When I make a design, I like to research the symbolism to really understand it. Recently, I designed a Rod of Asclepius; an ancient symbol most easily recognized from its symbolic use by the medical profession. Often confused with the Rod of Hermes or Caduceus which has two snakes wrapping a staff, the Rod of Asclepius has a single snake. Where did this symbol originate and what does it really mean? Well, I wanted to know so I did some poking around to find answers.
Who is Asclepius and what’s up with his rod?
Asclepius is the ancient Greek god of medicine and healing. He was the son of Apollo (the sun) and father of another famous doctor Hippocrates. As with many archetypal characters, there are several versions of the story of his mother but none end well for her and Asclepius was raised by his father. Apollo taught the young demigod how to heal using plants. Asclepius was so skilled that it was said he could even raise the dead. The gods felt he would upset the balance and had him assassinated by Zeus.
The Rod of Asclepius symbol is made up of a snake wrapping around a staff. Scholars debate over the meanings of the snake and staff. The truth is, like with most symbols used by mystics, their meanings are many. The most popular meaning of the snake is that it represents rebirth since it sheds its skin. Since healers in the old days had to travel on foot, the staff was also associated with the medicine man.
The magical snake of Moses
The Rod of Asclepius symbol seems to make a cameo in the Bible also. The use of a magical serpent on a stick by Moses would give this symbol an older usage than ancient Greece. In Exodus, the Hebrew God tells Moses to make a fiery serpent and place it upon a pole. When he does this, anyone who is bitten by a snake is magically healed by looking at it. I would really like to learn that spell! Moses also performed a neat little trick turning a staff into a serpent.
The Rod of Asclepius archaic roots?
I believe that the origins of the use of the serpent and staff date back to the archaic times. The Rod of Asclepius was made out of symbols taken from shamanism and the archaic medicine man. Let me explain.
The Shaman snake
Use of serpent symbolism predates our known history. Many archaic shamanic cultures have beliefs involving serpent symbolism. Some Siberian shamans tell ancient stories about riding the serpent rainbow into the upper world. They also spoke of following snakes into tunnels that lead to the underworld. The encompassing symbolism can be summarized to the best of my ability: shamans viewed the snake to symbolize the solar energy and path through the sky. It’s energy is the source of all life and, therefore, healing.
The Shaman Pole
My understanding of the symbol of the pole is that it connects the worlds. The pole is a simplified world tree. The world tree varies from culture to culture but is a sacred tree. It connects this world to the underworld with its roots and to the heavens with its branches.
Many shamanic rituals involve climbing a sacred tree. The shaman goes into trance and climbs the branches. As he climbs, he enacts different adventures at each level of heaven the tree leads him to. Anyway, they would strip the tree of most of the branches not needed for the ritual. Over time, many cultures ditched the branches all together and it became a pole.
The Universal Healer
The serpent on the pole is a symbol of a healer. A person who can harness the power of life represented by the snake. They are also a person who can ascend and descent through the worlds by climbing up or down the world tree into the underworld or heavens. In those ancient times, they knew that sickness was a spiritual battle. The archaic shaman was a healer who dealt in all of the worlds and understood life energy.
…And so I drew my own adaptation!
Below, you can see some of the work in progress. I will explain some of the choices I made in my version.
I went with the winged disc at the top of the pole to reiterate the solar connection. This was meant to particularly reference Egypt.
The snake is loosely modeled after a python.
Inking was completed with a Micron pen. Actually, that’s not true. This drawing took up about five Micron pens…
Well, after digging through some history and some of my own hogwash, here I am in a very comfortable shirt. Sign up for my newsletter and get yours for 10% OFF!