“I swear by Apollo the physician, by Æsculapius, Hygeia, and Panacea, and I take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following Oath….”
–The Hippocratic Oath by Hippocrates
As is made clear by the opening line of the Hippocratic’ Oath, a healer would swear by Asclepius in order to heal others. In Greek mythology, Asclepius was a healer born of Apollo and Coronis. He was raised by the centaur Chiron who trained him in the science of medicine. Asclepius’ healing became so great that when he was finally able to bring the dead back to life Hades became outraged and complained to Zeus. Zeus acquiesced and struck Asclepius dead with one of his thunderbolts.
What purpose do dreams serve? Are they a mechanism for us to release pent up emotions from the days’ activities? Do they predict some future event, thus being prophetic, or do they symbolize our own private myth being played out on the stage of our unconscious? All of these could be reasons why we dream. Could dreams also come to us in order to heal? And in what ways do they heal? These are questions that I have tried to answer for myself.
The earliest reference to dreams comes from Mesopotamia, dating back to 3100 B.C, based on archeological expeditions that unearthed Sumerian pictographs mentioning dreams. That is nearly 5000 years ago! From this same area, which is modern day central Iraq, we have been introduced to the Gilgamesh epic with its references to dreams being used for guidance, and interpretation of dream symbols (Van de Castle 48). It is believed that the Mesopotamians were using dream incubation to induce healing dreams. Robert L. Van de Castle, in Our Dreaming Mind, writes: “Although descriptions of incubation procedures are rare in the cuneiform texts, there are enough brief references to suggest that the practice of incubation or dream-seeking was familiar to the Mesopotamians” (50). The Mesopotamians were the first culture to have left a written record of using dream incubation but other cultures could very well have been using it earlier and passing their knowledge down verbally. We don’t know for sure but what we do know is that early cultures borrowed dream incubation techniques from each other.
The Egyptians also used dream incubation in order to heal the sick. Gayle Delaney states in her book, All About Dreams, “The incubation of dreams was a popular and elaborately developed art in Egypt from early times well into the Roman era” (Delaney 16). The Egyptians had their temple at Memphis dedicated to Imhotep, the god of healing in which the priests would practice their rituals and interpretations and the people would come to incubate dreams (Delaney 16). Clearly, the Egyptians borrowed this from the Mesopotamians. Delaney quotes Norman MacKenzie from his book, Dreams and Dreaming:
“The priests at Memphis… practiced ‘incubation’. This simply meant that sick persons were brought to sleep in the temple, where they fasted, or took potions, to induce beneficial dreams… The later Egyptian forms of dream interpretation, possibly even the cult of incubation, resemble earlier practices in Mesopotamia [and significantly differ from the main Egyptian tradition] closely enough to suggest that the Egyptians had grafted Assyrian ideas and methods on to their own concepts- as they certainly did with astrology” (Delaney 16).
From both Mesopotamian and Egyptian cultures we have little information as to what actually took place in these rituals. Luckily, more details were left behind about them in the Greek and Roman culture, which practiced dream incubation with great success. It appears that the Greeks had borrowed dream incubation rituals from the Egyptians. As the Egyptians had their temple at Memphis dedicated to Imhotep, their god of healing, so too did the Greeks have their temples dedicated to their god of healing, Asclepius.
In honor of Asclepius, the ancient Greeks constructed healing temples and sanctuaries, called Asclepia. The Asclepia were used to induce healing dreams. Ellenberger, in Discovery of the Unconscious, describes how the sick would travel to these temples in order to be cured of their illnesses. Further, he states that according to accounts from ancient authors and modern archeological research, it is assumed “that the beautiful site of many Asclepia, the journey, the period of waiting, the rumors about wonderful cures, all affected the patient” (Ellenberger 34). When a healing dream was successful in its cure, the patient would write the outcome on the walls of the Asclepia.
The sick would perform cleansing rituals such as bathing, fasting and sacrifices before spending the night in the Asclepia to induce a healing dream. This, Ellenberger, defines as the incubation of the dream. He goes on to explain that the patient could manifest the cure through the incubated dream in a number of ways. A god or priest could appear in the dream giving the patient instructions known as an oracle. A vision was a dream in which the patient was given some foreknowledge of some future event, and a “dream proper” was a dream that brought the cure on by itself, without interpretation, causing the disease to disappear (Ellenberger 34). C.A. Meier, in his book Healing Dream and Ritual, explains how a substitute person could be sent in place of the sick person.
Incubation means “lying on the ground”. I cannot help but draw to mind a goose sitting on an egg, incubating it, waiting for it to hatch. This idea of incubating a cure, waiting for it to hatch within the dream, appeals to me in that it empowers the patient to seek and allow the cure to come through their own dream. Have you had healing dreams you’d like to share?