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images features a floor detail of two serpents wrapped around a torch
Floor detail. John Adams Building vestibule, Library of Congress.

Serpents & Torches

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Today’s photo is of a bronze medallion on the vestibule floor of the Adams Building’s 2nd Street entrance. I have walked over it for several years and was curious about the imagery.

The symbolism of the torch – often a symbol of knowledge, learning, and enlightenment, is obvious and makes sense in the context of the Library. After all, torches, lamps, and other symbols of light are used quite a bit around the Library – we even have a torch on top of the Jefferson Building dome.  However, the two serpents on the medallion confused me.  They did bring to mind two well known symbols that are remarkably similar, so it was there that I looked for enlightenment.

First, I investigated  symbols used by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and many other professional medical organizations.  Their symbols have a single serpent wrapped around what looks to be a staff.  This is the Rod (or Staff) of Aesculapius (Asclepius), the Greek god associated with healing and medicine.

Since the Rod of Aesculapius  has one serpent instead of two,  that didn’t seem to be the answer for the medallion.  Then I looked to a second symbol – one that is often confused with the Rod of Aesculapius.  It is the Caduceus which was carried by Hermes (and Mercury in Roman mythology) and it has two serpents facing each other twined around a staff.  This seemed much more likely. Hermes is the Greek god of transitions and boundaries and acted as the messenger of the gods,  as well as being considered the patron god of invention and trade–and he does appear on the bronze doors of the Adams Building.  His Roman counterpart Mercury was known as the patron of commerce.

Seen in that light, what is on our vestibule floor makes a bit more sense.  The artist used the more known mythological symbol of the Caduceus and modified it for the mission of the Library by using the torch symbolizing knowledge.  This doesn’t really explain the serpents facing outward, but I wonder if the artist chose to have them facing away from the torch to symbolize the Library’s mission to spread knowledge.

After the creation of the Science & Business Reading Room on the 5th floor of the Adams Building, this medallion took on additional meaning.  The Rod of Aesculapius and the Caduceus can also be seen to symbolize the subject areas of the reading room itself – science and medicine on one side and communication, trade, and commerce on the other.

Comments (6)

  1. Excellent observations. Amazing how much symbolism and mythology are so intertwined in the both and past and present.

  2. I just read Dr. Blayney’s blog article called “The Caduceus vs the Staff of Asclepius” which was quite interesting. He basically says that Caduceus symbols have been generally used by commercial or military entities in our country and by pharmaceutical companies in New Zealand. Professional and patient centered organizations use the Asclepius symbol more often. He stated that caduceus was not only considered “the god of commerce” but also the god of eloquence, invention, travel and theft (!) and thus the symbol of heralds and commerce, but not medicine. “The words caduity and caducous imply temporality, perishableness and senility….” Now that’s something to ponder….


  3. This interpretation of the symbols of the torch and snakes is very interesting.
    i really like significations of these antic roman symbols, thank you

  4. I have a pin I found in a box my brother left me, it also has outward facing snakes but looks much more like the caduceus symbol. It is unlike anything else I have seen online and I found this while looking to find more about it. It has wings at the top, outward facing snakes, a circle around the snakes bodies, and the bottom looks like an anchor kinda. If anyone knows anything I would like to hear, my mom thinks its a mosonary symbol

  5. The first thing I thought of is that it was medical but the anchor made me thing that was related to services/organizations that were ocean/sea oriented.

    I have found something that sounds like what you are talking about for the Pacific Medical Center/PAC-MED (related to the U.S. Marine Hospital Service) in Seattle but there is some difference between the two variations. In one the anchor is horizontal, while in the other the anchor and rod are the same thing (the vertical part of the rod is the long part of the anchor). There are wings for both but the snakes face inward.

    There is a variation related to the corpsmen in the Navy but it is quit different.

  6. Could it be that the snakes represent as medicinal, specially the venom of snakes?

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