Screen names, identity, and coincidence

Funny story time.

Since 2000 or 2001 (long enough ago that I don’t recall precisely), I’ve been using some variation on the word “caduceus” as my primary online screen name in any situation (read: almost all) that my real name won’t do. Whenever possible I go with simply “Caduceus,” when not I’ve at various times appended Arabic or Roman numerals or Japanese honorifics.

My reason for choosing that particular word was rather puerile; I was looking for a name for a character in a wretched story I was writing, and since it was a dark fantasy story and I was going for the sort of symbolism one would expect from a sixteen year old, I decided to look up “magic” (I believe; might have been “occult”) in a thesaurus.

It was a thorough thesaurus, and had further sub-entries under many of its main entries. Thus, under “magic” it had entries for things like “magic-user,” “magic symbol,” “magic book,” and “magic staff.” Caduceus was one of the words under “magic staff,” and I liked the sound of it. Liked it enough that I used it as my screen name the next time I had to make one, and have used it ever since. Over the years I gradually learned more about what a caduceus actually is.

The caduceus, for those of you who don’t know, is the winged staff entwined by two snakes that is often used as a symbol of the medical community. It was originally the symbol of Hermes, the Greek god of messengers, commerce, tricksters, and death. I’ll get to how it came to be a symbol of the medical community in a moment, as that is the point, such as it is, of this story.

Because I’m a geek and spend far more time than can be healthy on the Internet, this screen name has become fairly integral to my self-image and identity, to the point that in 2006 I got a good sized tattoo of a caduceus on my upper back, and regularly wear one on a pendant, as well.

There is a certain conversation that I’ve had a number of times over the years, particularly since I started wearing the pendant. It goes something like this:

Interested party: Hey, what’s that?

Me: It’s a caduceus.

IP: Oh. Why are you wearing it?

Me: It’s my Internet screen name.

IP: Oh. Isn’t it the medical symbol?

Me: Yeah.

IP: So, do you want to be a doctor or a paramedic or something?

Me: Err, no. I want to be in publishing, actually. As an editor.

IP: Oh. I would have thought that someone who wears a caduceus would want to be a doctor.

Me: You’re not the only one.

It is a somewhat irritating conversation to have; it’s frustrating to have no reason other than “I like it and it’s my screen name” to give as to why I’m wearing a caduceus, and I never have a good answer as to why I’m not trying to become a doctor, other than that I’d probably kill myself if I was one. Which is only minor hyperbole.


Today, I decided to give “caduceus” a Google, to make sure there’s as little unprotected information connecting my real identity to my screen name as possible (this is, obviously, protected). Because I’m a paranoid motherfucker, I was safe on that front. However, plenty of sites came up with information about the caduceus, and for the hell of it I checked a couple of them out, and found a little more out about the origin of the caduceus. Which is brilliant.

(Don’t worry, I’m getting there.)

One of the things I’ve known for a while, but is usually more effort than it’s worth to explain in the above conversations, is that there is another medical symbol similar to the caduceus, known as the Staff of Aesculapius; it’s the staff (of cypress, apparently) entwined by a single snake which you are probably also familiar with. Aesculapius was the Greek god of healing and medicine; Hippocrates, of the oath, was a member of his cult.

So the Staff is actually a much more fitting symbol of the medical profession than the caduceus, particularly because of Hermes being the god who guides the dead to the underworld (or at least to Charon, the ferryman of the Styx). Not really a great association.

It turns out that the caduceus is used so frequently as a symbol of the medical profession because the United States army is stupid. In 1902, they adopted it as the symbol of their Medical Corps. They did this because in the 19th century, a major publisher of medical textbooks featured it prominently on their books, thus confusing the U.S. army. The publishers used the caduceus because of long tradition: as early as the 16th century, publishers were using the caduceus as a publisher’s mark, because he was the messenger god, and thus the divine deliverer of information, and publishing is, of course, the act of making information available to the public.

It therefore turns out that, as far as historical precedent is concern, I have exactly the right screen name and personal symbol for my ambitions in life. Which is both awesome and coincidental to the point of creepiness. Almost enough to make one believe in fate.

(The caduceus is also awesome because Maynard James Keenan, the lead singer of Tool and A Perfect Circle, owns a vineyard and winery called Caduceus Cellars. If anyone wants to get me a bottle for Christmas or something, I will love you forever and possibly agree to be your slave for some measure of time, depending on how well I know you. Or probably just share the bottle with you sometime.)

References, such as they are:



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