The Temple of Æsclepius:
The Experience of a Seeker
Excerpted from Dr. Dream
Early Temple Story
...The temples consecrated in his [Asklepius] honor were temples of healing dreams. His daughters were Panacea and Hygea. The sacred place to recline in the temple was a Klínè. From these words we have derived, Panacea, Hygene and Clinic. At the peak of the culture, there were 420 temples to Æsclepius all over the ancient Greek world. The incubation of healing dreams continued in the Roman empire. The word Incubation is derived from Latin word, In (on) cubare (to lie down). It refers to the dream experience in the temple.
Æsclepius performed miraculous cures right in the dream.
The roots of modern medicine are in these temples. The priestly class that came to attend the temples. developing a pharmocopae of herbs, unguents and tinctures, they also evolved a technology of dreaming over the centuries. Its early forms involved a direct visit from the god in a dream. In later eras the dreams became more metaphoric, the dream was symbolic, the god an image. The attendants became dream interpreters and priests then evolved interpretations and prescriptions.
A Visit to the Temple of Æsclepius
As the seeker approaches the temple from a distance it is clearly outlined against the distant sky - a large open space with a dome supported by columns allowing one to see right through the building, as though nothing were there, yet, unmistakably there it was.
The seeker was a pilgrim who would arrive at the temple after a long period of travel. They had something on their mind. An issue, an ailment, a quest to discover. They came to seek insight into the problem, to get a new vision that would heal, guide, help or provide solace. The temple had no wall or gates, It was open to the air. Yet no one came who was not called to come. It was a fearsome place to most people with its open doors on the world of spirits, and mysterious powers.
Going to the temple was not taken lightly. One had to be called. One had to fast, cleanse the body, mind and soul. Before the dream of healing could occur, the seeker had to learn the rituals and perform the rites of purification. The seeker would fast, take hot baths, meditate, and sacrifice, before being allowed to enter the temple.
There were caretakers of the Temple. They had their own rituals, sacrifices and activities to perform. They had time to counsel new seeker, and see that they were purified and cleansed. They could offer advice on how to seek the advice of dreams.
The attendants had taken many seekers on the journey for answers in the Temple. They were skilled practitioners. Part physicians, part metaphysician, part shaman, part priest. They were skilled in medicine, herbs, incantations and the rituals of the temple, and the technology of dreaming.
The seeker must wait for the time to come. They watched for signs in their dreams that it was time to enter the temple. When the omens were right, the seeker would be permitted to enter the main temple. It had a large open floor, with niches where seekers could roll out some bedding and sleep with the god. They would sleep on a sacred skin (Klínè) in the temple and have a dream.
In the ideal dream the god would touch the wound and cure it. In the morning, the attendant would spend time with each seeker, reviewing the visitation from the gods, helping to explore the dream and secure the insights appropriate to that seeker at their stage of development. The dreams of the seeker contained the seeds of their own healing. The attendant's job was simply to elicit the vision of the god and aid the seeker in making sense of their personal dream story. Through incubation, the seeker was to awaken to his real self and in so doing regenerate himself physically, mentally and spiritually.
Descriptions of Epidaurus
From a speech by Jean Houston
By 450 BC one of the centers of healing and mind evolution was the Temple at Epidaurus, one of the largest temples to Æsclepius. You would have heard all of your life about the tremendous healing cures at Epidaurus.
Æsclepius, the great daimon-god-man who had lived for humanity, who had the greatest knowledge of pharmacopoeia, of healing, of surgery, of the whole idea that you went there not just to get well, you went there to raise your sights.
Getting well and raising your sights and turning a corner on your reality was synonymous. You would show up full of ideas of miracle cures and of what's going to happen, and the first thing that you would have done is wander through this beautiful place with the most beautiful temples. Then you probably would have had a nice mud bath, an herbal, a diarrheic. Maybe you'd run around the stadium.
As you walked along the streets you would hear philosophers debating, to not only intellectually raise your sights but to confuse all your conceptions. There were comedians all over the place, to confuse and bring out paradox and absurdity. In preparation, you would go into different temples - and there were temples there for any god so all the different archetypes were available to be stimulated. You would read the marble steles about all the miracle cures.
The path was lined with huge stones describing the miraculous healing that had occurred. People were cured of incurable disease, the blind could see, the lame and the paraplegic were able to walk again. They were cured immediately without remedies or other material means, rather by the sole supernatural healing power of the Divine Mind, that power which the priests of Æsclepius knew from times of old. Adored and respectfully preserved by secret tradition and utilized for therapeutic purposes.
From the Stones around the Temple of Æsclepius at Epidaurus, Arata, a Roman of Lacadaemon was dropsically. Her mother left her in Lacadaemon and came to Epidaurus to beg god to cure her daughter. She slept in temple and had the following dream: it seemed to her that the god cut off her daughters head and hung up her body in such a way that her throat was turned downward. Out of it came a huge quantity of fluid matter. Then, she took down the body and fitted the head back on the neck. After she had seen this dream, she went back to Lacadaemon where she found her daughter in good health; she had had the same dream.
A woman from Athens called Ambrosia was blind in one eye. She came as a supplicant to the god. As she walked about in the Temple, she laughed at some of the cures as incredible and impossible, that the lame and the blind should be healed by merely having a dream. In her sleep she had a vision. It seemed to her that the god stood by her and said he would cure her, but that the payment he would ask her was to dedicate to the Temple a Silver Pig as a memorial to her foolishness. After saying this, he cut out her diseased eyeball and poured in some drug. When day came, she walked out of the Abaton completely sound.
A boy of Epidauros named Euphanes was suffering from stone. He slept in the Abaton. It seemed to him that the god stood by him and asked, What will you give me when I cure you? Ten Dice, He answered. The god laughed and said he would cure him. When day came, he walked out sound.
Finally: You are Called
On the night you are called to the great temple of the healing god Æsclepius, you would dress in white and go into the incubation chamber. You had to get by the beautiful statue that was surrounded by real snakes; symbols of your phobias. You had to feed them honey-cakes, lure them away from the statue, before you could to present your blind eye to the god to touch; or your soul for him to change.
You would meditate and pray and wait for the god to come. There would be chanting and singing and you have to give forgiveness and then you would be put to sleep and the priest would say, "Do not be afraid of what might come in the night". Then you go to sleep.
Near dawn the priest, dressed as Æsclepius, and his two daughters, Panacea and Hygea, would come through with dogs and serpents; the serpents were trained to lick your ear like the god giving you a message, and the dogs would lick your wounds; unguents would be applied, and the physician priest would talk to your wound or your ailment and ask it to tell him what was wrong, and in this half-sleep state you would answer.
He would then suggest that everybody go back to sleep and let the god come and tell you what needs to be done. Next morning there were often many cures. Others would have had extraordinary dreams that opened up new areas in which to see their present life's unfolding. They would tell stories, dance the dream, and play it.
Before you left the temple, you had dues to pay to the priestly class and their attendants. Gold in the fountain was the accepted way to make a sacrifice to the metaphysicians. When you left the Temple of Æsclepius, the ailment was cured, the body, spirit and soul all whole again. And you might have a vision of the future to pursue as the god had shown you.
Jean Houston speaking at Annual Meeting of American Humanistic Psychology Association.
Theodore Papadakis. Epidauros: The Sanctuary of Aesclepios. Verlag Schnell and Steiner, Munchen-Zurich 1973 P.7
Research by students in the region.