The caduceus, Greek karukeion, is the staff and symbol of the Greek god Hermes, messenger of the gods, and later these attributes were transferred to Roman god Mercury. The symbol consists of either, by legend, a magic wand or herald’s staff entwined by two serpents whose heads are facing each other.
In alchemical symbolism the caduceus is associated with prime matter; the two serpents threaded in opposite directions around the magic wand represent the primal Chaos, in that the serpents are thought to be fighting. Eventually their withering around the caduceus brings about equilibrium of opposing factors, qualities, or tendencies. This is why sometimes the caduceus is called the symbol of peace; besides being the messenger of the gods Hermes also guided humans through their changes of being.
There are other interpretations of caduceus symbolism which relate to alchemy. One is that the caduceus is comprised of two serpents coupling on an erected phallus, fertility symbol; one of the most ancient Indo-European images, found in various rites in both ancient and modern India, which became emblem of Hermes, which was passed onto Mercury.
Particularly, the caduceus is the sceptre of Hermes, the god of alchemy. In myth, it was presented by Apollo in exchange for the lyre that Hermes invented, and comprised a wand of solid gold enwreathed by two serpents. To the alchemist these represent the two opposing principles which have to be reconciled, be they sulfur and mercury, fixed and volatile, wet and dry or hot and cold. This is brought about by the unifying the gold rod of the caduceus, which is seen as expressing the basic dualism which is the well-spring of alchemical thought and must be sucked back into the oneness, single unity, of the Philosopher’s Stone.
There also is further mythological significance related to the caduceus. This goes be to the ancient worship of Hermes by his agrarian cult and the magical powers that he controlled. Again, the two serpents re-echo the chthonian character this god originally possessed that enabled him to enter Hades to dispatch his victims there and to come back to this world whenever he pleased; he as well could return the light of day to some imprisoned there. In the Pausanias records there is evidence of worship of a black Hermes and a white Hermes, the dual aspects of this god, a sky-god and chthonic god, a life-giving god who also awards death. The two-serpents, again, represent this ambiguity which is also characteristic of human life.
Finally, the symbolism of the caduceus has inspired an ethical-biological philosophy based on the myth describing the caduceus as an attribute of Asclepius (Aesculapius) who was the first physician and future god of medicine. The entire life-cycle of medicine is condensed in this myth of Asclepios and comprised within the caduceus, for true cure and true resurrection apply to the soul. The serpents entwined around the staff-symbolizing the Tree of Life-to show the egotism tamed and brought under control, their venom transformed to healing, the corruption of the life force brought back to its proper channel. Health “is the right proportions, harmonization of desire (the serpents’ symmetrical coils) control the emotional stimuli, the need for spiritualization and sublimation [which] not only rule the health of the soul [but] determine the health of the body as well.” Such an explanation of this kind definitely classifies the caduceus as a symbol of psychosomatic balance.
Caduceus is also the symbol of the medical profession. A.G.H.
Chevalier, Jean and Alain Gheerbrant. A Dictionary of Symbols. (Transl. by John Buchanan-Brown). New York, Penguin Books. 1996. pp. 142-145.
Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them. (Transl. by James Hulbert). New York. Facts On File, 1992. pp. 54-55.