Healing Temple of Aesculapius (Asklepios) by Robert Thom

A Dream Cure? The Effective Healing Power of Dream Incubation in Ancient Greece

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In the ancient world, many cultures built elaborate temple complexes dedicated to their healer gods - Imhotep in Egypt and Asklepios in Greece for example. These gods were recognized as having the power to cure supplicants from a variety of ailments within sleep and sacred dreams. Those who desired healing might travel many hundreds of miles to reach such a temple, working through periods of fasting and purification, taking part in invocation rituals, drinking water from holy, mineral-rich springs and observing a variety of other devotional customs before finally lying down upon a ‘sacred skin’ (called a kline in ancient Greek - from which we derive clinic) to await a curative reverie. This process was called incubation - ‘to lie upon’.

Spirit Medicine

You might describe a sleep temple as a sort of hospital for the spirit body. Although real-life operations did also take place, the sleep temple was primarily an infirmary for that ethereal aspect of our being that slips into unmanifested realms each night when we fall asleep. Sleep states and dream revelations were viewed as important indicators of health, and dreams were seen as an opportunity for mortals to connect with higher divine energies capable of inspiring miraculous healing.

Statue of Asklepois and an Asklepion.

Statue of Asklepois and an Asklepion. (Public Domain)

Does modern science reject the idea of a human being having a soul outright? On the surface, contemporary pharmaceutical medicine certainly does seem to have very little interest in matters of the spirit - which was the tradition at the heart of the healing arts employed by our ancestors. Current scientific research does however validate the veracity of the placebo effect and the efficacy of therapeutic treatments aimed at the unconscious mind and autonomic nervous system, such as - hypnosis, meditation, the Feldenkrais method and fasting. State of mind clearly has a profound influence upon the physical health of any individual. The proof of placebo power alone shows that belief and suggestion must sometimes unconsciously activate the body’s natural maintenance system - homeostasis. These unconscious processes might be more readily available to a patient during a sleep state. The placebo effect might actually become embedded during sleep, when the climate for healing and regeneration is at an optimum and certain genes are switched on that are always switched off during waking hours.

Dream Incubation

Present within most of these sleep temples were elaborate systems of fasting, dedication, lustration, purification, ritual drama, sensory deprivation or over-stimulation, invocation and dream interpretation. These institutions prevailed for thousands of years, so clearly the sleep temple methods were fruitful for many (there are countless testimonies and votive offerings proclaiming successful treatment) but how did they work? Would these old methods of dream incubation work today?

The practice of ‘Temple Sleep’ is well-evidenced in ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman archaeology and literature. I believe the practice of ‘dream incubation’ reveals many secrets regarding the journey of human consciousness, the evolution of memory and language, the mind-body connection, the placebo effect and the unconscious mind’s potent response to imagination, story and symbolism.

What cosmic, earthly and human forces have influenced the way we experience the relationship between the inner and outer worlds?  How might our perception have shifted since the days of sleep temples?

A Buddhist monk in a state of sleep.

A Buddhist monk in a state of sleep. (CC0)

The Evolution of Sleep Consciousness

Julian Jaynes, an American psychologist, is best known for his controversial book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). In this book he puts forward the theory that a cerebral shift from right-to-left brain dominance is the underlying determinative in the self-awareness, ego identity we experience as modern consciousness today. The gradual erosion of the divide between the brain’s left and right hemispheres - due to the increasingly intellectual demands of new cultural activities such as language, writing and city-dwelling - led to the consciousness of human beings becoming distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom - self-aware and uniquely imaginative.

Another theory that I believe deserves closer study is that of the effect of geomagnetism on human consciousness and circadian rhythmicity. The ancients of all advanced cultures spoke often of magnetic forces and geomancy (Earth magic). These were critical factors in site selection. Modern geographical surveys of sleep temple sites, often reveal interesting geological anomalies, iron-rich springs and caves. We might conjecture that a person visiting such a sacrosanct location - one full of chi or negative ions perhaps, might very well get physically charged up by the invisible, healthful energies ever-present in the atmosphere.


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