclepios, are seen as providing healthcare and medicine, while Hermes and the Caduceus are seen as symbols of trade, trickery, and negotiation in addition to their modern medical connotation. Asclepios is noted as being the son of Apollo, who in turn is the half-brother of Hermes, hence, the connection between Asclepios and Hermes. Asclepios, as a young boy, is said to have shown some kindness to a snake that in turn taught him secret knowledge of healing and resurrection by cleaning out his ears. Asclepios became so skilled at medicine and healing that he was able to resurrect Hippolytus from the dead, as well as being able to evade death himself. This angered Hades and Zeus as Asclepios was throwing off the natural order of life and death. Sadly, a lightning bolt from Zeus killed Asclepios. With his death, humanity lost the secret to potential immortality.

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(The rod of Asclepois is pictured above and the Caduceus is pictured below.  The rod depicts a snake entwined with a staff, while the Caduceus depicts two snakes entwined with a staff with a pair of wings attached.)

Caduceus

The meaning of staff and the snake that make up the rod of Asclepois are both extremely ambiguous. While snakes can be thought of as possessing the secret to rejuvenation, aka shedding their skin, they can also possess incredibly deadly poison. The staff has been interpreted by Cornutus to be a support to prevent us from falling even further into illness, but also as a sign of old age. By combining the snake and the staff into the rod, the rod itself can be taken to be a warning against medicine and the practices of doctors but also as a symbol of life being extended through medicine. While medicine and doctors may help extend ones life and improve the general quality of life, the exact opposite can also be true. This reality of trading comfort and peace of mind for a potential cure is evident in chemotherapy. While chemotherapy can cure an individual of cancer, it also inflicts a great deal of pain and discomfort in the process. Unfortunately, it does not always work. This ambiguity of whether or not medicine is a positive or negative actor is completely negated when a healthcare provider chooses to use the Caduceus instead of the rod of Asclepios.

In reality, the Caduceus is not an ambiguous symbol. It is a genuine symbol of Hermes, the god of commerce, negotiation, and occupations, but also the protector of merchants, gamblers, liars, and thieves. And yet somehow, it has been interpreted in different ways to be a symbol of medicine. Funny enough, the Caduceus was actually a gift from Apollo to Hermes as a gesture of friendship and good spirits. Because the snake was later associated with Asclepios, people associated the snake as a tie between Apollo and Hermes. From there, the association with the Caduceus and medicine is a bit clearer.

The decision of a healthcare provider to choose either the rod of Asclepios or the Caduceus, speaks volumes about the provider and what they are attempting to accomplish. A study done by Walter J. Friedlander in 1992 found that 62% of professional healthcare organizations used the rod of Asclepois, while 76% of commercial healthcare organizations used the Caduceus as their symbol. The healthcare providers in the world inherently choose the proper symbol for their company depending on what values of Apollo or Hermes they embrace. Friedlander suggests that professional providers are more likely to have an understanding of what both symbols signify, while commercial healthcare providers are more likely to just be concerned with the recognition factor that a symbol will have for their company. While these companies are not explicitly choosing Asclepios over Hermes or vice versa, the amount of research and thought they put in to deciding their symbol, combined with their respective ultimate goals, does align healthcare providers with either Asclepois or with Hermes.

From its association with Asclepois and his rod, professional healthcare companies can be argued to focusing on extending the human life, reaching closer and closer to the ultimate goal of immortality. Since Asclepois can be regarded as the greatest medical practitioner to ever live, any person or company working under his symbol is trying to reach the same level of knowledge that he possessed about health and medicine. The fact that professional healthcare providers more often choose the rod of Asclepois over the Caduceus implies that they in turn are choosing the well being of people over profit. Commercial healthcare can be said to be only interested in making a profit and whether or not that involves extending a patient’s life or not is rather irrelevant, provided that the money is in order. This choice of money over people, the Caduceus over the rod of Asclepois, is best exemplified by large pharmaceutical corporations that choose money over people, or the Caduceus over the rod of Asclepois, when they choose to manufacture drugs that only temporarily cure a patient’s symptoms (see Claritin, or expensive HIV treatment medication) in order to maximize profit. By creating treatments that are reactive and work to maintain a patient at their current state, instead of treatments that are proactive and actively working to make a patient better, private providers are choosing the wealth and thievery that is associated with the Caduceus.

prescription drugs in the US

The true meanings of the Caduceus and the rod of Asclepois have lasted centuries and are still applicable to the corporations and people that use them today. Despite some blurring of the meaning, and some misunderstanding as to how the Caduceus is related to medicine, the companies focused on helping humanity live longer, better lives through medicine still generally identify with Asclepois and the companies that want to make money regardless of the effect that might have on others still identify with Hermes.

 

Works Cited

http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195170726.001.0001/acref-9780195170726-e-125?rskey=o6Iwep&result=1

https://medium.com/@CoyleAndrew/the-caduceus-healthcare-870297e9c8c8

https://books.google.com/books?id=zGiuBgAAQBAJ&pg=PA54&lpg=PA54&dq=ISBN+0-313-28023-1&source=bl&ots=N_9Ep-36UQ&sig=AC4G1rjSCafAioUC9RmcIcZG2-U&hl=en&sa=X&ei=pxVEVfmjH4fFggS93IHICA&ved=0CDsQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=ISBN%200-313-28023-1&f=false

5 thoughts on “Asclepios and Hermes: Presenting Two Sides of Healthcare

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  2. haknabe

    I found your blog post to be very interesting, especially the point about how the healthcare companies actually go about choose their labels. It is interesting to consider that the healthcare companies already know they have more than one motive: patient’s wellbeing and warning about money and the dangers of healthcare. It is quite alarming to think they are already diminishing the importance of human’s health before anyone even arrives at a hospital or doctor.

    In my blog post I also discuss alternative motives for symbols in the tv show Lost. For instance, a hatch door in Lost may symbolize a way to get the survivors off the island, but also may lead to darker things. You can read more about it here: http://pages.vassar.edu/grst-202-52-2015b/2015/05/02/lost-and-pandoras-box/

  3. jaholtz

    We essentially covered the same topics for our posts, and my post has some differing information on the topics. Link is below.

    While I agree that it’s definitely interesting to see predominantly commercial health companies using the caduceus versus the rod of Asclepius, I also think it’s interesting that at least in some cases the use of the caduceus as a symbol is based on ignorance more than it is on deliberate choice to focus on money. (See the original use by the U.S. Army.)

    Link to my post:
    http://pages.vassar.edu/grst-202-52-2015b/2015/04/30/serpents-and-staves/

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