Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Note on Hermes and Robertson Davies' The Cunning Man

The caduceus: two snakes

The rod of Asclepius: one snake
I have in the past couple of years discovered Robertson Davies: author of gripping, humorous, intelligent novels that deal with the human stage. They tend to feature cultured professional men observing increasingly bizarre situations. The Cunning Man sees a doctor trying to reinstate a kind of Paracelsian philosophy into medical practice. He refers often to Hermes and the caduceus as the symbol of medicine, and uses the two serpents symbolically to aid his own practice. He is, of course, wrong.

It's interesting how easily a mistake can become embedded into a culture. Many have noted that the statue of Eros in Piccaddilly is actually Anteros. That kind of mistake is easily forgiven - who on earth has heard of Anteros?

But Hermes has got nothing to do with medicine. His caduceus, or staff, has two snakes entwined around it; somehow it has become associated with the medical profession in America. It does not seem all that appropriate for a god who ushers the dead into the underworld to be the symbol of the profession. It all rests on a simple error of sight: the staff of the god Asclepius, the god of healing, has one serpent entwined around it - an ambiguous symbol, of course; but what a difference a snake makes.

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