The presence of ℞ symbol in a prescription calls the attention of every one. The symbol had been a part of prescription in all systems of medicine. The popular explanation relates the symbol with the sign of Roman God Jupiter. The author in the article looks into all probable background explanations behind its origin, existence , its justification in Homoeopathic prescriptions, emergence of new symbols in its line and also highlights on the recent changing trends from the symbol.
The practice of using the symbol ℞ just before the name of the medicine is an age old phenomenon. Such symbol is seen in prescriptions of Modern medicine to Homoeopathy, Ayurveda to Sidhha & even in Veterinary practice. The long and wide existence of the symbol in Label of bottle containing medicines, Drug stores apart from its common use in Prescription pads provokes to find out its origin & reason behind its presence and introspect the evolution of a few more similar symbols on the lines of ℞, used in Prescriptions.
There are different theories on the origin of the symbol widely in use in prescriptions. The symbol has its roots in both distant and ancient past.
The Medieval connection:
According to some sources, it is stated to be related and may have been originated from the Latin word ‘Recipere’ that meant ‘take thou’ or ‘to take’. In the 1580’s the French medical prescriptions started using the modified term ‘Recipe’. The term indicated the preparation or formulation of medication as per the prescription. As is evident from medical records , earlier readymade drugs like the drugs available now in modern medicine were not manufactured. As per the direction of the Physician, the Pharmacists had to prepare the desired drug by mixing various ingredients .Till 1920, 80% of modern medicine were compounded by the apothecaries which fell to 1% by the 1970’s . However the mixing, compounding continued in other systems.
The Roman Connection:
Turning back to the Roman period, it is found that the symbol ℞ used in prescriptions is actually very similar to the ancient sign of Roman god Jupiter  (See fig.2). It also denotes the astrological sign of Planet Jupiter in another version .It was used by the physicians with a purpose to invoke the God’s blessings on the drug prescribed, to help the patient recover . There was a belief in that period, that diseases were a result of planetary positions .Medicine was thought to be under astrological influence . The planets were named after Roman Gods. One such Roman God ‘Jupiter’, was known as the king of gods. The physician during that period relied heavily on God and expected – the healing abilities of the god would really be helpful for the patient and use of such symbol would make the treatment effective.
The book ‘Devils, Drugs, Doctors’ published in 1931,states the symbol as a invocation to God Jupiter. It also mentions the presence of such R with a cross in various old medical texts  .
The Greek Connection:
However the symbol known as ‘sign of Jupiter’ , whether is original to Jupiter is debatable .The symbol known as sign of Jupiter is very similar to the sign of Zeus. Zeus is regarded as the God of the sky or King of the Gods and God Zeus belonged to the Greek civilization, which preceded the Romans  . After the fall of the Greeks, the Roman period evolved. A study of the history of medicine makes us evident about how after the fall of Greek period – the Roman medicine emerged , borrowing ideas from Greek medicine . In the same manner the Romans created their own Gods by adopting and modifying the Greek mythologies . Thus the Roman equivalent of Zeus was formed in Jupiter, likewise Athena was created in Minerva and Aphrodite of Greek civilization was formed into Venus .
So, the sign of Jupiter may not be so , as we know & may have been borrowed from the Greek civilization. The symbol formed with the letter ‘Zeta’ & a Thunderbolt that signified ‘Zeus’ may have been widely in use during the Greek period to get the aid of God Zeus in the healing process (See fig. 3 and 4) .
The Egyptian Connection:
The Egyptian side of story behind the origin of ℞ is the most interesting one. The Egyptian civilization was much older than the Greek civilization. According to Egyptian mythology the symbol is related to the powerful symbol of Ancient Egypt – ‘ The Eye of Horus’  (See fig. 5). The Eye of Horus is depicted as a human eye and eyebrow, decorated with the markings seen under the eyes of falcons since Horus had the head of a falcon .
As per the Mythological story , Horus was the son of God Osiris and Goddess Isis. Seth , uncle of Horus had killed his father Osiris. To avenge his Father’s death and get back his throne Horus had to fight with his uncle. The events of those innumerable battles are even inscribed in the Temple of Edfu in Egypt. One day while Horus was sleeping in the desert, Seth managed to get rid of Horus, pluck off his left eye and cut it into six pieces. Later these six pieces were collected by Thoth, God of wisdom and Magic and also known as the patron of Physician. The parts were put together, milk of gazelle added to it and along with some magic brought back to its early form. The eye was handed over to Horus. Horus gave the eye to the spirit of his father which made his father alive. Later Horus also managed to defeat his uncle, Seth and regain his throne and position 
Thus the symbol ‘Eye of Horus’ became associated with the Healing powers. According to Egyptian belief it ensured Good health, Restoration of health, Safety , Protection from disease, suffering and evil and could ward off sickness  . The symbol was inscribed on the famous Pyramids, on Stones used in Buildings to ensure longevity of the construction. The men , women & children used to wear ornaments, jewelleries, amulets of gold, silver, wood – all with the auspicious symbol for the purpose of staying healthy  . There was a practice to use the symbol in the ship trunks of Egyptian period with a strong belief of a trouble free voyage. As Egyptians believed in after life, the symbol was also used in funeral ceremonies and in the tombs of the dead Pharaohs. It was also painted on the papyrus rolls used for writing about medicine and doctors.
Surprisingly this symbol had such a strong impact , that it continued to exist even after the fall of the Egyptian civilization. For thousands of years, the eye of Horus remained as a sign of the god’s help to the suffering and sick.
Long after the fall of the ancient Egyptian civilization, doctors and alchemists in Europe continued the custom of showing a sign of the gods’ help and protection. But over the years, the sign changed from the eye of Horus to the sign for Zeus and with some modification probably it became a symbol of the Greeks, of course with a new name, as Greeks had succeeded the Egyptians.
Worldwide Present status :
Most of the Doctors all over the world use the symbol ℞ ahead of the drug name in prescriptions. Following the widely used symbol, some new symbols have been created in recent past like Dx, Sx, Hx, Tx or symbols like Bx, Cx, Ex etc and are used in prescriptions as short form abbreviations to certain terms  (See Table 1) . However , In Germany the symbol Rp is used instead of ℞ denoting most probably the word recipe  . Nowadays in France the term P is used instead. It comes from the French word ‘Prenez’ , which mean ‘to take’  . At present ‘℞’ is also used to represent the word ‘Prescription’. The simplified meaning of ℞ has now become ‘ Take this medicine’. Writing simple R or Adv (short of advice) or using a small square symbol are also in practice  .
On the effect of Prayer in treatment:
Offering prayers to the god for the cure of sickness has been practiced long in different cultures. In the prehistoric times such was the ritual as sickness of any kind affecting humans were attributed to the wrath of god  . This led to the practice of sacrifice for the satisfaction of the powers beyond our control. Greek medicine can be divided in to two phases. The early phase of Greek medicine was characterized with superstitions. Aesculapius was regarded as the God of health. Temples of Aesculapius were to be found everywhere in Greek period. People on falling ill used to visit these temples and offer their prayers for God Aesculapius, who would in return appear in their dreams and suggest ways to get over the sickness . This practice came to an end after Hippocrates reformed Greek medicine. Praying to Gods although was not a custom in ancient China, instead there prayers were offered to Ghosts and spirits at a time, as they were believed to be cause of illness affecting mankind  . Dhanwantari is regarded as the father of Ayurveda. Indian Ayurvedic Physicians though use the symbol of ℞ in their prescriptions, but there is a ritual to pray God Dhanwantari by the Ayurvedic practitioners during the Dhan teras, celebrated just ahead of Diwali, a famous festival of Lights in India  . In Egyptian medicine the Doctors and the priests happened to be the same person, who took up the responsibility to pray God on behalf of the patient to ward off sickness .
With the development of medical science, it has been more & more clear about the different factors and causes that lead to disease. Simply praying to god or using a certain symbol can never ward off illness, unless the disease is properly diagnosed ,a proper treatment plan is adopted and a correct medicine is prescribed. A study conducted by the researchers of Harvard University and published in the ‘American Journal of Bioethics’ shows that there was no evidence of prayers being able to reduce the sufferings of illness . However only time has the answer – to how long the symbol ℞ will exist in prescriptions. In Homoeopathy ,compounding of drug substances is done in some instances as is required while preparing Hepar sulph, Causticum etc. Compounding of drugs and medicines is against the principles of Homoeopathy . Hence the question of Compounding of Homoeopathic medicines at dispensary level does not arise , however the medication has to be prepared using a suitable vehicle according to the Physician’s prescription . Hence the use of the symbol in Homoeopathic prescriptions is somewhat meaningful and relevant.
List of Figures:
Figure 1 : Symbol ℞
Figure 2 : Sign of Jupiter
Figure 3 : Sign of Zeta
Figure 4 : Sign of Thunderbolt
Figure 5 : Eye of Horus
List of Table:
Table 1 : Some symbols used in prescriptions on the line of ℞ & their interpretations
- www. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medical_prescription
- Goel S: Art & Science of Homoeopathic Pharmacy, 1st edition 2002,Leo Enterprises, Ahmedabad, India, Page -294
- The Encyclopedia of World Mythology;2002;Parragon,UK (ISBN 0-75258-444-8)
Page – 44,47,49,50,56,57,68
7. Park K : Park’s Textbook of Preventive and Social Medicine 23rd edition, 2015, Banarsidas Bhanot Publishers,Jabalpur-482001, Page :1-3
- www. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/aesculapius