The Fiery Serpents

03 Jun

Medicine and medicinal records have existed for millenia. Many intelligent animals will seek out plants or compounds to treat illnesses or symptoms. The ability to cure ills carries powerful evolutionary and social power, something worth being remembered and passed on. Thus, it is not surprising that some of the oldest touchstones of our many cultures revolves around healing the sick.

And sometimes these records turn out in unlikely places.

“So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, and many of the people of Israel died…Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” -Numbers 21:6-8, The New King James Bible

This quote from a handy copy of the King James Bible describes one of the many afflictions treated upon the tribes of Israel as they wandered through the desert. There are people who look upon religious texts such as this as elaborate fiction, allegories and parables, or even the gospel truth. However, this may, in fact, be the equivalent of an ancient medical text book.

There exists in the world a parasite known as the Guinea Worm. Today, after an extremely effective eradication campaign, the parasite exists primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, it used to be much more widespread, reaching north and eastwards, spreading throughout the Middle East and into Asia. The worm’s life cycle is complicated (like many parasites) but ultimately ends with a foot-long female living underneath the skin of a person’s leg or foot and is often accompanied by horrible blisters and burning sensations. These, then, are the ‘fiery serpents’ spoken of in the Old Testament.

But the existence of these worms not only explains a biblical reference, they are also visible in nearly every culture as a symbol of medicine, the Staff of Asclepius.


You see, the universal treatment of a guinea worm infection is an odd one. Without modern medicine and a careful hand, you can’t simply go in and cut the worm out. It could end in secondary infections or worse, the worm could break and die, leading to blood poisoning as the worm rots away. Instead, the common practice is to open a slit in the skin near the worm and draw out the head. The head is then wrapped around a stick which is turned ever so slowly, carefully pulling the worm out inch by inch over the course of several days.

This practice is remarkably effective, ancient (Egyptians were using this practice as their empire rose) and well known wherever the worm exists. Every culture that passed through or existed near the Middle East would have known of this cure and valued its safety and practicality, perhaps explaining why the stick-and-serpent symbol became widely known as a healer’s mark.

One worm, many cultures, three thousand years worth of symbolism, stories, and myths.


Sources:,, The New King James Bible, Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer


Posted by on June 3, 2011 in History, Medicine, Natural History


Tags: , , , , ,

2 responses to “The Fiery Serpents

  1. greekmarrygreekpapagu

    November 19, 2011 at 6:12 am

    Death to the guinea worm.there must be some thing that kills the larves of the parasite inside the body or outside too.the must have some natural enemy or we can create an enzyme to destroy them

    • theglyptodon

      November 19, 2011 at 1:03 pm

      The eradication campaign has actually been highly successful. A cure is elusive, but prevention is very simple. Only a handful of countries still have endemic infections and of those few only South Sudan had more than 100 last year. We’re probably only ten years away from totally eradication.


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