The intertwined serpents on a staff represent medicine, fertility, evil, alchemy and even our DNA
Four thousand years ago, in ancient Sumeria, the region now known as Iraq, there was a god represented by two serpents coiling around a staff. His, or her (scholars are unsure), name was Ningishzida. He was called the patron of the good tree and associated with fertility as well as medicine. Perhaps the two serpents were actually symbols of the two life-giving rivers of the land Tigris and the Euphrates.
The idea of a serpent coiled around a papyrus reed was sacred in Egypt too. Here the serpent was clearly female and known as Wadjet. She even coiled on the crowns of Egyptian kings and was considered guardian of the land. Maybe, some say, she was the river Nile itself the hood representing the Delta.
But like most things western, the symbol of two coiled serpents on a staff is most closely associated with Greek mythology. The Greeks had two distinct staffs with coiled serpents. One is the rod of Asclepius, the god of medicine and the other is Caduceus, better known as the staff of Hermes, the god of traders and thieves and the messenger of the gods.
In the case of Asclepius, there was one serpent around the rod, and in the case of Hermes there were two. Today, this is the symbol most closely associated with medicine, although purists argue that a single snake around a stick represents medicine while one with two serpents has more to do with mysticism and the occult.
Cynics say that it is understandable that the god of traders and god of doctors have the same symbol considering most doctors do act like traders. Rationalists believe that early doctors used sticks to pull out Guinea worms from under the skin.
This worm infestation was common in river lands. Doctors would have used sticks with guinea worms coiled around them to advertise their profession. Heralds in ancient Greece carried staffs with ribbons around them to distinguish themselves from soldiers. The ribbons later became snakes.
It is said that once Hermes shoved a stick between two warring serpents and thus brought peace. Since then, the staff with two coiled serpents became the symbol of peace.
A messenger travelling through war, holding this symbol, was allowed to pass in peace. So was a doctor, because doctors are not supposed to take sides.
Serpents have always fascinated humanity by their apparent androgynous form. At one level they look like phallic masculine symbols. At another level, they look like feminine symbols because of their mouths that can expand and suck in a large rat. Once the Greek mystic Tiersias saw a pair of copulating serpents. He struck them with a staff and killed the female.
As punishment he became a woman. Seven years later, he saw another pair of copulating serpents. This time he killed the male and regained his male form. Since only he of all living creatures had experienced being both a woman and a man, he was asked by Zeus, king of Greek gods, as to who derived more pleasure in sex. Tiersias said it was a woman, angering Hera, queen of the Greek gods, who struck him blind.
The serpent's ability to slough skin and renew itself has made it a powerful symbol of renewal and regeneration that has fascinated those associated with the occult and mysticism. They are considered keepers of magical powers, herbs and gems that can bring the dead back to life. Not surprisingly, they came to be associated with healers and doctors, like Asclepius. It is said that the serpent licked Asclepius' ears and so revealed the secrets of healing. Since then sick men experience death during treatment and are reborn, like a serpent renews its skin.
The staff symbolised authority, balancing the motile and flexible serpent. In Biblical times, it was the rod of Aaron, the crook of the shepherd, scepter of the king.
In the Bible, the serpent is the symbol of evil that coils around the tree of knowledge and encourages Eve and Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. In Rabbinic literature, there is a mention of Nehushtan, a bronze serpent set upon a stick. During the exodus, those who were bitten by serpents were saved by simply gazing upon this symbol set up by Moses. In Mormon literature, the snake coiled around the staff became symbolic of Christ on the Crucifix. He saved humanity from the venom of sin.
In ancient India, two intertwining copulating serpents were part of Goddess worship and Tantra. The two serpents represented the two energy channels of the body the ida and pingala, the lunar and solar channels. The staff in between represented sushumna, the balance.
The two coiled serpents made their way into modern science when it was discovered that the DNA is very similar in structure a double helix. Thus from ancient imagination to modern observation, the
two serpents coiled around a stick remain a part of human society.