Today’s post was written by our friend Kristen Elise, an American writer and expert on symbols. A Robert Langdon in the feminine? 😉 Thanks Kristen!
In Dan Brown’s Inferno, Elizabeth Sinskey’s amulet necklace serves as a plot device to foster trust between Sinskey and Robert Langdon. But in classic Dan Brown fashion, this trust is built in a convoluted way, and his choice of props is highly symbolic.
Elizabeth deliberately lies to Langdon when she refers to her amulet as a caduceus. At first, Langdon says nothing to contradict her. But ultimately, the symbologist cannot resist correcting his colleague’s mistake, so he informs the World Health Organization director that the necklace is, in fact, a Rod of Asclepius.
Asclepius was the Greek god of medicine, and he held a rod that bore one snake. This snake winds around a Rod of Asclepius asymmetrically, and there are no wings. In contrast, the caduceus is a symmetrical staff with wings and two snakes. Confusion of the two symbols is common, as pointed out by Langdon to Sinskey.
But when Langdon clarifies the distinction between them, only then do we learn that Elizabeth’s “mistake” was actually quite intentional—it was a test of Langdon’s ability to speak frankly and truthfully with her. And all the while, Sinskey is blatantly deceiving Langdon.
Brown’s use of ancient medical symbols to teach this lesson of trust and betrayal carries a hidden meaning. A glimpse into the origin of the caduceus shows a history of treachery, one of the major, repeated themes in Brown’s Inferno as well as in Dante’s.
The common dogma claims that the caduceus hails from ancient Greece. It is thought to have originated with Iris, the messenger of Hera. Yet, this association of the caduceus with Iris and then with medicine is actually quite ironic—because Iris, while frequently referred to as messenger, was actually more like Hera’s hit woman.
In Greek mythology, Iris carried a vessel filled with water from the River Styx. And at Hera’s request, she used this ancient elixir—an ancient pharmaceutical, if you will—to put liars to sleep. Of course, at the moment Elizabeth Sinskey is lying to Robert Langdon about her necklace, she is also fighting a drug-induced slumber.
In later myths, the caduceus also became associated with Hermes. Another Greek messenger, Hermes was portrayed as a trickster, a master of deception, of treachery. Indeed, a Homeric hymn does not mince words when calling Hermes out as
of many shifts (polytropos), blandly cunning, a robber, a cattle driver, a bringer of dreams, a watcher by night, a thief at the gates…
And again, we return to Elizabeth Sinskey, who ultimately orchestrated an elaborate hoax—a hoax which involved kidnapping (stealing) Langdon in her effort to solicit his assistance in her quest.
So in Hera and Hermes, we see the connotations of liar, theft, treachery, and death, and we see that our so-called Greek medical symbol was in fact more like the skull and crossbones in ancient Greek mythology. To find the caduceus in medicine, on the other hand, we must travel instead to ancient Egypt, where Isis—the ancient Egyptian Goddess of medicine—brings wings and snakes to a vertical staff.
The Rod of Asclepius is unequivocally a Greek medical symbol. But to attribute the caduceus as a symbol of healing to ancient Greece, rather than to its true origin in ancient Egypt, is as deceptive as Hermes himself. Treachery at its most symbolic. There is a dark place in Dante’s Inferno for that.