“Rhetorica” header image cropped from Marten de Vos, “Allegory of the Seven Liberal Arts.” Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
So, you might wonder, why is Rhetorica holding the staff now commonly associated with the medical profession?
As Helen North explains in “Emblems of Eloquence,” (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 137, No. 3, (Sep., 1993), pp. 406-430)
“the standard iconography of public eloquence focuses on two gods, Hermes and Athena” (411).
“[Hermes’] herald’s staff … will later be used to identify Rhetoric herself” (412).
Hermes (who morphed into the Roman god Mercury), as you may well know, is the messenger of the gods and an inventor and thief / trickster figure. Hermes gives us our word “hermeneutics” for the art of interpreting hidden meaning.
Athena is goddess of wisdom — in myth, her talents were often employed as a judge, mediator and diplomat in military matters and statesmanship, and was known as the protector of cities. She was also the patron goddess of various arts and crafts.
“So far as Rhetoric is concerned, Martianus Capella’s description provides the earliest effective model. In addition to wearing the breastplate and helmet and carrying the weapons already described, she is attended by a throng of famous Greek and Roman orators, led by Demosthenes and Cicero, and she is said to be intimate with Athena and Mercury [Hermes]. These are the basic determinants of the iconography of rhetoric from the twelfth century well into the Renaissance — the personification, the costume, the oratorical exemplars, the link with the gods of eloquence, and most important of all, the incorporation into the trivium [of grammar, rhetoric, and logic], which guarantees her position in the prevailing system of education.” (421)
“there are some masculine Arts, but the general tendency is to portray the Arts themselves as female (doubtless for reasons of grammatical gender to begin with) and the practitioners as male.” (421)