The Healing Power of Dream Incubation in Ancient Greece
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’.
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.
Ruins of the Asklepion in Epidaurus. (jana_janina /Adobe Stock)
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.
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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?
Patients sleeping in the temple of Aesculapius at Epidaurus, Ernest Board. (Wellcome Collection / CC BY 4.0 )
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.
The strength of the Earth’s magnetic field does fluctuate and it varies from one geographic location to another. It was weak at its inception 3.5 billion years ago and according to archaeomagnetic data reached one of several peaks in intensity between 2500 BC and 500 BC. It has shown an especially accelerated decline more recently.
Did ancient peoples possess magnetoreception? That is the ability to physically detect magnetic forces, perhaps even see them, as it is speculated migrating birds do. Biochemistry does show we potentially retain some of the necessary equipment for it.
We have cryptochromes - light-sensing ancient proteins in the human eye that are implicated in an evolutionarily old magnetic sense as well as the regulation of our daily rhythms. It is known that the circadian clock which governs melatonin production and controls periods of rest and wakefulness is disrupted by magnetic anomalies and geomagnetic storms. Is it possible that humanity experienced a collective peak in consciousness as a result of cosmic magnetic activity in our distant past?
Reconstruction of the interior, altar and statue of temple of Aesculapius at Epidaurus. (CC BY 4.0)
Much of the best evidence regarding the day-to-day goings-on in Sleep Temples comes from ancient Greece. Here - Asklepios was the presiding deity. This handsome healer god, always represented with a snake-entwined staff, was worshipped at many great sanctuaries, known as Asklepions, throughout the ancient world, including important centers at Epidaurus, Kos, Athens and Pergamon (in modern day Turkey).
Asklepios was a key figure of Greek mythology. He was the son of the multi-faceted and complicated god Apollo and his mortal lover, Koronis. Legend tells us that Apollo murdered Koronis for infidelity. She was pregnant with the child Asklepios at the time. It is sometimes Hermes, sometimes Apollo himself that is credited with cutting the living child from Koronis’s womb atop the funeral pyre and saving the life of the greatest healer god of the Greek pantheon.
Asklepios was raised and trained in the healing arts by the centaur Chiron, but it was a supernatural encounter with a wise snake that was said to have charged Asklepios with a supernaturally advanced healing ability. Sufficiently gifted to even bring a man back from the dead. although this transgression cost Asklepios his life. Zeus struck him dead with a thunderbolt, although later (according to Roman-era mythography) at Apollo’s behest, Zeus set Asklepios in the heavens and he became the constellation Ophiuchus - the Serpent Bearer.
Sanctuary at Epidaurus
At Epidaurus, one of the most celebrated Asklepions in the ancient Greek world, there was a large, very rare chryselephantine (made from ivory and gold) sculpture of Asklepios - unfortunately just the base remains today. Architectural drawings show that the sculpture sat over a well, which kept the ivory moist and prevented cracking.
Chryselephantine creations were hugely expensive artistic endeavors and required frequent attention to preclude drying out - a pious maintenance ritual of some significance in itself. The colossal chryselephantine statue of Zeus at Olympia (thought to have been plundered in the 5th century for its precious materials) indicates the status enjoyed by Asklepios.
Statue of Asclepius, exhibited in the Museum of Epidaurus Theatre. (Michael F. Mehnert/CC BY-SA 3.0)
The snake-entwined staff, the Rod of Asklepios - is still used as the symbol of medicine to this day and was pivotal to the cult of Asklepios. The healing sanctuaries were filled with living snakes moving freely throughout the sites, a particular non-venomous pan-European rat snake was employed for temple duties.
Snakes were considered sacred creatures, demonstrating an ability to produce poison and antidote (our word pharmacy derives from the ancient Greek and combines remedy and poison). Another symbol of modern medicine which has the same ancient roots is the Bowl of Hygeia. Hygeia, from which we have the word hygiene, was Asklepios’s daughter and her symbol depicts a cup or chalice with a snake twined around its stem and poised above it. This is the sign for pharmacies in many countries.
The Rod of Asclepius, a symbol representing medicine and healthcare. (Roman / Adobe Stock )
Snakes were seen by ancient people to return to youthfulness (shed skin) and regenerate (they can re-grow severed tails). Snakes have been worshipped since time immemorial and it is easy to see why they were considered to have special powers.
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Story and Music
Another important consideration in understanding ancient consciousness and the potential power of the psyche over the physical body - is the value of music, ritual drama and enactment in the journey towards deep healing.
As the Mystery Schools of antiquity had their mythological pageants, performances and initiation rituals, so too did the sleep temples employ music and drama to make contact with the inner beings of their visitors. At Epidaurus there was an impressive amphitheater, famed for its acoustics. A later edition to the sanctuary was a large building called the Thymele, an impressive circular edifice, with a subterranean labyrinthine structure that modern archaeoacoustic researchers now believe served to amplify musical performances.
The lyre (seven-stringed symbol of Apollo - who was also worshipped at Epidaurus) was an especially quiet instrument. The superb craftsmanship of this building meant that even the most delicate lyre music could travel all over the sanctuary, perhaps even enter dreams. The medicine of music could permeate the very air. The ancient Greeks had a specific type of healing song - the paean. The paeans were performed by choruses in a circular formation, the singers calling up the gods to hear the words of their hymns and attend to the needs of the afflicted.
Scribes at Epidaurus kept detailed records of the dreams and healing experiences of their patients, these were called Iamata. The highest healing one could receive was a visit from Asklepios himself. These occurrences were diligently documented and displayed throughout the sanctuary, almost as propaganda and advertising. Asklepios might come to you in a dream and perform some sort of psychic surgery - often resulting in a totally spontaneous cure. Else a dream might suggest an available remedy or require interpretation from a temple priest.
The activities of the patient during waking hours were carefully designed so as to connect with the unconscious mind, the soul, the psyche. When the time eventually came for the sacred sleep, and it was the turn of the unconscious to dominate, real healing could occur. By this means, through dreams, one could truly come to ‘know thyself’ and experience the divine eternity we all have within us.
“When you enter the abode of the god
Which smells of incense, you must be pure
And thought is pure when you think with piety”
This was the inscription that greeted pilgrims who passed through the propylaia, the main gate into the sanctuary of the god Asklepios at ancient Epidaurus.
If you spent a great deal of time adoring statues, hero-worshipping, listening to angelic choruses and hypnotic lyre music wafting on the charged breezes. If you found yourself silently inhabiting a carefully designed holy environment within which symbols and myth were deliberately enmeshed into every minutiae. If you observed endless snakes, had your wounds licked by temple dogs. If you possessed a clear and absolute intention and desire to be visited by a god, to whom you were utterly devoted and confident in - this would doubtlessly manifest in dreams…And dreams would come true.
Women consulting Aesculapius. (Wellcome Images / CC BY 4.0)
Top image: Healing Temple of Aesculapius (Asklepios) by Robert Thom. Source: Imgur
By Sarah Janes
Updated on July 1, 2021.
Pausanias, Description of Greece, trans. Peter Levi (Penguin Classics, 1979)
Caton, Richard,The Temples and Ritual of Asklepios at Epidauros and Athens
(Two Lectures Delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, 1940)
Schultz P., Wikkiser BL., Communicating with the Gods in Ancient Greece: The Design and Functions of the ‘Thymele’ at Epidauros (ResearchGate Article Published - January 2010)
Trubshaw, Bob, Dream Incubation (Heart of Albion Press, 2015)
Assad, Tarek, Sleep in Ancient Egypt (Springer Science, 2015)
Jaynes, Julian The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976)
UNESCO, ‘Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus’
Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/491
Deirdre Barrett , ‘The “Committee of Sleep”: A Study of Dream Incubation for Problem Solving’
Available at: https://www.asdreams.org/journal/articles/barrett3-2.htm