Thursday, June 13, 2013

Symbols of the Healing Arts

By Laura Webb, BSN-RN, MRP

Greek mythology can be confusing. The stories started circulating so long ago,  yet Ancient Latin terminology and Greek mythology continue to influence modern day healthcare. Take for example the symbols of snakes on a rod. One symbolizes the role of the physician, while the other stands for the registered nurse.

The classic symbol for RN is the Caduceus (also known as Hermes’ rod or wand). Hermes’ wand is entwined by two coiled snakes and is topped by a pair of wings. Some people think that the wings represent the caring (angelic) side of nursing. However, according to Greek mythology, Hermes (also known as Mercury), was a magically winged messenger, rumored to have wings on his feet. He also dabbled in alchemy (chemistry, medicine, and metals). So, his wand seems apropos for RNs. I am sure that every nurse has had moments when he or she would be glad to have wings on their feet!

The other famous snake-on-a rod belonged to the Greek mythological god of healing, Asclepius. Unlike Hermes, Asclepius did not have any wings on his rod.

The symbols sometimes get confused, and are used to represent other “healing arts” besides nursing and medicine. But, it is amazing that these symbols have endured for such a long time as signs of healthcare professionals.

Of course, nurses have many other symbols. I have seen the symbolic nursing cap on many patient call buttons. Yet, it has been a long time since the majority of nurses donned caps.

One of the most enduring symbols of nursing is Florence Nightingale’s lamp. Many nursing schools still conduct pinning ceremonies at graduation time, complete with the symbolic lighting of the lamp.

Some nurses adopt patron saints or other symbols. Do you have a favorite nursing symbol or emblem?

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