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Dreams, Dream Interpretation and the God Asclepius

Updated: Feb 1

Thanks to oral and written traditions, we know how far humans have already progressed in the world of dreams, i.e. in deciphering dream images and general meaning. The Indians, for example, spoke of receiving sacred wisdom, of communicating with ancestors, prophetic dreams and life instructions that came to them in dreams. It was common practice to share dreams and discuss them together. The ancient Greeks adopted many of the practices of the Egyptians. Robert Moss wrote in his book "the SECRET HISTORY of DREAMING":

 

„The Egyptians also developed an advanced practice of conscious dream travel. Trained dreamers operated as seers, remote viewers, and telepaths, advising on affairs of state and military strategy and providing  a mental communications network between far-flung temples and administrative centers.”

He also said: "The ancient Egyptians understood that in dreams, our eyes are opened. Their word for dream, rswt, also means “awakening.” It was written with a symbol representing an open eye." “In Hellenistic times – the age of Cleopatra – dream schools flourished in the temples of Serapis, a syncretic god who melds the qualities of the gods Hades, Osiris, and Apis, the divine bull.”


Dreams thus became part of medicine. The physician Hippocrates of Kos (460 - 370 BC) noted down the dreams of his patients in order to read their state of health. The Greeks also linked the healing art of doctors with the healing cult of the god Asclepius, in which dreaming played a central role. The god appeared to the sick in dreams. This is what Antje Krug writes in her book "Heilkunst und Heilkult":

 

"But Asclepius was able to help, even against all reason. This mutual conditionality of the art of healing and the healing cult, which together condemned charlatanism and magic, led to a respectful toleration, even mutual promotion. The heyday of the cult of Asclepius also corresponded to the high points in medicine rather than its low points, as L. Edelstein has noted. The more sophisticated their knowledge and techniques became, the more the doctors were doctors were dependent on the help of God, because the irrational side of suffering also demanded help."

 


But why was the god Asclepius only added to the host of existing gods relatively late, around the 6th/5th century BC?

 

"In classical times, the individual is more prominent than ever. None of the slowly fading old gods devoted themselves to the individual, his concerns and feelings, with such exclusivity as Asclepius. Beyond the narrowness of a merely functional deity, he was the one who met the growing needs of the individual."

 

With the appearance of this new god, healing centres sprang up all over ancient Greece. Epidauros, located near the city of Nafplio on the Argolic Gulf in the Peloponnese, became the centre of Asclepius' (and his family's) sanctuaries over time. Today it is unfortunately only known for its amphitheatre with its incredible acoustics, but at that time the sanctuary consisted of a large number of buildings. Exhausted after a long journey, the patients were led by priests to their sleeping places, also known as sleeping temples or abaton or enkoimeterion. Antje Krug reports further:

 

"We have an account of what followed in Aristophanes, who describes the events in the Asklepieon of Aigina - albeit from the perspective of a ravenous slave (Ploutos 663 ff.): The priests switched off the lights, exhorted the patients to rest and then left them alone. Exhausted from the long journey, their heads full of images and stories that they had absorbed in the sacred precinct, and excited with anticipation, they eventually fell asleep and dreamed. It was only in their sleep that the healings took place in Epidauros: The god came in person, beautiful and gentle of face, accompanied by his healing assistants and animals. He went from camp to camp and asked about the suffering. Then he healed by touching the patient with his hand, through an operation, medication or instructions, which he gave the patient and which he had to carry out the next day."

We can only speculate as to why Asclepius is leaning on a staff with a snake coiled around it in the depictions and illustrations and why his daughter Hygeia (from whom the word hygiene is derived) also wears a snake around her neck - or familiarise ourselves with the parable of the snake. More on this in my book "The Healing Power of Dreams".



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