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October 6, 1989

Hermes? Apollo? Ningishzida? Dracunculus?... Dracunculus??

JAMA. 1989;262(13):1771. doi:10.1001/jama.1989.03430130045014

To the Editor.—  Why is the caduceus used as a symbol of medicine?1 It is after all the insignia of the Armed Forces Medical Services, and this is not simply due to ignorance.Actually, the caduceus originally belonged to Apollo, the god of physicians. The Hippocratic Oath begins: "I swear by Apollo...." It was given to Hermes (or Mercury) in exchange for his lyre, which he had made from the shell of a turtle that he had accidently killed. "To take up the caduceus," therefore, is to follow Apollo not Hermes.Asklēpios' symbol was one snake; he unfortunately was struck down by Apollo's arrows because of a successful cardiopulmonary resuscitation. (He revived a patient who was dead, incurring the god's jealousy.) The "arrows of Apollo" became a synonym for sudden death in Greek medical literature.