Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bring out your dead!

Walking to work this morning, I noticed for the first time that the Department of Sanitation New York City (DSNYC) logo features the caduceus, a symbol that depicts two snakes entwined about a staff. The DSNYC website explains that the caduceus, "the traditional medical symbol," is incorporated "to promote the idea that sanitation can affect the health of the City."

Indeed, sanitation is one of the most revolutionary inventions of mankind, but somebody at the DSNYC didn't do their homework. The "traditional medical symbol" is not the caduceus, but the rod of Aesculapius, an image that features just one snake wrapped around a staff or branch.

As I wrote here (almost exactly) four years ago,
"No bastardization of a symbol, however, is so glaring as the misuse of the caduceus by medical professionals. The familiar image of two snakes entwined about a winged staff is used by a slight majority of medical practitioners and groups. The caduceus, though, has nothing to do with medicine! It is the staff of Hermes.

'…Hermes was also considered to be the god of commerce and wealth, which in turn implies a sense of personal self-interest along with the possibility of stretching the truth to meet one’s own needs. Hermes was known as the patron god of thieves due to his many tricks and lies. The quality of dishonesty is not one that most people want to see in their physician, therefore a symbol that is traced back to representing trickery and deceit should not be used to represent a profession as highly regarded in trust as medicine. Additionally, Hermes is also said to have used his caduceus staff to lead the souls of those who passed away to the underworld, which is the opposite idea than that stated in the Hippocratic Oath that a physician is charged with.'

The symbol of medicine is actually Aesculapius’s staff...Aesculapius, appropriately, was the God of Medicine.

'The son of Apollo, god of health, Aesculapius is said to have been pulled from the womb as his mortal mother was dying, which came to symbolize a physician’s ability to turn death into life. Throughout his life, Aesculapius used medicinal herbs and surgical procedures to heal the sick and dying, with his culmination of the art being the ability to bring the dead back to life. In one episode of mythology, Aesculapius was said to have been inside a temple when a serpent came to him and wound itself up and around his walking staff. He killed the serpent, only to have a second slither in and use an herb to bring its dead comrade back to life. This brings forth the explanation for the revered symbol of Aesculapius’s staff, with this herb being the major discovery of his life. The snake was seen as a servant to Aesculapius in his healing, and was worshiped as such.'

Clearly, the two symbols became confused at some point. Kim Scott wrote a short history of the confusion, 'The History and Confusion of the Caduceus symbol and the Staff of Aesculapius in Medicine,' from which the above selections [in italics] are drawn. Scott dates the initial mix-up to circa 1500. Apparently, the symbolic SNAFU led to twentieth century medical [professionals regularly using the wrong staff.]"
And the DSNYC, too, made the same mistake.

But perhaps I'm too quick to condemn the DSNYC decision to adopt the caduceus? Maybe the folks behind the logo intended to reference the popular maxim, "One man's trash is another man's treasure." With that in mind, the DSNYC workers might be understood as Hermetic treasure thieves. Or, if that's too much of a stretch, we can consider Hermes' role as a conveyor of the dead to Hades. NYC's trashmen, then, can be thought of as leading the souls of the discarded to the Underworld. The latter interpretation gets my vote!


Peter Cowling said...


I like this line of thinking very much. Truth be told, a little imagination makes most things seem, well, interesting.

Donald Frazell said...

You are right. i have seen ambulances wiht the correct emblem, but just saw an ad with the Hermes one. How funny, the wings of his feet, his messenger role,mistaken for speed of care? Now isnt that a joke.

Woops, better be nice, my sis in law, and soon son, are doctors. They get pissed as much as anyone about taxes, regulations and pay. But do both love what they are doing. And get paid quite well thank you. Especially compared to what is to come, so many get jealous when a Gilded age is going on, but it always collapses, and the truly skilled will stil have their jobs, and a paycheck that is more than enough. It is all relative perception. Teachers gotta relax too, they always whine about getting more, But have great job security, real life is much more filled with potholes, though teenagers certainly do take their toll on nerves and idealism.

art collegia delenda est