Saturday, November 21, 2015

Symbols, Part 1

Sitting in my doctor’s waiting room (a check up only) I began wondering about the symbol for medicos: why are people dedicated to healing the sick represented by a snake on a stick? It started me wondering about other symbols too. Here are the explanations and background of some. More to come in future Bytes.


Rod of Asclepius

The medical symbol of the snake on the stick is known as the Rod of Asclepius. It takes its name from the god Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicinal arts in Greek mythology.   He became known as the god of medicine.

Greece had various healing centres and temples, known as asclepieia, which used a non-venomous snake in healing rituals. These snakes – the Aesculapian Snakes – crawled around freely on the floor in dormitories where the sick and injured slept. From about 300 BC onwards, the cult of Asclepius grew very popular and pilgrims flocked to his healing temples to be cured of their ills. 

The original Hippocratic Oath began with the invocation "I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods ..."

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 centre on the serpent as a symbol that unites and expresses the dual nature of the work of the 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. 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.

The staff with two snakes is not a medical image and is often incorrectly used for that purpose. The confusion comes from the staff and snakes but the medical symbol only has one serpent and no wings.

The 2–serpent, winged symbol is known as a caduceus, from the Greek language where it means “herald’s staff”. It represents the staff carried by Hermes in Greek mythology. The same staff was also borne by heralds in general, for example by Iris, the messenger of Hera. It is a short staff entwined by two serpents, sometimes topped by wings. The Romans often depicted it being carried in the left hand of Mercury, the messenger of the gods, guide of the dead and protector of merchants, shepherds, gamblers, liars, and thieves.



Bluetooth is a wireless technology standard for exchanging data over short distances from fixed and mobile devices, and building personal area networks (PANs). It was invented by telecom vendor Ericsson in and can connect several devices, overcoming problems of synchronisation.

The name "Bluetooth" is an Anglicised version of the Scandinavian king of the tenth-century Harald Bluetooth, who united dissonant Danish tribes into a single kingdom and, according to legend, introduced Christianity as well. 

The idea of this name was proposed in 1997 by Jim Kardach who developed a system that would allow mobile phones to communicate with computers. At the time of this proposal he was reading Frans G. Bengtsson's historical novel The Long Ships about Vikings and King Harald Bluetooth. The implication is that Bluetooth does the same with communications protocols, uniting them into one universal standard. 

The Bluetooth logo is combination of Nordic runes corresponding to the letters H and B, the initials of Harald Bluetooth.

Why was he called Bluetooth? Harald's nickname "Bluetooth" is first documented in 1140 and there are a number of theories as to its origin:

· The usual explanation is that Harald must have had a conspicuous bad tooth that appeared "blue" (i.e. black, as "blue" meant dark).

· Another explanation, is that he was called Thegn in England (corrupted to "tan" when the name came back into Old Norse). In England, Thane meant chief. Since blue meant "dark", his nickname was really "dark chieftain".

· A third theory was that Harald went about clothed in blue. The blue colour was the most expensive, so by walking in blue Harald underlined his royal dignity



The universal symbol for pawn shops is three balls suspended from a curved bar. 

The "three balls" were originally part of the coat of arms of the Medici family, who established the Medici trading and banking empire in Florence, Italy. Legend has it that one of the Medicis (in the employ of Emperor Charles the Great) fought a giant and slew him with three sacks of rocks. The three balls or globes later became part of their family crest, and ultimately, the sign of pawnbroking.

There is also speculation that the three balls  pawnbroking establishments was originally a depiction of three gold coins.  To facilitate viewing, this developed into three gold balls.

How far have we come?

The print depicts a woman hesitatingly pawning her wedding ring while the pawnbroker and his assistant look on pityingly. 

Rod Steiger in the hard hitting 1964 flick The Pawnbroker

Today. . .

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.