23 March 2011

An apothecary's alligator - updated

"Alligators such as this one were once commonly hung from the ceilings of apothecary shops. They appear to have been symbols associated with the profession and one was even mentioned by William Shakespeare who, in Romeo and Juliet, describes an apothecary in which hangs “An alligator stuff’d, and other skins of ill-shaped fishes.”"
It's curious that alligators should have become associated with apothecary shops.  There's probably a logical and obscure explanation.

Found at the Science Museum (UK).

Addendum: Swift Loris has postulated the alligator/apothecary association going back to the Egyptian deity Sobek:
"In Egyptian art, Sobek was depicted as an ordinary crocodile, or as a man with the head of a crocodile. When considered a patron of the pharaoh's army, he was shown with the symbol of royal authority - the uraeus. He was also shown with an ankh, representing his ability to undo evil and so cure ills."
And charlie found some interesting information at Musings of a Failed Taxidermist, including this photo -
- accompanied by a notation that the quotation by Shakespeare/(DeVere) above "is regarded as the first definitive written use of 'alligator' in the English language. Before that this reptile was known as an 'aligarto' or 'lagarto' or other variants to that effect, all ultimately from 'lacerta' (Latin for 'lizard) via the Spanish for lizard, 'el lagarto'.

And that post continues with this observation -
Drug suppliers would present gifts to apothecaries who sold their goods (plus ça change) and a favourite offering was an alligator or crocodile due to their associations with learning and as a symbolic defence against disease. They were also relatively easy to preserve; indeed, the oldest surviving example of taxidermy is said to be a crocodile mounted in 1623 and exhibited at St. Gallen's Museum of Natural History in Switzerland.
- and concludes with three (!) photos of alligators/crocs hanging from the ceilings of wunderkammers.

You learn something every day.  Thank you both.

7 comments:

  1. Having done a Web prowl, I'm gonna take a flyer and guess that the symbolism goes back to ancient Egypt and the crocodile god Sobek, primarily on the basis of this from a blog entry describing a trip through Egypt:

    "Kom Ombo...was a center for healers known for its double holy of holies, dedicated to the veneration of Sobek and Heru. On the wall beyond the holy of holies is a remarkable series of panels depicting medical advances in Kemet, from the birthing chair to suction devices, scalpels, flasks, knives, tongs, sponges and saw blades, among other tools. We looked at the eye of Heru, inscribed next to the surgical instruments, and Clarice noted that the "Rx" of the apothecary takes its shape and direct inspiration from this earliest of symbols for healing."

    http://hucoasstudyabroad.blogspot.com/2009/08/kom-ombo-and-edfu-healing-body-and-mind.html

    Here's the Eye of Heru (Horus):

    http://kemet.250x.com/images/eyeofhorus.jpg

    Also, Wikipedia's entry on Sobek says:

    "In Egyptian art, Sobek was depicted as an ordinary crocodile, or as a man with the head of a crocodile. When considered a patron of the pharaoh's army, he was shown with the symbol of royal authority - the uraeus. He was also shown with an ankh, representing his ability to undo evil and so cure ills. Once he had become Sobek-Ra, he was also shown with a sun-disc over his head, as Ra was a sun god."

    Maybe this is a bit far-fetched, but I sure couldn't find any other connection between alligators/crocodiles and any aspect of healing or medicine.

    Also possibly significant, the first apothecary shops were established in the Middle Ages in Baghdad, according to Wikipedia. There was quite a bit of contact between scholars and scientists in Egypt and those in Baghdad.

    --Swift Loris

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  2. I'm starting to wonder if this has to do with some kind of medicine derived from aligators, be it their skins or something else.

    In another note, I noticed that the word alligator itself comes from a Spanish word meaning "lizard". Lizards have some interesting symbolism attached to them, especially in the fact that they shed their skins.

    Though I wonder if the actual symbolism may have been lost with time though.

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  3. It apparently is more than just the alligator but also it's suspension upside down that is associated with this symbol. According to one website the alligators were swag gifts from medical supply companies that were easy to transport: "Drug suppliers would present gifts to apothecaries who sold their goods (plus ça change) and a favourite offering was an alligator or crocodile due to their associations with learning and as a symbolic defence against disease. They were also relatively easy to preserve; indeed, the oldest surviving example of taxidermy is said to be a crocodile mounted in 1623 and exhibited at St. Gallen's Museum of Natural History in Switzerland." http://pomposa.livejournal.com/17105.html

    One can imagine that lacking fur or feathers they probably were fairly durable as ornamental taxidermy perhaps even suited to outside display.

    Other sites remark how Apothecary shops were decorated with signs of prowess, such as antlers. Given their large aspect ratio, compared to say a lion, perhaps they were convenient and eye catching props.

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  4. Wow - who woulda thunk that the pharmaceutical industry's bribing/payola of doctors has such a long and (ig)noble lineage?

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  5. Appreciate the credit, but just want to emphasize that Sobek is my own very tentative guess as to the origin of the association. I've found nothing that explicitly corroborates it. It may well be along the lines of a "folk etymology" for the symbol.

    --Swift Loris

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  6. I understand. "Postulated" added to the post for clarification.

    ReplyDelete
  7. From one searcher to another: Well found Mr Loris.

    ReplyDelete

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