Asclepius and The Rod of Asclepius, or Star of Life – International medical symbol often found on medical alert ID jewellery
The Star of Life is a symbol used to identify emergency medical services. It features a blue six-pointed star outlined by a white border. The middle contains a Rod of Asclepius – an ancient symbol of medicine (see detailed information below). The Star of Life can be found on ambulances, medical personnel uniforms, and other objects associated with emergency medicine or first aid. Elevators marked with the symbol indicate the lift is large enough to hold a stretcher.
Medical bracelets sometimes use the symbol to indicate one has a medical condition that emergency services should be aware of.
The Star of Life originated in the United States. Previously, ambulances in the country commonly displayed a safety orange-colored cross on a square background. This was only a slight variation from the red Greek cross (✚) used by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
In 1963, the American Medical Association (AMA) designed the Star of Life as a “universal” symbol for medical identification. The AMA did not trademark or copyright the symbol, stating it was being “freely offered” to manufacturers and also was for use on cards carried by persons with a medical condition.
By way of a 1964 resolution, it was adopted by the World Medical Association “as the universal emergency medical information symbol” The Star of Life was promoted by the American Red Cross and rapidly adopted worldwide.
The Rod of Asclepius (or Staff of Asclepius) is an ancient Greek symbol that has become an internationally recognised symbol of medicine. It depicts a serpent entwined around a staff that is traditionally a knotty tree limb. The symbol is associated with the Greek demigod, Asclepius, who was renowned for his unsurpassed medical prowess and healing powers. According to myths, he got his medical knowledge through the whispering of snakes that have the ability to periodically shed their skin and emerge bigger, healthier and shinier than before.
The Rod of Asclepius is a befitting representation of the physician’s art of healing because of its combination of the staff, which is symbolic of authority and the snake, which denotes rebirth, fertility, revitalisation, and rejuvenation. Moreover, snake venom has been found to be fatally poisonous and, at the same time, have medicinal properties. Therefore, the serpent is also seen as symbolic of the dual nature of a physician’s work that involved sickness & health, life & death. It even signifies the dual powers of medicine – the dosage and the situation determine if it will heal or harm. The symbol was displayed at the Temples of Asclepius that became popular healing centers of the Greco-Roman world. Later on, it came to be adopted by doctors all over the world.
Whatever the origin of the Rod of Asclepius may have been, it remains a dominant global symbol of healthcare, healing, and medicine.
In honor of Asclepius, a particular type of non-venomous snake was often used in healing rituals, and these snakes – the Aesculapian snakes – crawled around freely on the floor in dormitories where the sick and injured slept. These snakes were introduced at the founding of each new temple of Asclepius throughout the classical world. From about 300 BCE onwards, the cult of Asclepius grew very popular and pilgrims flocked to his healing temples (Asclepieia) to be cured of their ills. Ritual purification would be followed by offerings or sacrifices to the god (according to means), and the supplicant would then spend the night in the holiest part of the sanctuary – the abaton (or adyton). Any dreams or visions would be reported to a priest who would prescribe the appropriate therapy by a process of interpretation. Some healing temples also used sacred dogs to lick the wounds of sick petitioners.
The serpent and the staff appear to have been separate symbols that were combined at some point in the development of the Asclepian cult. The significance of the serpent has been interpreted in many ways; sometimes the shedding of skin and renewal is emphasized as symbolizing rejuvenation, while other assessments center on the serpent as a symbol that unites and expresses the dual nature of the work of the Apothecary Physician, who deals with life and death, sickness and health.
The ambiguity of the serpent as a symbol, and the contradictions it is thought to represent, reflect the ambiguity of the use of drugs, which can help or harm, as reflected in the meaning of the term pharmakon, which meant “drug”, “medicine”, and “poison” in ancient Greek. However the word may become less ambiguous when “medicine” is understood as something that heals the one taking it because it poisons that which afflicts it, meaning medicine is designed to kill or drive away something and any healing happens as a result of that thing being gone, not as a direct effect of “medicine”. Products deriving from the bodies of snakes were known to have medicinal properties in ancient times, and in ancient Greece, at least some were aware that snake venom that might be fatal if it entered the bloodstream could often be imbibed. Snake venom appears to have been ‘prescribed’ in some cases as a form of therapy.
The staff has also been variously interpreted. One view is that it, like the serpent, “conveyed notions of resurrection and healing”, while another (not necessarily incompatible) is that the staff was a walking stick associated with itinerant physicians. Cornutus, a Greek philosopher probably active in the first century CE, in the Theologiae Graecae Compendium offers a view of the significance of both snake and staff:
Asclepius derived his name from healing soothingly and from deferring the withering that comes with death. For this reason, therefore, they give him a serpent as an attribute, indicating that those who avail themselves of medical science undergo a process similar to the serpent in that they, as it were, grow young again after illnesses and slough off old age; also because the serpent is a sign of attention, much of which is required in medical treatments. The staff also seems to be a symbol of some similar thing. For by means of this it is set before our minds that unless we are supported by such inventions as these, in so far as falling continually into sickness is concerned, stumbling along we would fall even sooner than necessary.
In any case, the two symbols certainly merged in antiquity as representations of the snake coiled about the staff are common. It has been claimed that the snake wrapped around the staff was a species of rat snake, Elaphe longissima, the Aesculapian snake.