The caduceus derives from the Greek ‘karykeion’, meaning ‘staff of the herald’. It was the symbol of the power to harm or to heal. It appears in images of the ancient Egyptian god of wisdom, Thoth, as a magic rod with twin snakes. Other variations show a staff entwined with twin serpents, topped with a pair of wings, or a winged sun and no snakes. Originally, those twin snakes may have been ribbons attached to the wings, eventually evolving into serpents.
Greek legend tells of a seer who, coming upon a pair of copulating serpents, tried to separate them by thrusting his staff between them. For his efforts he was transformed into a woman. Two snakes and a staff — or wand — became a symbol of transformative power.
Determining where those wings come from takes us into even deeper mythology. Wings, of course, are synonymous with Hermes, the Greek god who jetted about in his winged sandals at the behest of the gods, and conducted the dead on their way to Hades. (The Romans called him Mercury.) Hermes’ magic wand turns out to be this very same caduceus. His association with the healing arts stems from the time (around 700 AD) when alchemists were referred to as ‘the sons of Hermes’.
Today, the caduceus is seen as an emblem of commercial and military organizations – the US army Medical Department made it their official insignia. In some parts of the world it is used by pharmaceutical companies. In the United States, many hospitals and medical associations have the caduceus as their emblem. The true and original symbol of medicine and healing, however, was the ‘rod of Asclepius’, with one serpent coiled around the staff, not two.
In yoga, the caduceus represents the serpent energy of the Kundalini, the dual serpents suggesting both positive and negative energy. The staff is the spine, the serpent the energy, and the wings signifying the mind. Kundalini energy moves through the ‘chakras’ along the spine until it reaches the head, the temple of the mind. Many disciplines, schools of mystery, esotericism and magic have adopted the Hermetic caduceus because of its association with the intellect, mind communication, and its magical powers.
Today there are many more variations on the theme of the Caduceus, sometimes with the staff being replaced by a sword, a cross or a rocket, but always with one or two serpents in the picture. Video games, comic books, science fiction and animation have been inspired by the symbolism of this ancient emblem.
The Caduceus has long been a popular tattoo design with individuals who work in the medical profession.
Get inspired by some really great images and tattoos in our Caduceus Tattoo Gallery