Curiosity Corner: The Staff of Aesculapius

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Curiosity Corner

By

Dr. Jerry D. Wilson

Emeritus Professor of Physics

Lander University

QUESTION: What is the meaning of the symbol seen on ambulances – a pole with a snake wrapped around it? (Asked by a curious, ambulance-chasing column-reader.)

REPLY: The symbol you mention is called the “staff of Aesculapius.” Aes, as we will call him for short, was the Greco-Roman god of medicine and was the son of Apollo (god of healing and truth). He was evidently good at healing because Zeus (king of the gods) became afraid that Aes might make humans immortal, and so killed him with a thunderbolt treatment.

Aes is usually depicted standing, dressed in a long cloak and carrying a staff with a serpent (a.k.a. snake) wrapped around it. In the 1970s, the government, wanting to make ambulances distinctive, chose two symbols for their exteriors – a six-barred cross and the staff of Aesculapius.

You may be familiar with a staff with two entwined serpents. This is a “caduceus.” It is a winged staff with the snakes entwined in opposite directions and facing each other. This was the symbol of Hermes or Mercury, the messenger of the gods. In modern times, the caduceus was adopted as the symbol of the U.S. Army Medical Corp (I used to wear one on my lapel) and physicians.

However, it is Aes’ staff that you see on ambulances. Private ambulance services do not have to put Aes’ staff on their vehicles, but you might see them anyway – who wants to incur the wrath of the gods?

C.P.S. (Curious Postscript): “Age is whatever you think it is. You are as old as you think you are.” –Muhammad Ali

Curious about something? Send your questions to Dr. Jerry D. Wilson, College of Science and Mathematics, Lander University, Greenwood, SC 29649, or email jerry@curiosity-corner.net. Selected questions will appear in the Curiosity Corner. For Curiosity Corner background, go to www.curiosity-corner.net.

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