Upper part of caduceus (Hermes staff)
- early 5th century BCE
The Greek kerykeion (Latin caduceus) appears in art from the Early Archaic period most often as the staff of Hermes, messenger of the gods and guide to mortals and immortals alike. It is sometimes held by Iris, another messenger of the gods (usually Hera), or by Nike, who in this context serves as the herald of victory. The origin of the kerykeion is not clear, but it may have its source in the ancient Near East. In his capacity as a guide, Hermes was the protector of travelers and merchants, as well as the patron of the thieves who preyed on them.
On this staff, two heraldically poised serpents are joined in a loop supported by an Ionic capital and a thin abacus. The snakes are bearded in typical Archaic Greek fashion, and their eyes have been drilled to receive an inlay (now lost) presumably of a material other than bronze. The scales of the serpents and spirals on the Ionic capital were rendered by a punch in parallel rows from the base of the head to the beginning of the loop, which is undecorated. The underside of the capital has a hole in which a long rod was placed. Oxidized iron residue at the base of the loop indicates that the rod may have been made of iron.
Bronze examples of the kerykeion are often decorated with snake heads, and in later representations the staff is sometimes depicted with snakes coiled about it. These may be fanciful artistic derivatives of ribbons, which occasionally adorn the kerykeion. However, the snake was considered to be a communicator between the living and the dead because it spends time in the sunlight as well as underground. In this context, the reptiles make a fitting adornment to Hermes' staff, since in his capacity as Psychopompos (guide of souls) he escorted the shades of dead mortals from the world of the living to the realm of Hades.
A number of bronze kerykeia were found in Magna Graecia, however this example is reportedly from Segesta, Sicily. Those recovered with the rod in place often have a votive inscription and served as a dedication at a sanctuary. The Dallas Museum of Art piece is like a number of kerykeia from South Italy and Sicily that also combine snake heads with an Ionic capital. The closest parallel to the DMA kerykeion is an example in the Bastis collection (New York), although our piece is unequaled in the fine rendering of the serpents' heads and decorative scales on the bodies.
Anne R. Bromberg and Karl Kilinski II, Gods, Men, and Heroes: Ancient Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 52.