The caduceus is the name of the staff that the ancient Greek god Hermes carried by his side. Ancient mythology has long inspired those of us who want to get a tattoo and if you’re interested in a symbol that represents Hermes, the planet Mercury or even the practice of modern medicine, this tattoo might be the one for you.
This article outlines all the possible meanings of a caduceus tattoo and provides additional information about the symbol so that you can see whether you might be interested in getting one for yourself.
What is the Caduceus?
The caduceus is an elaborate staff carried by the god Hermes, who was a key figure in ancient Greek mythology. However, he is not the only character from antiquity to wield it. Mercury, the Roman god of commerce and communication also carried a caduceus, as did heralds such as Iris, the messenger of the Greek goddess Hera.
Although there are many types of caducei, the most recognizable form features two snakes entwined around a staff (or rod), which is topped by an outstretched set of wings.
The History of the Caduceus
Although the caduceus is known from ancient Greek and Roman mythologies, it might be even older, possibly from as early as 4000 BCE to 3000 BCE. It relates to the ancient Sumerian god Ningishzida, who can be depicted wielding a staff with intertwined snakes.
What do the Caduceus Symbolize?
The caduceus is associated with many symbols, with its early meanings linked to the roles that Hermes and Mercury played in the Greek and Roman pantheons.
Here are some of the most popular reasons why people choose this type of tattoo:
1. It represents trades and occupations
Hermes and Mercury both represent commerce, negotiation, trades, and occupations
2. It is an astronomical symbol of the planet Mercury
The planet Mercury was named after the Roman god Mercury, who was often depicted with a caduceus. He is also associated with the linked fields of astrology, alchemy and astronomy, and even the elemental metal that shares the name.
3. It symbolizes the union of opposites
With two intertwined snakes, the caduceus represents the continuous ebb and flow of those which oppose each other. Both embracing and fighting, the snakes are in an eternal, connected dance.
4. It represents duality
The caduceus snakes are two evenly-matched halves of a pair. They can represent the duality of male and female, yin and yang, light and dark, left and right, night and day, and the sun and moon.
The staff at the center of the snakes is also a great symbol of power, connecting the heavens and the earth, as well as the body and mind.
5. It is a symbol of transformation
In ancient Greece, snakes represented transformation. The meaning has its origins in the snake’s habit of periodically shedding its skin as it grows and develops and then growing more skin to continue the cycle.
6. It is the desire for higher thoughts
The wings that sit atop the caduceus staff symbolize the desire for a person to gain a higher level of thinking and greater cognitive thought.
7. It is an esoteric representation of the body
The staff embodies the spine, while the intertwined snakes represent the sun and moon that control the organs of the body.
Why Are the Caduceus Sometimes Associated with Medicine?
The Rod of Asclepius is a widely-recognized symbol of medicine and the medical profession. It is similar to the caduceus but it only has one snake instead of two and is not depicted with wings.
The caduceus is sometimes confused with the Rod of Asclepius, especially in the United States, and is sometimes adopted by doctors and medical associations.
Thanks to its links to Hermes and Mercury, the caduceus is more correctly associated with commerce. For this reason, many health care workers don’t like that it is used to represent their profession.
Despite this symbolic confusion, some people choose to get a caduceus tattoo to celebrate surviving disease or living with a chronic illness. This is true too for health care workers, who want to show pride in their chosen profession.
Why is the Caduceus a Popular Tattoo Choice?
The caduceus tattoo is popular for many reasons, including:
- It can be a simple black and white outline or a bold and colorful statement
- There are many ways you can choose to depict it
- The image is long and thin, which fits well on a person’s arms or legs
- It has both negative and positive connotations
- It is linked to the medical profession
- It can symbolize many different things.
If you’re a fan of tattoos that are brimming with symbolism, this tattoo might be right for you.
What types of Caduceus tattoos are there?
Although there are as many types of caduceus tattoos as there are people who get them, there are two main types:
- A black and white outline
Many people, particularly those who have chosen the caduceus as a symbol of the medical profession, choose to have a small and simple line drawing.
- A tattoo that is both bold and colorful
With strong animal elements in the form of snakes and outstretched wings, as well as the central staff element, other people prefer to get inked with a caduceus tattoo that is large, bold, and colorful.
What are the Best Locations for a Caduceus Tattoo?
There is no ‘best’ location for a Caduceus tattoo, but there is a ‘best’ location for you depending on the size and shape.
If your tattoo is long and thin, your arm or leg is a great place to show it off.
If your tattoo has elaborate artistry at the top of the staff, including two large snakeheads and wide outstretched wings, you can place it in the center of your back or chest.
So, is this tattoo Right for You?
When considering getting a tattoo, it’s always worth taking the time to research the symbolism and what it means. A caduceus tattoo is a great way to represent the duality of life or the virtues of the medical profession.