The Snake as a Symbol of Health and Healing

The “Star of Life” commonly seen on ambulances and emergency medical vehicles

 

 

The common symbol of Western medicine is the rod of Aesculapius, named after the Greek god of healing. The current rod illustration of the legendary staff that aided Aesculapius while he wandered the world to heal humankind. As I’ve stated before, many cultures teach their offspring to first fear snakes for safety reasons, but subsequently this  phobia is perpetuated by their respective art, literature, and folklore. However, in some cultures the snake is the empirical symbol of health and healing. Often the snake is thought to be an esoteric messenger between the underworld and this world. This is aligned to doctors and health officials in other cultures, the same way a healer can bring someone from the brink of death. The snake is often depicted as not only a creator, but a maternal figure, or the giver of life, like the goddess Ishtar, “the mother of all” in some Greek and Hebrew cultures or the intertwining parents of the human race, who have serpent tails.

There are stories spanning the continents connecting a serpentine figure with the ability to do good.  Aesculapius turned himself into a snake to help a city during its plague, then his fellow serpents licked the ill and healed them. The Roman emperor Theodosius was blind until a serpent placed a stone on his eyes. The Japanese goddess of mercy, Kannon, is depicted most often as a snake.

The snake can also be seen as a symbol of vitality. By shedding its skin, the snake is able to start anew; a form of rebirth.I believe this is an especially interesting concept in that a lot of the Christian faith has to do with cleansing of one’s sins and starting fresh. Perverted by its negative connotations, the snake would have a hard time likening itself to baptism in the Judeo-Christian faith, however it seems to fit the message. Yet, as a saintly gesture Moses’ serpent staff had the ability to heal the sick when raised above them (Numbers 21:6-9).

It’s hard to say that Eastern or Western cultures are more afraid or have more of an affinity for snakes. You are inundated from the beginning of your life with vicious and detestable depictions of snakes. Yet it is extremely interesting that the most immediate sign of safety and health, the rod of Aesculapius, the very symbol of Western medicine, is a snake we hardly remember.

Citation

McDonald, Diana Krumholz. “THE SERPENT AS HEALER: THERIAC AND ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN POTTERY”. Source: Notes in the History of Art 13.4 (1994): 21–27. Web…

“The Star of Life”. Gorham EMS. Archived from the original on 2007-06-30

Williams NW. Serpents, Staffs, and the Emblems of Medicine. JAMA.1999;281(5):475. doi:10.1001/jama.281.5.475-JMS0203-3-1.

 

Links

An interesting explanation on the difference between the RoA and the Caduceus:

http://drblayney.com/Asclepius.html

 

http://web.archive.org/web/20070630203559/http://www.gorhamems.org/staroflife.htm

 

A video of a traditional Japanese dance dedicated to Kannon, here you can see them emulate the moves of the snake (the numerous hands represent her hands ready for helping):

 

 

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