Crozier and Cadduceus: Serpentine Imagery in Episcopal Regalia and Christian Iconography

Please take the time to read this thoughtful essay. It’s a real eye-opener and caused me to reevaluate my negative feelings towards the serpent-staff carried by Orthodox bishops. It’s extremely pertinent now in my opinion as we get ready to observe the Lord’s Passion.

Source: Orthodox Arts Journal | Jonathan Pageau | HT: Byzantine, TX

(I)t happened that I fell into a sin very dangerous to my soul. But as it was not in my habit to hide a serpent in the depths of my heart, I seized it by the tail and found it immediately to be a doctor.
St-John Climacus citing a monk. Ladder of Divine Ascent, degree 4, paragraph 697a

Bishop Vladimir Sokolovsky with his bishop’s staff.

Bishop Vladimir Sokolovsky with his bishop’s staff.

One of the most surprising images one is faced with considering Orthodox liturgical symbolism is the bishop’s staff sporting two snakes flanking a small cross atop it. Especially in a Protestant North American context, this image seems to hark back to ancient chthonian cults, more a wizard’s magic staff than anything Christian. As I have been doing for other subjects, I would like to take a trip through iconography, through the Bible and other traditions to show how this symbol is all at once thoughtful, powerful and perfectly orthodox in the broadest sense. It also happens to fit nicely with all I have been writing for the OAJ up till now.

The first hurdle we must overcome is the perception that the Western bishop’s staff, the crosier, is really a shepherd’s staff, whereas the Orthodox have this strange snake bearing object. In fact, for a millennia at least, the western crosier was also identified with a serpent as medieval crosiers attest.We could say that there are two basic shapes, the crosier and the “tau” shaped staff which were present in the Church before the Schism, both of these shapes have been interpreted with serpents. The current Orthodox version of the staff with serpents(as seen above with Bishop Vladimir Sokolovsky) is a variation of these models.

Western Crozier from Limoges, France

Western Crozier from Limoges, France

Tau shaped serpent crozier from Koeln, Germany, circa 1000.

Tau shaped serpent crozier from Koeln, Germany, circa 1000.

We wonder though, how can such an image of serpents, both in the East and West be appropriate for the very symbol of a Bishop’s authority? Many will point to the Biblical story of the bronze serpent, somehow prefiguring Christ, as the basis for this use of serpents on the bishop’s staff. This is a perfectly sound explanation, though it is insufficient to create a complete picture. If we are to look a Moses as the origin of this image, we should look earlier. The very first time we encounter a staff in the Bible, at least a staff that is related to divine authority, is at the burning bush. When Moses doubts the Pharaoh will listen to him, God tells him:

“What is that in your hand?” He said, “A rod.” And He said, “Cast it on the ground.” So he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it. 4Then the Lord said to Moses, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail” (and he reached out his hand and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand), Exodus 4: 1-3

The very first time we encounter a staff of divine authority, it is immediately linked to a serpent. Here we find a first example of the “shiftiness” of the snake symbol, of its dual nature. In the story of Moses and pharaoh there are two origins of the serpents. We know that Pharaoh’s magicians could produce the same miracle, and so both sides make serpents from staffs, a “good” serpent and a “bad” serpent. The good one eats the bad one.

The shiftiness, the double sided aspect of the serpent symbol appears also in the story of the bronze serpent on several levels. The Israelites had been plagued by serpents, and to save them from the poisonous bites, God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and to put it on a staff. Whoever would look to the bronze serpent would be healed, yet those refusing to do so would die of their snake bite. In terms of duality, we can see clearly here how the serpent is both the disease and cure. Looking to the serpent that was “raised up” will cure one from those serpents that bite “down below”, just as an antidote is made from the poison or a vaccine is made from the disease. Another way to see the duality in the story is how this serpent that was raised up as a healing device, will later be “cast down” by the virtous king Hezekiah for having become an idol (2 Kings 18:4).

Christ points to the brazen serpent.

Christ points to the brazen serpent.

With the bronze serpent we understand the serpent is not only related to a staff, but also more generally to the “vertical”, the pole, the ladder, the axis. The staff is only one facet of this vertical symbol. The first and primal version of this symbol is of course the tree. So we must reach further back than Moses in the Biblical text, looking to one of the very first mentions of a specific tree: the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the middle of the garden. With this tree we find the serpent, and in Christian iconography, it has been represented unanimously as coiled around the Tree of knowledge as it entices Adam and Eve to eat from its fruit.


Read the entire article on the Orthodox Arts Journal website.


  1. Patrick Henry Reardon says

    Thank you for this very informative article.

  2. Tim R. Mortiss says

    A very timely article indeed! Just this morning, I attended St. Basil Liturgy at St. Nicholas GO church in Tacoma. Metropolitan Gerasimos was there from San Francisco, celebrating the liturgy. Lo and behold, His Eminence bore his staff, with the double serpent.

    I leaned over to my 36-year-old son, who had come to the service with me, and with confident authority apprised him of the symbolism and its origin!

    • Michael Bauman says

      Not only did Moses’ staff heal, it was placed next to the entrance of the tabernacle just as , in Orthodox Cathedrals, the staff is to the right of the royal doors (at least here at St. George). Further it is important to note that the serpents are now surmounted by the Cross.

      The dual symbolism is retained and Christ’s victory proclaimed.

      Christ is Risen and death has been spoiled!

      • nit picker says

        Christ is Risen and death has been spoiled!

        Christ has Risen indeed!!

        BTW…Many blessed years to George Michalopulos and to all who celebrate on the feast of the Great Martyr, St. George the Trophy bearer.

  3. I didn’t see mentioned in the commentary of the Genesis story of Moses and the staff/snake that Moses was asked to pick up the snake by the tail. This is a great ‘No, No’ to do if one is picking up a snake because the snake can whirl around and bite you. Snake handlers pick snakes up behind the back of the head. Therefore Moses was asked to do something that went totally against the grain of everything that he knew about snakes.
    In an instant he had to chose between being obedient to the voice in the bush or being obedient to his basic instincts concerning snakes. Quite a choice. Most of us would have said, ‘Are you crazy God? Don’t you know that you never pick up a snake by the tail? “

    • Tim R. Mortiss says

      Follow the link to the original article and there appear references to that story. All most interesting….

      Actually, taking another look, this appears in the exerpt above, as well.

  4. A Glorious Resurrection to Everyone! Even our President has made a joyful noise about our feast:

    Statement by the President on the Occasion of Orthodox Easter

    This weekend, Michelle and I extend our best wishes to members of the Orthodox Christian community here in America and around the world as they observe Holy Friday and the Feast of the Resurrection.

    For millions of Orthodox Christians, this is a joyful time. But it’s also a reminder of the sacrifice Christ made so that we might have eternal life. His decision to choose love in the face of hate; hope in the face of despair is an example we should always strive to follow. But it’s especially important to remember this year, as members of the Orthodox community have been confronted with persecution and violence, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. For centuries, the region and the world has been enriched by the contributions of Orthodox communities in countries like Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. As a nation, we reaffirm our commitment to protecting universal human rights including the freedom of religion. And in this season of hope and restoration, we celebrate the transformational power of sacrificial love.

    • Tim R. Mortiss says

      Whatever one’s political views, it is good to hear a President talk about the sacrifice of Christ that we may have eternal life!

      And I’m glad he mentioned the Christians of Egypt and the Middle East, even if very briefly.

    • Now if he only practiced what he preached. Seems to me he wants prayers and etc but on the other hand he really wants to shut down the institutions which provide those prayers.

      • Michael Bauman says

        You are assuming that the Pres. had anything to do with this statement. He didn’t. He probably doesn’t even know it was issued, or care. Some low level staffer is in charge of this kind of plaver. It means absolutely nothing to them.

        • Tim R. Mortiss says

          I make no assumptions. But if one is to assume, why assume the bad?

          “For millions of Orthodox Christians, this is a joyful time. But it’s also a reminder of the sacrifice Christ made so that we might have eternal life.”

          As this statement was made by the President or in his name, we should look upon it as good.

    • Archpriest John Morris says

      What a hypocrite. His policies are directly responsible for the victory of Islamic Extremism in Egypt and the threat of Islamic domination of Syria.

      • Tom Jones says

        I don’t think so. If you want to blame someone for Islamic Extremism in the Mideast, it’s Putin and Russia. They are the ones who support Iran and radical challenges to governments. Why? So Russia can get more of a hold in the Mideast. Russia is the country that stopped the U.N. from interceding early in Syria. They are the ones that encouraged Egyptian revolt and fundamentalism. It’s important to know who the enemies of America really are. Oh yes, and China usually sides with Russia.

        • Also Anonymous says

          “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

        • And the US under the inept Carter and George’s beloved Ronald Reagan supported the most militantly Islamist Afghan Mujahideen, including extremist Saudis like bin Laden and the Pakistani trained incipient Taliban, against the Soviets and more moderate Afghans in the 1980s. No-one’s hands are clean when it comes to the Middle East, Tom. If there is a point in modern history that we can point to as the fountain of Islamic extremism it’s the post-WWI carve up of the ME by Britain and France, underwritten by the League of Nations in the 1922 “Palestinian Mandate” granted to Britain, which humiliated the Arabs and laid the foundations for a Zionist state in Palestine. Interestingly, the Tsarist pogroms and laws against Jews in 19th C. Orthodox Russia led to the first significant modern emigration of Jews to the Holy Land in 1882. Although those first emigrants were not seeking a Jewish state they provided an impetus to the establishment of the Zionist movement some 15 years later.

  5. Michael Bauman says

    Now if he really wrote that and would really act on it, it might help. I’m not holding my breath. His political philosophy precludes actually acting on it.

  6. sub-deacon gregory varney says

    Christ Is Risen!!! A joyous paschal season to all!!!

  7. Sean Richardson says

    This is a very nice and very informative article. Thank you.

    Even though I understand the theology and history of this symbolism, I still find snakes a little creepy.

    • Gail Sheppard says

      “And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.” Numbers 21:9

      I’ve always believed the bronze serpent healed the Israelites, because it was a symbol of their sin. To be saved, they had to look at it and acknowledge it, like we do in confession. It is part of the path toward salvation. Maybe the bishop’s staff is supposed to remind of us of that.

      “Brass,” naturally, is used in Scripture as the symbol of what is firm, strong, lasting; hence, “gates of brass” (Psalms 107:16), “hoofs of brass” (Micah 4:13), “walls of brass” (Jeremiah is made as a “brazen wall,” Jeremiah 1:18; 15:20), “mountains of brass” (Daniel 2:35, the Macedonian empire; the arms of ancient times were mostly of bronze). It becomes a symbol, therefore, of hardness, obstinacy, insensibility, in sin, as “brow of brass” (Isaiah 48:4); “they are brass and iron” (Jeremiah 6:28, of the wicked); “all of them are brass” (Ezekiel 22:18, of Israel). ”

      James A. Patch
      Copyright Statement
      These files are public domain.

      Bibliography Information
      Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. “Entry for ‘BRASS; BRAZEN'”. “International Standard Bible Encyclopedia”. 1915.

  8. Call me Confused says

    How is it that anyone who has ever heard the gospel reading on the Sunday before the Elevation of the Precious Cross (John 3:13-17) and the subsequent sermon explaining it wouldn’t know what the symbolism of the serpent is? There’s no mystery to unearth here. It’s revealed quite clearly by our Lord himself in the gospel and proclaimed by the church very openly. This kind of tone-deafness seems very odd.

    • Tim R. Mortiss says

      I thank you for this citation to John’s gospel, even as I smart from the sting of your righteous rebuke!