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caduceus (kədyōˈsēəs) [key], wing-topped staff, with two snakes winding about it, carried by Hermes, given to him (according to one legend) by Apollo. The symbol of two intertwined snakes appeared early in Babylonia and is related to other serpent symbols of fertility, wisdom, and healing, and of sun gods. This staff of Hermes was carried by Greek heralds and ambassadors and became a Roman symbol for truce, neutrality, and noncombatant status. By regulation, it has since 1902 been the insignia of the medical branch of the U.S. army. The caduceus is much used as a symbol of commerce, postal service, and ambassadorial positions and since the 16th cent. has largely replaced the one-snake symbol of Asclepius as a symbol of medicine.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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