Thyrsus and Caduceus

Mary Ann Caws
The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism

One of his major contributions to the literature of theoretical poetics is at once a theory of ambivalent analogy and an analogous embodiment of that theory. It is his meditation upon the “thyrse,” that strange stick with a vine wrapping around it, the symbol of medicine and of communication.

The symbol for medicine is the serpent-wrapped caduceus. I was intrigued by this conflation and reached back into the literature …

John E. Gale
De Quincey, Baudelaire and “Le Cygne”
Nineteenth-Century French Studies
Vol. 5, No. 3/4 (Spring-Summer 1977) p.303

Here we must refer to one of the fundamental symbols of Baudelaire’s aesthetic, the thyrsus, a image which appears in the form of the caduceus in the Suspiria. [note 16]

Gale’s note:

Note 16 : […] In any case, the difference between the two figures is less important than the fact that they have in common “un movement à la fois ondoyant et rectiligne” (Georges Poulet Les Métamorphoses du cercle [Paris: Plot, 1961], p. 421)

Also in this note Gale notes that Baudelaire references a caduceus in Les Fleurs du mal (“Le Serpent qui danse”). In the prose poem “Le Thyrse”(an homage to Liszt) Gale writes “the image corresponds accurately to the definition of thyrsus“. Baudelaire distinguishes the two types of wand.

Gale sends us in note 17 to Melvin Zimmerman “La Genèse du symbole du thyrse chez Baudelaire,” Bulletin Baudelairien 2:1 (1966) p. 8-11.

Zimmerman references : une espèce de caducée, ou thyrse

Zimmerman identifies Le Neveu de Rameau as a source for the application of the thyrsus to musical situation in the prose poem on Liszt : Chez Diderot, une ligne spirale serpente sur une ligne droite

Note the serpentine movement … leaving an impression of caduceus ??

Zimmerman also notes that Baudelaire may have been inspired by his publishers trademark: “Peut-être après la signature du contrat pour la publication des Fleurs avec les éditeurs Poulet-Malassis et De Broise dont la marque était le caducée.”

Let us loop back to Baudelaire on De Quincey’s style, a passage from Les Paradis artificiels

De Quincey est essentiellement digressif […] il compare, en un endroit, sa pensée à un thyrse, simple bâton qui tire toute sa physionomie et tout son charme du feuillage compliqué qui l’enveloppe.

That “endroit” is the “Introductory Notice” to Suspiria de profundis where De Quincey figures his style as resembling a caduceus. What he describes is a thyrsus.

I tell my critic that the whole course of this narrative resembles, and was meant to resemble, a caduceus wreathed about with meandering ornaments, or the shaft of a tree’s stem hung round and surmounted with some vagrant parasitical plant.

The etymological dictionaries inform us that the “caducée” historically pertains to more than the mark of Hermes. Wingless and serpenhtless, it was the sign of the office of herald. Littré: “Bâton de velours fleurdelisé porté par le héraut.” The OED records this meaning as being active in English via the French – De Quincey’s decorated staff sans serpent and sans wings would indeed be considered a “caduceus’ in this French sense.

Side note: In researching the terms, I found in the Cornell Gem Impressions Collection a cast of a gem documenting a case of both thyrsus and caduceus appearing side-by-side dated to the 19th century.

Conclusion: caduceus is a genus that encompasses thyrsus. But to understand the thyrsus as a symbol for medicine is to confuse one god for another.

And so for day 3143

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