The process by which Hermes’ caduceus came to symbolize medicine is full of confusion and mistaken associations. There may have also been an element of guile worthy of Hermes the trickster.
Hermes Through the Ages
Ancient historians knew of several different Hermes. Their characteristics vary, yet it is often assumed that all traits belong to the same god. Dr. Walter Friedlander separated historical accounts of Hermes in this way:
1. pre-Homeric Hermes
2. Homeric or archaic Hermes
3. Traditional or classical Hermes
5. Pseudo-Hermes Trismegistus or Hermetic Hermes.
Pre-Homeric Hermes was associated with stone boundaries, or Herms. Herms were phallic symbols and thought to avert the evil eye. This Hermes was a fertility god, but not a vegetation god. He was a psycho pomp and so was associated with ghosts. Herms were often put at crossroads.
Homeric (or Archaic) Hermes
In Homer and Hesiod, Hermes may have had weak ties to medicine. He cured impotence, bestowed sleep, and brought the dead to life. He continued to be a psycho pomp, but he was also a messenger, ambassador, bringer of good luck and wealth, the god of athletic contests, and inventor of shoes. He taught people how to make fire with sticks, played the lyre and pipe or syrinx. He had bawdy humor, was a schemer, a thief, and associated with the number four.
Traditional or Classical Hermes
There are two divisions for Classical Hermes; traditional Hermes and Hermes-Thoth.
The attributes of archaic Hermes persisted in traditional Hermes with changes in emphasis. In both versions he was a messenger, psycho pomp, trickster, inventor, and craftsman. He was concerned with those who used the roads, those who bartered, and those who wanted to prophecy. But he was explicitly made more than a messenger. The biggest change from the archaic was the emphasis on commerce and merchants. He became the inventor of buying and selling. This was probably the influence of Rome, which resulted in Mercury’s power becoming identified with the Greek Hermes. Hermes was not adverse to lying and fraud. Basically, he had characteristics that were not unique to healers.
According to Greek myth, traditional Hermes was also involved in the birth of Dionysus and several others, often taking the child from a dead mother. The Roman Aesculapius was himself the son of Coronis and Apollo. In a jealous rage Apollo killed Coronis, not realizing she was pregnant. Apollo then sent Hermes to deliver the baby while the mother lay on her funeral pyre. (It is possible that Aesculapius was considered a healer because of his association with the goddess Hygeia.) Hermes also delivered a baby from the dead Callisto. He delivered Pan, Helen, and Heracles. He assisted in the birth of the Dioscuri, Castor and Polydeuces. Aristaeus was the keeper of bees, son of Apollo and Cyrene. Hermes took him to Gaia and Horae, the hours or seasons, who fed him nectar and ambrosia and made him immortal.
Both Hermes-Thoth and Hermes Trismegistus were Egyptian. In the 5th century B.C. Herodotus referred to Hermopolis as the place where ibises were buried, and where Thoth was worshipped. Hermes became associated with Thoth through the Greek creation story. The gods ran to Egypt in fear of Typhon and disguised themselves as animals. Jupiter was a ram, Apollo a crow, Bacchus a goat, Juno a cow, Venus a fish, and Mercury was an ibis. Greco-Roman authors assumed on the one hand that the Egyptian god Hermes-Thoth had different characteristics than Aarchaic Hermes, but they spoke of them as one. Much of Egyptian religion was connected with magic and so Thoth probably had more connections to medicine than Greek Hermes.
Hermes and Thoth Compared
Thoth’s other attribute was a scribe for the gods. He was Thoth, lord of writing and of books, at least by 2900 B.C. Thoth was the heart and tongue of Ra, or the reason and mental powers of Ra, and the means by which his will was translated into speech. However neither archaic nor traditional Hermes were the mind of Zeus. Thoth’s wisdom had to do with accumulation of knowledge, but also with prudence of heart. He invented astronomy and math. His statue was in the library of Egyptian scholars. Both Thoth and Hermes were associated with magic, but Thoth’s magic was that of a serious god, the essence of right and truth, not a trickster. Plutarch and Diodorus Sisulus thought Egyptian Hermes was a psycho pomp, but did not consider that to be a characteristic of Thoth. It is not clear why the Greeks chose to associate the two.
Pseudo-Hermes Trismegistus or Hermetic Hermes
Two additional characters became identified with Hermes-Thoth, philosophic pseudo-Hermes Trismegistus and alchemic pseudo-Hermes Trismegistus. These together are Hermetic Hermes. According to Clement, both Plato and Diodorus Sisulus attributed invention of the arts, philosophy, science and medicine to Hermes Trismegistus. However, he is connected to western medicine mostly through alchemical medicine.
Hermes Trismegistus and Medicine
There are actually three Hermes in the Hermetic Corpus. About the second century A.D. there appeared writings ascribed to a certain Hermes Trismegistus. Friedlander thought the true authors may have been Egyptians teaching philosophy and religion with the ides of Plato. They lived near Alexandria and may have been influenced by Jewish, Persian and/or Gnostic thought. The oldest philosophical/religious text was not written before 100 B.C. Most were written by 300 A.D. and all were written by 400 A.D. They were put together by 1050. A “huge historical error” was derived from these writings when Lacantius (260-340 A.D.) and Augustine (354-430 A.D.) accepted Hermes Trismegistus as ancient and authoritative because he predicted the rise of Christianity. Friedlander thinks Philosophical Hermes is connected to medicine mainly because of Augustine and Lactantius and this may be why some European doctors in the 16th century began to use the caduceus.
Three Times Great
In 1182 Robert of Chester said that there were three Hermes, and “three times great” was changed to “triplex” or 3-fold, although in Egypt, “Three times great” had been an honorary title for Thoth. Chester said the three Hermes were Enoch, Noah, and the king-philosopher-prophet reigning in Egypt after the flood. Francis Bacon repeated this idea and said that King James (1605) was a king-priest-philosopher.
Alchemical pseudo-Hermes came into being some centuries after the philosophical one, although alchemy was known in earlier times. Alchemical Hermes Tristmegistus was considered authoritative since the 7th century, although he is not currently distinguishable from the philosophic Hermes Tristmegistus. Egyptian alchemy claimed to change metals into gold, based on the theory of transmutation, which was based on the “unity of matter”. This required the use of a tincture–the philosopher’s stone. Greco-Egyptian alchemy came to Europe by the 12th century by way of Arabia.
Mercury was considered an essential element since ancient times. The symbol is the same for the element Mercury and for the god Hermes/Mercury. In the field of medicine, Paracelsus (1493-1541) replaced Galenic medicine and its humors with three principles, sulfur, mercury, and salt. Mercury was the spirit, sulfur was the soul, and salt was the body. In medicine, alchemy tried to heal by correcting the body’s chemical process.
Alchemy and the Soul
American General Ethan Allen Hitchcock (1798-1870) said that alchemy concerned the soul. This was popularized in the literature of psychology by Herbert Silberer and Carl Jung.
The Caduceus in the United States
In the early 20th century a debate arose in the United States over the appropriateness of the caduceus of Hermes as a symbol of the medical profession. Fielding Garrison and Colonel John Van R. Hoff, U.S. Army retired, defended its use. Others, such as Colonel C. C. McCullock Jr., Medical Librarian of the Surgeon General’s Office said it was not appropriate. There were also dissenting articles in medical publications. However, the defenders of the caduceus symbol in medicine were unmoved by arguments against its use. The U.S. recognized the caduceus as a symbol of medicine in 1917, although some organizations later returned to using the staff of Aesculapius. These include the American Women’s Medical Association, the Arizona Medical Association, and the Medical Library Association. (This may explain why Mike Stathis mentions Arizona’s Mayo Clinic favorably.)
A Connection Not Mentioned by Friedlander
One connection that has not yet been made with Hermes’ caduceus concerns the historical struggle by male doctors for supremacy over traditional female healers. Hermes, a male figure loosely associated with medicine, may have been useful in the efforts of the men of “science” to replace women in the healing arts, although the question remains as to why they chose Hermes rather than Aesculapius. Perhaps Hermes’ other attributes, such as his connection with commerce, were important to them. In Europe this process took place earlier than in America, which would explain Europe’s earlier use of the caduceus. The last bastion in this assault was female midwifery. In America, Garrison’s defense of the caduceus took place about the time a new anesthetic, “twilight sleep”, was being offered to women who gave birth in the hospital. The changeover from midwives to male doctors continued during the decade following the adoption of the caduceus of Hermes. Hospital birth had largely replaced midwifery by 1930.
Among medical professionals who complete most of their work outside of the operating room, OBGYNs are the best paid. Overall, they are the third highest medical earners in the United States.
See also: Hermes in India
Friedlander, Walter. “The Golden Wand of Medicine: a history of the caduceus symbol in medicine. Greenwood Press. 1992