SERPENTS AND THE POWER OF HEALING
“Poisons and medicine are often the same substance given with different intents.”
– Peter Mere Latham, 19th-century English physician and educator
The medicine and pharmacy are twin souls, they are attached to each other and they can’t be really separated. That what is detected by medicine is cured by pharmacy but if the medical diagnosis is bad, the pharmaceutical treatment will be worse. Sometimes, so called medical professionals make the mistakes that correct good pharmacists but the land of pharmacy is the last land before the one leaves for a world after this one. Their magical knowledge can save people and can curse them , they are the modern alchemists that are not worshipped as they should be.
Have you ever wondered why the snake is used as the symbol of pharmacy? It is not the only one, because there are others as mortar and pestle, show globes and Rx symbols, but the snake is a dominant and recognizable. Someone would conclude that snake venom could be used as a poison and as a cure at the same time, depending on what is the purpose. It is an interesting logic in the background of the bowl of Hygieia, that leads us back many, many years. First of all, in the book of greek mythology, Hygieia was the daughter and assistant of Aesculapius, the Apollo’s son, the grandson of majestic Zeus and the god of medicine and healing. Based on the legend, Aesculapius tried to make people immortal and that has directly endangered the Gods from Olympus. Zeus killed his grandson because of his amazing healing capacities. In many of his temples, the dead snakes have been found as alive that has been connected with his healing power. Those who have worshipped Aesculapius have never forgotten that snake and the bowl go together as the symbol of resurrection and health.
In spite of the facts that religious interpretations find snakes lucrative and dangerous, there are the proves that snakes have been always considered as the part of healing power and that is exactly what the Department of Pharmacy at the University of Arizona is writing:” In art history, Hygeia is often shown with her bowl and a snake coiled around either her arm or the stem of the bowl itself. The Bowl of Hygeia may also have biblical connections. The imagery of a snake on a pole is found in the Old Testament (Numbers 21:6-9), when a bronze serpent was used to heal the Israelites. Moreover, art historical depictions of St. John often show him holding a bowl with a serpent. According to Jared Savage, the first summer intern with John Wyeth and Company and the American Pharmaceutical Association, this is based on the story that a trophy containing poison was offered to the apostle.”
Some other records keep informing us that the famous Bowl of Hygieia has been used as a symbol by so many apothecaries in Italy, in ancient 1222 but then it is lost for more than 500 years. During the dark middle ages, the pharmacy and the light of the science have been faced up with the tragedy of church accusations and religious terror in the name of God. The most brilliant minds have tried to protect their own lives and they have been hidden for the population, as the shadows with the good intentions. They spent their days and nights as the knights of light, fighting the darkness of the ignorance. They tried to discover the secret formula of the nature, to endure the lives, to chase away the deaths. People called them alchemists and the church mafia burnt them as heretics.
The surprising for all of us should be the thing that medieval pharmacy was, in spite of all challenges and risks, one of the best intellectual and scientific periods for turning herbs into drugs. While the Europe has been fighting the religious and social disturbances, the first pharmacy was founded in Baghdad in the year 754. The Arabic medieval doctors and pharmacists have tried to experiment with the materia medica an to make a successful cocktail of life. It was always a question more, how it should be made to not cause the damage and to prolong the possibility to survive? The European pharmacists are being waked by the 12th century when the drug stores could be also found around the Europe.
The pharmacists have invented to bring pure science into the herbal skills. Till 1100 year, the drugs have been collected based on experience and good feeling for recovery but after, the pharmacists and physicians are working together to find the invisible code of the friendly drug, they test the situations, they measure the results and they combine the offered ingredients. They are playing with the nature but that HIDE and SEEK of the ancient scientists have helped a lot the birth of the modern pharmacy and its children.
Our Bowl of Hygieia has been brought to life by 1796, as the symbol of the Parisian Society of Pharmacy but there is something else also very thrilling, the meaning of the famous Hippocratic Oath:“I swear | by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods . ..” that includes the Aesculapius, the god of medicine and his two daughters, Hygieia, the goddess of health and Panaceia, the goddess of healing. There are scholars who argue that this oath has not been written only by Hippocrates but also by the followers of Pythagoras.
The worship of snakes in medicine and pharmacy is not the greek heritage but also linked with the egyptian form of cherishing the serpents. When we look on another symbol of health, that is a snake on the stick or to be precise- we are talking about the Rod of Asclepius. There are many healing temples that are based on the Asclepius cult and that in honor of him, keep a special type of non-venomous snake that offer for a healing ritual. These snakes are known as Aesculapian snakes.
The modern pharmacy is battle, struggle and fight between the dimensions of being moral and ethic and being profitable. There are many great pharmacists that live their own Aesculapian dreams but there are those who wear the cloak of interest and who play only for money. The first are bringing to us the spirit of medieval brave alchemists and the second remind us that evil will never give up.
The next time when someone teaches you how the snakes could be dangerous, be reminded that the snakes keep the meaning of recovery, the power of healing and the new rise. Open your thoughts for the world behind this one, when so many died for their science and for us, to be alive now. The symbol of serpents is more like a symbol of neverending fight for force of knowledge in the universe of constant terror of ignorance.
SUPPORT THE ETHIC PHARMACISTS, CHERISH THEM !
10 thoughts on “THE ALCHEMICAL SYMBOL OF PHARMACY: THE BOWL OF HYGIEIA”
Wow ! What a Splendid article, Sarah ! You have amazed me once more with depth of your research, and your outstanding presentation !
I have always been intrigued by this symbol and its meaning ! Science has always been like the lighthouse which helps bring ships ashore safely and unharmed !
As a mathematician and a scientist, I can avouch as to how factual these fields are, and as to the role they have played in advancing humanity and saving lives !
This brings back memories of your prior article “The Medieval Alchemy: Brave Scientists or Wizards who Challenged the Church?”, February 21, 2017. In that article you stated amazing facts such as:
“The Middle age was the the dark age for humanity and free spirit but the big period for stating the rule of Church and its own teaching. What I found very inspirative is the fact that the medieval times caused the boom of science in spite of prohibitions and limitations. There were so many amazing thinkers and researchers that have changed forever the path of our world. Some of them sacrificed their own life for the knowledge and some have done remarkable things staying in the shadow of the God. Because of all of them then, we are here now.”
Further, you added the following:
“That was not an easy job, to work in the alchemy field and to keep it secret when everyone could be a Church’s spy and when you and your research could be burnt on the public square, followed by the sick sadism of the crowd that has never anything understood.”
In closing, what better argument, then yours, Sarah: “The next time when someone teaches you how the snakes could be dangerous, be reminded that the snakes keep the meaning of recovery, the power of healing and the new rise. Open your thoughts for the world behind this one, when so many died for their science and for us, to be alive now. The symbol of serpents is more like a symbol of neverending fight for force of knowledge in the universe of constant terror of ignorance.”
Thank you, Sarah, for answering the questions I have had for years about Hygieia and the serpent as they relate to Alchemy and Apothecaries !
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Sarah’s interesting, insightful and holistic article brought to mind the issue of ‘bioethics’: in a study conducted by The Center for Responsive Politics (a non-profit, non-partisan research group based in Washington, D.C., that tracks the effects of money and lobbying on elections and public policy) in early-2017, there were more than 1,100 lobbyists working in some capacity for the major US-pharmaceutical corporations. In the first fiscal quarter of 2017, the health products and pharmaceutical industry spent US$78 million on lobbying members of the US-Congress.
Bioethicists are concerned with the ethical questions that arise in the relationships among life sciences, biotechnology, medicine, politics, law and philosophy. It includes the study of the more commonplace questions of societal values that arise in primary care and other branches of First World institutionalized medicine.
Bioethics addresses emerging biotechnologies that affect basic biology and future humans. These developments include cloning, gene therapy, human genetic engineering, astroethics and life in space, and manipulation of basic biology through altered DNA, RNA and proteins.
The term ‘Bioethics’ (Greek – ‘bios’, life + ‘ethos’, behaviour) was coined in 1926 by Dr Fritz Jahr (1895-1953, German Protestant pastor, theologian, philosopher and educator) in an article about a ‘bioethical imperative’ regarding the use of animals and plants in scientific research. In 1970, the North American biochemist Dr Van Rensselaer Potter (1911-2001) used the term to describe the relationship between the biosphere and a growing human population. His work laid the foundation for global ethics; a discipline centered around the link between biology, ecology, medicine and apparent human values.
Bioethicists can disagree among themselves over the precise limits of their discipline; debating whether the field should concern itself with the ethical evaluation of all questions involving biology and medicine, or only a subset of these questions. Some bioethicists would narrow ethical evaluation only to the morality of medical treatments or technological innovations, and the timing of medical treatment of humans. Others would broaden the scope of ethical evaluation to include the morality of all actions that might help or harm organisms capable of feeling fear.
As a study, bioethics has drawn criticism. For instance, some scientists have noted that bioethics tends to focus its attention on problems that arise from patients in industrialized nations, while giving little or no attention to the poor of The Developing World, etc. Bioethics must be balanced and give due weight to impoverished populations.
Scientific researchers not directly employed by pharmaceutical corporations look to companies for grants; studies that will make their products appear beneficial. Sponsored researchers are significantly rewarded by pharmaceutical corporations (e.g. support for their conference/symposium costs). Lecture scripts and even journal articles presented by academic researchers may actually be ‘ghost-written’ by pharmaceutical corporations, also.
An investigation by ProPublica (non-profit organization based in New York City that describes itself as a non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism, in the public interest) found that at least 21 US-physicians have been paid more than US$500,000 for speeches and consulting by pharmaceutical manufacturers since FY2009, with half of the top earners working in psychiatry, and about US$2 billion in total paid to doctors for such services. AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Eli Lilly have paid billions of dollars in federal settlements over allegations that they paid doctors to promote drugs for unapproved uses. Some prominent US-medical universities have since tightened rules on faculty acceptance of such payments by the pharmaceutical corporations.
In Washington, D.C., due to the pharmaceutical industry’s concerns of medical marijuana adversely impacting sales of prescription drugs, the industry (with help from the alcohol industry) has openly lobbied and campaigned extensively against the decriminalization and legalization of medical marijuana; including companies such as Insys Therapeutics Inc. (a manufacturer of the highly-addictive painkiller fentanyl) which spent US$500,000 for advertising against Proposition 205. Insys directly admitted in an investor filing that marijuana legalization could ‘significantly limit (our) commercial success’.
Sarah concludes her article with a plea to the general public to support ethical pharmacists and physicians, and this can be achieved through direct and transparent communication between the general public, patience and medical professionals, etc.
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Thank you, dear Sarah, for an interesting article. Being moral and ethical are the most important factors in what we do to be successful in benefiting ourselves and the others. Everything God has created including plantations and snakes is for a good purpose. Your article reminded me of when I was a little boy, my mother practiced herbal medicine in the small town we lived in. I still remember her mortar when she used it to mix, grind, and prepare her medicine to her patients. One thing I should mention that she always paid for her crude herbs from her pocket, and never charged any of her patients for the service or the medicine. She always told me that she is doing it for the sake of God, and to eliminate the suffering of the people.
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