The Role of the Caduceus Symbol in East-West Medicine
The caduceus is a symbol we are all familiar with, though we may not know it! It’s most commonly known and seen as the medical insignia of the Western world. I’ve been intrigued by the symbol of the caduceus for as long as I can remember, seeing versions of it in books, and on signs or windows of medical centers. Being taught about kundalini energy in my early youth through eastern Tantric yogic practices, I experienced what felt like the image of the caduceus moving through me. Those early profound energetic experiences left a powerful imprint for what balanced energy can feel like when channeled through my body.
Over the years, the symbol of the caduceus has continued to remind me how to calibrate myself, and how to support others who are needing a reference for their own balanced wellbeing. Given that what we align ourselves with internally appears externally too, the symbol of the caduceus has been a wonderful reminder to me appearing on my travels to Egypt, India, and on my recent trip to Italy, where this image was seen in both the ancient art of Florence, and in tiny towns as a symbol for medicine and dentistry (where the image in this blog was found).
The caduceus symbol is just as relevant today as it likely was in ancient times because it promotes the idea of balance when it comes to health. This symbol was not first created with modern medicine; it’s so ancient that historians have no idea where or when the symbol first came into existence. It’s currently speculated and widely accepted by historians that the symbol came to be over 5000 years ago in Ancient Greece, where the earliest appearance of the symbol was found on pottery. But again, the origin is unknown.
The Caduceus in Ancient Western Culture
There are several origin stories of the caduceus in the myths of Ancient Greece. A particularly interesting one involves the soothsayer, Tiresias, who is walking through a forest and sees two snakes copulating. He killed the female snake with his staff, and then he turned into a woman. He lives for seven years as a woman, until he saw two snakes copulating again and killed the male. This turned him back into a man. Later, the staff came into possession of the god Hermes due to its transformative powers.
For those who don’t know, Hermes is the god of transportation and trickery. He is important to another myth involving the origin of the caduceus. One day, Hermes came across two snakes involved in a battle to the death. He uses his magical staff to separate the two and create peace.
In both of these myths, it’s interesting to note that the symbol of the caduceus is linked to transformation (represented through the staff) and balance (represented through the snakes). As a symbol for the western medical field this is especially interesting…as it recognizes that at the heart of medicine is the vow to recognize cycles of transformation and to calibrate in a balanced way accordingly. This is essential for health and wellbeing.
The Caduceus in Ancient Eastern Culture
The image of the caduceus also existed in the East. The earliest appearance of this symbol found to date existed on coins found in India. It was believed to be the personal mudra of the Buddhist King Ashoka. In addition, numerous temples venerating the god Vishnu reveal images and drawings of the caduceus. Scholars believe that the interwoven lines represent snakes like their Western counterparts.
In Hindu mythology, winged snakes are called nagas. They have various symbolic representations: mainly, fertility and immortality. There are various stories associated with these creatures. One prominent story involves a human-snake named Sheesha. Despite his royal upbringing, he decided to become an ascetic. He was honored for his decision to walk a holy path, so Brahma entrusted him with the duty of holding the world.
The Buddhist naga is linked with transformation. In one myth, the snake disguised himself as a human in order to become a monk. There is another story involving Gautama Buddha. After he achieved enlightenment, he was trapped in the forest while he was meditating due to a thunderstorm. A king gave shelter to the Buddha by providing him with seven snakeheads. In both Hinduism and Buddhism, the snake can be associated with enlightenment.
In Egypt, the winged snake goddess is a deity named Wadjet. Wadjet became a popularly worshipped goddess in Egypt, and she came to represent many elements of the culture. She was associated with war, fire, immortality, and unification. Regardless of her representation, she was considered one of the most powerful goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon.
In the Americas
The deity Quetzalcoatl was a prominent figure in Mayan and Aztec culture. His image can be found in various temples and art pieces throughout Central America. Most commonly, Quetzalcoatl represented fertility. In one version of the myth, it is believed that he was born of a virgin. Quetzalcoatl is also the god of boundaries. He represents the divide between heaven and earth. He is also associated with great transitions, such as the cycle of the sun and floods.
Caduceus in Modern Day
Even though the caduceus was only recently constituted as the official symbol of Western allopathic medicine in the 19th century in the United States, the symbol is internationally primarily recognized as the symbol for Western medicine, and the earlier cross-cultural significances and symbolic meanings have been lost. Western-based science has widely accepted that our thoughts have a huge impact on our nervous system, and thus on our body’s overall state of health. Given this, understanding the intended meaning of the caduceus symbol can help us calibrate our minds on what constitutes health, as an important part of taking charge of our own health.
Earlier I mentioned the two snakes encircling the staff can be interpreted as a metaphor for balance. In the myth of Tiresias, the snakes are male and female. In Hermes’ story, the snakes are on two opposing sides. In both of these cases, the snakes represent a form of duality. Many people believe that the world exists in a state of duality. We have winter and summer, black and white, hot and cold, inside and outside, joy and pain. You cannot have one without the other. Yet the caduceus symbol shows us that though duality exists, it exists as forces that are in balance when committed to the path of transformation (the staff). Transformation is endless, and as such, is non-dual. So perhaps the caduceus symbol reminds us:
Health is a result of the acceptance that duality will continuously exist, and yet if we remain equally aware of that which is constant and ever present (non-dual), we are in balance; we are in a state of health.
The caduceus symbol can be seen worldwide and is used perhaps more now than ever before. If we don’t recognize the meaning behind the image, we end up missing the message that can be used to empower each of us in our own health and healing. Yes, the body must be in a state of balance to be healthy, and that means calibrating the mind and our nervous system so that we can attune ourselves to health, and live at ease. The ancients knew this. It’s time we bring the meaning of the caduceus symbol back to light, and use that knowledge wisely, as medicine itself.