Exploring the History of Medicine, Part 35: Florence, Part 15

September 1, 2023


Uffizi Gallery

1.      "Primavera" (Spring) (15th century) – Continued

On the far left, wearing a hat with wings and shoes with wings, and holding a staff in his right hand, is Hermes, the son of Zeus.

He is one of the twelve gods of Olympus.

Zeus desired a clever and resourceful child who would be useful to him.

While his wife Hera was asleep, Zeus had an affair with the beautiful goddess Maia and fathered Hermes.

Delighted that a clever child was born according to his wishes, Zeus welcomed Hermes into the company of the gods of Olympus, making him one of the twelve gods.

He appointed Hermes as his "messenger."

During his childhood, Hermes went on a "journey" and "stole" the cattle belonging to Apollo, the sun god.

When Apollo came to retrieve his cattle, Hermes told him a "lie" by denying any involvement in the theft.

As per Zeus's command, Hermes returned the herd of cattle to Apollo and as a gesture of apology, he presented Apollo with a lyre, an instrument he had invented.

In return, Apollo gave Hermes a magical golden "staff."

The staff had two snakes coiled around it, symbolizing wisdom, and wings on top for swift movement.

Hermes, who went on a "journey," committed "theft," told "lies," and made a “mutually beneficial exchange” with Apollo, became the patron god of “travel,” “theft,” “eloquence,” and “commerce.”

In Latin, commerce is referred to as "merx," so in Roman mythology, Hermes is known as "Mercurius."

When mercury (quick silver) was discovered in the 6th century and observed to form quicksilver drops that rapidly dispersed when dropped on the floor, it was named "Mercury" due to its resemblance.

The property of easily changing states—solid, liquid, and gas—reflected the unpredictable movements of Mercurius, from the realm of the gods on Mount Olympus to the human world and the underworld.

 For the same reason, the planet closest to the sun, which quickly disappears from view, is called “Mercury,” and someone with a fickle personality is described as "mercurial."

A messenger and a "matchmaker" in love are also called “Mercury”.

The French brand "Hermès" was originally a travel goods company, so they named it after the god of travel, Hermes (Mercurius).

Their logo depicts the “Staff of Hermes” at the 2 o'clock, 4 o'clock, 8 o'clock, and 10 o'clock positions, as if indicating the time on a clock.

Likewise, the emblem “Mercury” of Hitotsubashi University, a business school in Japan, features the "Staff of Hermes," the symbol of the god of commerce, Hermes.

The “Staff of Hermes” possesses magical powers to guide the dead to the underworld and sometimes even to revive them.

Therefore, it is often confused with the "Rod of Asclepius," which is a symbol of Western medicine and believed to have the power to resurrect the dead.

In particular, in North America, the “Staff of Hermes” is frequently used mistakenly as a symbol for medical organizations.

Surprisingly, the emblems of the National Defense Medical College and St. Luke's International University in Japan also feature the "Staff of Hermes."

However, it is clear that the "Rod of Asclepius" is distinct as it has only one coiled snake and lacks wings, unlike the "Staff of Hermes."

The "Staff of Hermes" is absolutely not a symbol of medicine.


Please refer to the August 1, 2021 edition and October 1, 2022 edition for more information on the Rod of Asclepius.