I’d never given it any thought.

I’ve seen it hundreds of times but never questioned what it meant.

Just as a barber’s shop is indicated by a helix of red and blue stripes on a pole, a healthcare facility is indicated by a serpent entwined around a rod. You’ve seen the symbol on small compounding pharmacies, large medical complexes and on global entities like the World Health Organization. A snake on a stick! What’s that about?

A snake on a stick!  What’s that about?

You have to go deep into the Way Back Machine in order to figure this one out, much further back than the Middle Ages and the genesis of the barber pole. In the snake/stick case, back to Greek mythology. The ubiqutious symbol is known as the Rod of Asclepius. Asclepius is referenced in the original Hippocratic oath that all doctors are supposed to abide by: “I swear by Apollo the Healer and by Aclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea ….”

Photo by David Clode

The legend of Asclepius has all the earmarks of blockbuster mythology: miraculous birth,  foundling suckled by goats, instruction by a centaur, adoption by a deity, high speed car chase through dense urban setting, vengeful death by a thunderbolt …. Okay, one of those I threw in just to see if you were paying attention.  

… snakes were considered sacred beings linked to wisdom and resurrection.

Photo by Timothy Dykes

The gist of the legend is that while in captivity by a Greek bigwig who was hoping to secure a cure from the famed healer, Asclepius accidentally killed a snake with his staff. This was disturbing to Asclepius as snakes were considered sacred beings linked to wisdom and resurrection. As Asclepius watched in wonder, another snake delivered healing herbs to the deceased snake thereby restoring it to life. Following the snake’s example, Asclepius was able to heal his captor and not only secure his release, but add lustre to his reputation as a healer. From that point onward, snakes became a big part of Asclepius’ practice. Pilgrimages were made to his temples, called asclepieia, by people looking to be cured of their ills. Part of the process involved sleeping in the asclepieia while non-venomous snakes roved over their slumbering bodies. 

An Albanian stamp celebrating the ‘good snakes’ of Albania. Photo by

So, that’s what you’re looking at when you’re waiting to pick up your prescription. It’s astonishing how elements of origin stories live on. Some of us can’t imagine a situation where we would welcome a snake but snakes are not only the underpinning of a functioning ecosystem, but also highly regarded in many cultures. In many Mediterranean cultures the myth of Asclepius and his ‘good’ snakes endures. I was surprised to learn from a young Albanian man that his parents, and most certainly his grandparents, would have encouraged the presence of snakes around their home. The symbol of the protective snake is still a feature of Albanian homes and it’s considered a very bad omen to kill a snake. All of this, he explained, is rooted in the myth of Asclepius and his good snakes.

When was the last time you even saw a snake?

When was the last time you even saw a snake? When I was a kid, boys brandishing garter snakes chased girls through the playground. Today, however, global snake populations are in worrying decline. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature runs an ongoing study called the Global Reptile Assessment. They figure that at least 21 percent of reptile species are threatened with extinction. Hollywood isn’t helping.  Indiana Jones hollering, “I hate snakes!” in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and horror movies like Snakes on a Plane only make matters worse for reptiles. There’s a multiplicity of things we can do in an attempt to restore balance. A small pile of rocks and twigs in the garden makes a welcoming snake habitat. Think of them as your own little asclepieia and the sure-to-be fascinated children as your pilgrims.

This week’s question for readers:


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Submissions to last week’s question:

Do you, or would you, use dandelions? Are you a forager?

Dandelions can be a blessing and a curse; a delight for youngsters and the bane of a gardener! In the early 1900’s, my grandparents were pioneers moving from England to West Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast, and being the resourceful people that they were, they could find a use for just about anything that grew. Dandelions were plentiful! While my grandmother proclaimed that she never touched “spirits”, a glass of dandelion wine was sure to please!  

Judy Wilbee 

I’m not a dandelion forager yet but keep meaning to be. I let them grow as I love their yellow flowers. Bees apparently love them too but I rarely, if ever, see bees on them. I have eaten dandelion leaves in salads made by others and have had dandelion tea, so I am determined to make use of them myself. I’ve heard some folks roast the roots and make a coffee substitute – not sure I will do that. For now I’m happy to put dandelions in a vase occasionally and will soon start foraging their leaves. 

Flavia Corbella

I grew up in an area of Surrey that had a lot of forest and wide open meadows.  Yes we had a lot of dandelions! In the early 1960’s my father started making wine and experimented with all types of fruit and yes, you guessed it, also dandelion wine. There were four of us children and we were sent out to collect the flower heads.  We were paid 10 cents a bucket and you can imagine how long it took us and how little money we actually made!  I remember dad making one gallon of wine and it must have tasted alright because it all disappeared.  Dad went on to make wine from grapes and I was enlisted at ten years of age to stomp on the grapes.  Unfortunately, by the time we were all of drinking age, the wine, beer and cider making had stopped.

Chi-chi Rasmusens

June 21, 2022, Waterton National Park Alberta. It was too early for berries, but Momma black bear was feasting on the heads (and some leaves) of carpets of dandelions that had gone to seed. There must be a lot of nutrition in the seeds. Bears are typically constipated after hibernation so all that dandelion fluff and greenery would have certainly helped the issue. Baby bear was too small for solids, but had great fun “killing” seed heads, like a pouncing cat. The little bear 

looked like it had rolled around in the dustbunnies underneath my bed.

Lorna Blake

The day before your article appeared, while having a cool drink in the current heat wave, I picked a handful of nearby dandelions, crushed the stalks, and rubbed them into the chronic sun damage on my arms. Your story and question on Saturday brought a feeling of deja vu to me, thinking of my Mother, just before Mothers’ Day, and how she had taught me to use dandelions, many moons ago, while growing up in Africa. Now I know there was some scientific backing in her teaching, and wonder how she came by that advice.

Thanks for the memories.

Fred Turner

When I was around ten years old my stepmom, younger brother and me took a trip to Seattle. We went to Pike’s Place Market for a look-see and some dinner groceries. My stepmom was of Italian heritage and found they had dandelions available at the market which she had as a salad when she was growing up. She picked some up and made us a salad of dandelions, oil and vinegar with salt and pepper. All I can say is, it wasn’t the most palatable thing to eat. Not recommended.

Bruce Shaw 

It was a Saturday afternoon a long time ago. I had spent the day working in the garden pulling weeds. I amassed a giant pile of chickweed, dandelion and various other undesirables. We were dining at one of the city’s best restaurants that night. I was more than a little bit surprised to see that my ‘garden salad’ featured much of what I’d spent the day extracting. I also learned that one of my so-called weeds was sorrel, a pricey herb with loads of uses. I’d forgotten about the many uses of dandelion but plan to incorporate this useful ‘weed’ back into my kitchen.

E.F. Webb

I always assumed that the French translation of “dent de lion” was also how the flowers [ weed?] was called in French, until a French speaking friend told me it is “pissenlit.”[pee the bed] This is confirmed by my Collins French Dictionary. Did the Normans take the dent de lion to England in 1066? The regularFrench folk called it Pissenlit? My idle speculation! So, why do I find this fascinating? I grew up in Australia, where one avoided touching dandelions in fear of “peeing the bed”. As the weed was also brought to Australia by colonists from Britain, this association must have accompanied it! And no, I have no desire to eat the leaves in case they live up to their French name. 

Denise Nereid

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