Sunday, July 1, 2012

4) Tarot Symbolism: The Caduceus:

The “Caduceus” is a Greek symbol representing the staff carried by Hermes in Greek Mythology. In Roman mythology, Hermes is called Mercury, the “Messenger of the Gods”. In Egypt, he is associated with the ancient Wisdom God Thoth.

The Caduceus in Greek means the “Herald’s staff” and is also carried by Iris, the messenger of the Greek Goddess Hera (wife of Zeus, King of the Gods). 

 Although the term Caduceus has come from the Greek “Kerukion” or “Herald’s Staff”, it is different from Kerukion, in that, the latter may represent any herald’s staff including that of Hermes, whereas Caduceus essentially means “Hermes’ staff”.

The Caduceus Symbol:

The symbol consists of a short staff on which are entwined two serpents, sometimes depicted by wings or a Lion at the Apex of the staff.  Symbols resembling the Caduceus have been found on ancient Mesopotamian cylindrical seals. 

Hermes in an earlier form was, also, the Underworld God “Ningishzida” or “Messenger of the Earth Mother”. In Egyptian iconography, the “Djed” pillar is shown as containing a snake in a frieze of the “Dendera Temple complex”. 

The Rod of Moses and the brazen serpent are often associated with the Caduceus, especially as Moses was said to be acting as a “Messenger of God” to the Pharaoh and his staff changes into a snake to put forward his view-point of God’s wrath befalling the Pharaoh and his countrymen for not following God’s will.

Origins of the symbol Caduceus:

In Mythology, Apollo (the Sun-God) is said to have given the Caduceus as a return gift for Hermes (his half-brother) having gifted Apollo a lyre made from a tortoise shell as compensation for having stolen Apollo’s cattle. 

Another Greek myth goes like this – Hermes saw the two serpents wrapped around each other in mortal combat (much like the Red and the White dragons in Arthurian Tarot – Please refer my Post on the “Lemniscate or the Symbol of Infinity” – Magician Card in the previous post on this blog). He separated them with his wand and brought about peace between them. 

The Caduceus is also seen as a symbol of peace, in keeping with this legend.

A “Caduceator” in the Roman Empire referred to as a peace-maker, who negotiated peace under the “diplomatic protection” of the Caduceus which he took with him as a symbol that he was an ambassador of peace.

Caduceus symbol Relevance: 

-      In Dictionaries, it is mentioned as a “Commercial Term”, in consonance with Hermes being associated with Commerce.

-      The God Hermes or Mercury  stands for education, letters, argument, logic, brotherhood, geometry, commerce, community, messaging, service, profit, discoveries. The symbol as a representation of Hermes also is a symbol for Trades, occupations and associations represented by the God. 

-      Hermes is the giver of discernment and judgment and governs sculptors, teachers, lawyers, orators, philosophers, architects, musicians, diviners – those who use paradox and craftiness in calculations and those who make their livings from display, vagrancy and unsettled conditions, those who are experts and inquirers concerning celestial phenomena and the Caduceus symbol announces his presence.

-      It is also an astrological symbol representing the planet Mercury as well as the element Mercury. Further, as Hermes was also a magician/trickster par excellence, it is also a symbol used in alchemy  (an earlier stage of chemistry its focus being on turning base metals into gold and finding the elixir of life – “ alkimiya” in Arabic).

-      The caduceus is also a symbol representing peace and negotiation. 

-      As Mercury is adept in the art of writing and eloquence, the symbol also represents printing. Printers saw themselves as messengers of the printed word and diffusers of knowledge, hence took the Caduceus as a symbol.

-      The Caduceus is another symbol of the dual nature of the astral light and stands for the opposing currents of universal magnetism. One snake represents creativity, while the other one represents fire which destroys, in order to recreate/regenerate. As the snake casts off its skin and thereby renews its outer covering, it is supposed to be having an eternal life in Greek/Roman Mythology.

Caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius:

The Caduceus is  often mistaken as a symbol of medicine and medical practice, however, it differs from the Rod of Asclepius , in that, there is only one snake on the Rod of Asclepius symbol representing medicine and medical practice and no wings on the top of the Rod. 

The link between Caduceus and medicine seems to have come from the fact that Hermes is linked to alchemy. Alchemists were referred to as the sons of Hermes, as Hermeticists and as “practitioners of the hermetic arts”.

The Caduceus was the magic staff of Hermes (Mercury), the God of eloquence, invention, travel and theft, and, therefore, is not a symbol of medicine. 

The mistaken interpretation of the Caduceus as a symbol of Medicine/Medical Science is primarily due to the fact that it is used as an emblem by the US Army Medical Corps the beginning of the twentieth century.

Most Medical Organizations, for example, the Medical Council of New Zealand, use the correct and traditional symbol of medicine, the staff of Asclepius with a single serpent encircling a staff, classically a rough hewn knotty tree limb. 

Asclepius was an ancient Greek physician, said to be a mortal son of Apollo, deified as the God of Medicine and is portrayed holding a large staff with the sacred single serpent coiled around it, symbolizing the renewal of youth, just as the serpent casts off its skin.

It is believed that the filarial worm crawls about the patient’s body just under the skin. In ancient Greece, the physicians used to make small cuts on the patient’s skin and hold a small rod around which the worm used to crawl out of the patient’s body and wrap itself. The filarial worm was nicknamed the “fiery serpent” because of the discomfort it caused to the patient. 

This infection was so common that physicians used to advertise their skills at curing patients by showing a sign with a worm wrapped around a stick, hence the origins to the symbol of Asclepius as a medical symbol.

A picture of the Rod of Asclepius taken from an ambulance in a Pune Hospital. In India Medical Institutions use the correct symbol - The Rod of Asclepius.

Symbolic Interpretations in Tarot:

-      The Caduceus gives a message of balancing duality or an equilibrium between opposite polarities. An occult interpretation of the two serpents is that they represent positive and negative kundalini as it moves through the chakras and around the spine (the staff) to the head.

-      In several Magician Cards the Caduceus appears as a Wand of Hermes symbolizing the dual energy of the two snakes entwined in balance around the staff and exhibits elements of the qualities that Hermes stands for i.e. from being a wandering performer and diviner, to his association with commerce, education, letters and numbers etc.

-      “The Devil” Card is sometimes shown with a Caduceus somewhere in its imagery. The Caduceus here symbolizes the two snakes representing the dark side and the light, two aspects of personality in each one of us, co-existence and balance between which may be a judicious way forward. The symbol in the Devil Card, thus, offers one the “freedom to choose” without any bindings on the querent, whether to choose a balanced path or to follow a negative path leading to self destruction.

-      In the “Two of Cups” Card the symbol represents partnerships or associations in marriage/business etc. by combining the different synergies of the two persons or enterprises to the mutual benefit of both, leading to a desired common goal.

-      Serpents represent renewal, because of their shedding their skins. In other words, when the symbol appears in a Reading, it may suggest a new beginning by shedding off the old trappings, a process of purification of sorts and thinking anew towards the desired goals.

-      The symbol in Alchemy is interpreted as one serpent representing “sulphur” (male) and the other representing “quicksilver” (female). The central staff represents the collective wisdom of the Eons, pertaining to the balance between opposites, so as to achieve harmony or find a common ground in duality. In Tarot Cards, therefore, the message is logically, one of co-operation between opposite personalities to attain a common desired objective.

A few examples from Tarot Decks in my Tarot Library:

Arthur Waite Deck:

Two of Cups: (Rider Waite):

In the two of cups are shown a man and a woman exchanging cups in what appears to be a celebration of sorts with the Caduceus of Hermes between them.

 The Caduceus here seems to stand for a positive beginning for new partnerships, proposals, marriages, businesses and indicates that the new relationship could be very successful. It also indicates that two persons (opposites) are coming together and pooling their resources in order to achieve an objective or a common/cherished goal. 

The Caduceus in this card is a symbol of passion, courage, energy suggesting that these two persons may have mutual admiration for each other’s characteristics, though they may not necessarily exhibit them openly. The two snakes represent the darkness and light, two aspects in each one of us, co-existence and balance between which may be a judicious way forward.

Mythic Tarot:

This card shows Hermes, who had appeared as the Fool’s inner guide in the Card of the Magician at the beginning of his life’s journey as a trickster and a mentor to the Fool as well as a Magus who points the way out of tricky situations , in a new role as an emissary of Hades, the Lord of the Underworld. In this Card his role transforms from the mentor and counselor in the Magician card to that of a summoner of lost souls taking account of their deeds while they were alive and preparing them for either reincarnation or freedom from rebirth (Reward) or taking them to the depths of the Underworld (Punishment).

The Caduceus with its two serpents entwined on the Rod here is indicative of his role as a Messenger of the God Hades.

Magician :  

The Caduceus in this card represents Hermes’ Magic Wand with the good and evil snakes, male and female, opposites or darkness and light. 

Here Hermes is represented as a guide of travelers, thieves and deceivers, master of Magic , showing the path to fortunes and destiny. He is a trickster, par excellence, yet through his powers of oratory and skills, he is the trusted messenger of the Gods and Guide of souls into the Underworld. 

He is the guide and a spiritual teacher to the Fool and points to the creative abilities within the querent which are yet to manifest telling him to balance the opposite polarities within his personality and characteristics and to achieve his goals through a balanced approach, much like the snakes entwined and balanced on the Rod forming the Caduceus.

The Wheel of Change Tarot
Magician Card:

The card  shows two pillars on either side of the Magician which have a snake each wrapped on them, in a symbolic reference to the Caduceus of Hermes.

The Caduceus illustrates the magical circumstances of life that unites the heavens (ideas/thought processes) with the Earth (represented by the physical self) highlighting Hermes’ role as a messenger of the Gods.

The Thoth Tarot:

In the Crowley deck, the Magician in all three Magus Cards represents Thoth the Egyptian God of Wisdom who is also Hermes or Mercury. The caduceus appears in all three cards in different styles – In the first representation, the Magus himself is the symbolic representation of the Staff and the two snakes are wrapped around his head. In the second card, the Caduceus is placed around his head while in the third representation, the Caduceus is placed in front of the Magus. 

A Reader or querent is free to choose whichever card he prefers, thanks to Werner Ganser, who discovered the existence of all three cards during a visit to the Warburg Institute in London, where these cards were displayed.

This Card the Five of Wands (titled – strife) in the Thoth Tarot, shows the Caduceus, the Phoenix and the Lotus arranged in a manner showing their disproportionate sizes/stances are now trying to achieve harmony within the discord or stance.


This is an image of the Six of Wands (titled – victory) showing that the Wands depicted by the Caduceus, the Phoenix and Lotus are now arranged in aggressive and peaceful opposites, (a process which had been initiated by the Five of Wands) and have now been properly balanced.

An image of the Devil in the Thoth Tarot, showing the Caduceus in front. The Devil represents the dark and lighted sides of one’s personality or circumstances and lets the querent either choose one or the other side  or take a balanced approach to the issues at hand.


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