Caduceus, or the staff of Mercury

Skannad 1I would like to draw attention to a detail on a medallion deigned by Sergey Chekhonin (Tchehonine), from 1918.* On Chekhonin’s work of art an able-bodied female and a ditto male are depicted. The female stands before a cropland. She is carrying a sickle and a spade and so represents farmers. The male stands before a factory. He is holding a sledgehammer in his right hand, thereby seems to represent (despite Chekhonin’s choice of a non-factory tool as symbol) industrial workers. Behind him, on the ground, rests a parcel, perhaps with goods from his workplace. In his left hand ­– and it is this detail I found surprising – he carries a caduceus.

           Skannad From the late 19th and early 20th century, we spot the caduceus – or Mercury himself, or symbols associated with him (especially his winged helmet) – on trade union banners and emblems. In Sweden and Denmark – and certainly in the countries that harboured workers’ movements that influenced the culture of these small countries, Germany and Britain above all – the banners and emblems decorated with this symbolism belong to unions that organized personnel working in shops, offices and akin workplaces.** This is hardly surprising since Mercury (Hermes) famously is, among other things, the god of commerce.

 Is it possible that Chekhonin, fashioning this medallion, choose to use two symbols for farming, one for industrial production and one for commerce? Considering the emphasis of the Marxist Bolsheviks on the historical role of the industrial proletariat, this interpretation doesn’t strike me as entirely convincing. But I am not able to come up with a better one.

Skannad 1 kopia

* Medallion from Richard Stites, Revolutionary dreams: utopian vision and experimental life in the Russian Revolution, Oxford University Press, New York, 1989.

** Banners from trade unions for personnel working with commerce (and in offices). From the Danish city of Herning “with surroundings” (reproduced in Henning Grelle, Under de røde faner: en historie om arbejderbevægelsen, Fremad, København, 1984) and the Swedish city of Norrköping (reproduced in Margareta Ståhl, Vår enighets fana: ett sekel fackliga fanor, LO, Stockholm, 1998).

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