Transcript of Episode #104 of the OEITH podcast, Healing Dreams from the Temple of Asklepios, exploring the nature of dreams, their potential for healing, the diversity of mental life, and the ancient Greek god Asklepios and the practice of ritual sleep.
I was at the old house, in the lounge, and a young white cat suddenly walked into the room and was heading towards the fireplace where there was a lit fire. It was not our cat, and I found myself throwing cushions at it, but then I realised it looked so weak and frail that I was worried that if I hit it with a cushion, you know, it might hurt it. And it was still heading towards the fire, and then I was worried that the flames might kill it, if it walked into the flames. So I got up, and I tried to catch it before it could come to any harm, but then I saw that somehow it had wriggled past the flames and had got into a room behind the fireplace, a forgotten room, an old, musty kind of space which somehow I half remembered, and then it felt as if somehow I’d known all along that that room was there, so I wriggled past the fire as well and got inside. But then I realized, completely unexpectedly, that there was even more here. Even more space beyond this little room. Vast areas. And by kind of going around a corner and twisting around a bit, suddenly I found myself in the open air in this great big place: massive places, looking as if, somehow, they were in a process of being renovated, or being prepared for something. They were public spaces, and they looked as if they’d been designed for many people to assemble there for some purpose or other. In particular, I saw a large, open, rectangular arena, which had a boundary but not walls. It was some kind of strange, floating barrier made of very fine, dark wood. And then I remembered the white cat, which was the reason I’d found myself in this place in the first place, and I didn’t know where it had gone, but I was sure it would be okay. I was sure it could look after itself. So, I returned back the way I’d come in – went back into the forgotten room, and then through the fireplace, and then back into the lounge, and then I went into the kitchen. And my mother was there, and she was getting ready for a long journey that she was about to take, a long journey away from home, and I mentioned the secret room to her and the spaces that lay beyond, and I asked her was she aware that they were there. And she carried on getting ready. She didn’t really look at me when she replied, but she just told me that it had to stay a secret – the rooms needed to stay secret, the space beyond needed to stay secret, until the work on the façade at the front was finished and everything was then properly joined up and ready. Everything had to stay secret, until all that work around the front had been done and only then could the public spaces and the secret room be used once again.
As you might have guessed, that was a dream.
In common with a lot of people at the moment, I suspect, things have felt quite difficult. I’ve been feeling pretty low, and the thing about that dream was when I woke up from it, suddenly it felt like everything had changed. I felt really lightened, energized, full of motivation, and feeling hopeful, in complete contrast to how I’d been feeling in the days before. So, what I thought I’d set out to explore in this episode is the healing power of dreams.
Sometimes a dream feels important. Sometimes a dream feels huge. It can have an impact on us and no matter how we choose to look at that, perhaps it shouldn’t be underestimated, because if there’s a change in mood then that can have real knock-on effects and suddenly all sorts of things can become possible and all sorts of things might change. Dreams sometimes enable us to arrive at a particular experience of truth, and because it’s a dream that truth is not necessarily vested in consensus reality. In that sense, then, there is a magical dimension to dreaming. Being aware and focusing on our dreams becomes in itself a magical practice.
How is it that a dream could heal, though? How is it that a dream could change our state of mind for the better? I could think of plenty of arguments that would run counter to that point of view. The consensus view on dreams is that they’re fantastical, insubstantial. Dreams are often placed in contradistinction to reality. So, consequently, assigning any weight or value to something experienced in or arising from a dream is regarded with suspicion. You could even argue that dreams aren’t experiences at all, because we’re unconscious when we have them and, generally, unless we’re having a lucid dream, we only become aware that a dream is a dream in retrospect. In a sense, you could say that we only really dream when we’re awake because that’s when we recognize that whatever we were aware of was a dream. What you could argue is that whatever you might take from a dream is not based in actual experience; it’s not deriving from an actual experience, so therefore it’s absurd to assume that a dream provides us with anything beneficial or anything non-beneficial. But as you probably suspect, none of those views which I hold.
Before that dream that I reported at the beginning came along, I think a number of things had contributed to feelings of depression. First of all, there was stuff around work, and the other issues playing on my mind (and again I don’t think I’m alone in this) to do with the general state of the world these days, and not having any realistic hopes of change. It was all feeling a bit pointless and, likewise, the difficulties these days that surround trying to have any kind of debate or conversation. It’s become very difficult for people to disagree with one another, without one or both sides perceiving that as hatred, as a kind of existential threat, so I’d ended up feeling as if there was nowhere to go nowhere to turn and I was just going to have to endure it, with no hope of change.
But thank God, that dream came along.
So, in the dream I’m back in my parents’ house, as if I’d never left, and that strange, little white cat walks in and I can’t get rid of it by throwing cushions at it, because I might kill it, it’s so frail and it’s walking right towards the fire. So, I think I’ve got to get up and save it. But maybe it’s not as puny and helpless as it looks, because it knows a way; it gets around the fire and goes into that secret room, which I kind of half-knew was always there. It’s nothing new. It’s familiar from childhood. It’s basically the personal unconscious, full of repressed, old mouldy stuff from childhood and the puny little white cat is my depression, I think, and it has led me into this space beyond the fire.
But beyond that secret room is where things get really interesting: a vast, open public space. This is maybe an image of the collective unconscious. But it’s in an odd kind of state in the dream: there’s nobody about; there’s this sense that it’s being renovated or prepared. It’s an odd kind of collective unconscious that doesn’t have anybody in it, or anybody around inside it, but it was nevertheless built on a huge scale, and it had a kind of classical air about it. And the thing I loved about it most was it was a civic space, but not commercial space. It was built on the scale of a shopping centre, but it wasn’t a shopping centre. There was nothing capitalist going on here. It was all about shared social spaces where people could come together for cultural events, for art, for lectures, for discussions, and it was on a massive scale. That rectangular arena that appeared in the dream: it was like a kind of football stadium, but not for sport. Imagine a football stadium for lectures! It had that kind of an atmosphere about it. Well, the cat’s entirely vanished by this point. Given the scale of this space the cat vanishes into insignificance, and it will be fine. It can wander around. Its needs will be met.
So, I make my way back into the house and then go into the kitchen and meet my mum. She’s 80 now, so she knows a thing or two, and in the dream, she tells me the way it is. Maybe that collective space will be ready one day, but now’s not the time. That space, it was non-commercial, non-capitalist, it was for people to come together and do cultural things and have debates. When that happens that’s going to be really amazing, but there’s no chance of that happening anytime soon. That is a space that our civilization in its current state is in no sense capable of making use of, like my mum says in the dream. It’s going to have to stay a secret until the work on the front has been done. When the work on the front is finished then, yes, people will be able to go in.
That doesn’t really make sense. That huge space is there and waiting and it doesn’t really require work on the facade of the building to be completed for that space to be used. But that’s just the way it is. Everything will have to be joined up at the front before everybody can enter into that space freely, but I know the way in there. And now, you know the way in there too, because I’ve just told you. We’ll just have to keep it a secret for now.
What the dream was basically showing me was that that wonderful space behind the fire cannot be inhabited by our civilization in its present form. It’s not going to happen. Work at the front needs to be done first, and there was no mention of a deadline for that. But that’s absolutely no barrier to someone who knows that space is there. Everyone who knows that space is there is free to go in it, and you don’t necessarily need a white cat to show you the way in.
I hope that this podcast and other things like it might perform the same function and save you the trouble of having to get depressed and having to have a dream point you in the right direction. Now, I’m aware that what I presented just there was an interpretation of the dream, and although an interpretation can be useful to give our intellect some kind of a handle on what a dream is doing, working with dreams, encountering dreams, I think, doesn’t hinge upon always needing to provide an interpretation. Whatever the dream is doing happens perfectly naturally and fully without an interpretation being given, and that’s the thing that struck me most of all about that dream I had, that it did something to me without me understanding. That feeling of lightness and optimism and renewed motivation was there as soon as I woke. I didn’t need to reflect on the dream or understand its symbolism in order to get to that place. It gave me that. It did that for me, and that’s why I think it’s possible to have healing dreams, and that’s why I disagree with those positions that I described earlier towards dreams: the idea that they’re just mental noise or that they’re not really experiences, they’re just narratives that we form after the fact.
I think a better way of looking at dreams is some kind of psychical process. I think I view them as a kind of movement of the soul, like the soul shifting itself into a more comfortable position, maybe, and perhaps that is something that we can’t experience in any way, but maybe that doesn’t matter.
I think that some aspects of what we might call “soul” are things that aren’t experiences, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not processes that have an important bearing upon our lives, and what shape our experiences might take within that. The mind, the soul, is an incredibly diverse arena. I think it embraces all sorts of different things. Sometimes there can be a tendency to regard the contents of our minds as made of all the same stuff; “it’s all mental stuff”: you know, that classic Cartesian dichotomy between mind and body, as if there’s only those two sorts of things.
When we look into our mind we find a kind of zoo, I think; of all sorts of highly diverse phenomena: perceptions, images, sensations, experiences, thoughts, memories – these things are all very distinct from each other, or can be, sometimes, and all seem to be performing different functions and presenting in massively diverse ways, and appreciating and understanding that diversity can be really important work, magical work, because it can shift our understanding of the reality of what’s really going on in our minds and the relationship we have with it.
Just a few examples to illustrate, maybe. Intrusive thoughts. People experiencing intrusive thoughts. And sometimes, when you really look at this with somebody, what’s actually being experienced is not really thoughts, but feelings. There’s a lot more variety in thinking than there is in feeling. It’s possible to think of absolutely anything and to be creative in thinking, but that’s not so much the case with feeling. You can’t invent an emotion, for instance, and it’s not very easy to feel things at will in contrast to the way that it’s possible to think whatever you want to think at will, to a good degree, so if we find ourselves having thoughts that feel that they’re coming not because we’ve willed them, and if there’s not much variety to those thoughts, but it seems to be the same or similar thoughts coming back again and again, then we might label those intrusive thoughts and we might start to feel that there’s something not quite right going on here. But you don’t really hear people talking about “intrusive feelings”, do you? It’s accepted that feelings to some degree force themselves upon us, and we don’t regard that as pathological. Thoughts and feelings are very different things. They both appear in the mind and yet they’re very distinct, diverse, and appreciating the nature of that difference enables us to start to get a handle on what might really be going on.
When someone’s experiencing so-called intrusive thoughts, these might not be thoughts at all. They might be feelings, or they might be thoughts that form a kind of surface to feelings. The same feelings are coming back again and again and they’re triggering certain thoughts, but we’re only really aware of the thoughts, or maybe what we have here is some kind of complex combination of thoughts and feelings that are arising together, or maybe it’s even some sort of hybrid of the two. But in any case, if it can be recognized that these thoughts are actually feelings, or mixed with feelings, then what can be helpful is to start to deal with them as if they were feelings rather than thoughts.
If we arrive at a thought that we don’t like then one way of counteracting it is to think it through and arrive at another thought, but if what we’re dealing with is actually a feeling then we won’t be able to think it through, because it’s a feeling. You can’t talk yourself out of feeling something. Thinking something through requires bringing attention to whatever it is that you’re thinking about, which gives the thoughts energy. But if you’re dealing with a feeling instead, and you’re having a feeling that you don’t much care for, probably the worst thing you can do is to give that attention. When we’re dealing with feelings that we would prefer not to have the best thing to do is to withdraw attention from them, to the extent that we can, and usually they pass, and it seems counter-intuitive at first, when dealing with intrusive thoughts, but often the best thing to do in the face of intrusive thoughts is nothing. Just do nothing. They can’t be reasoned with or thought through, because their nature is to a large extent the nature of feelings.
Thoughts are interesting things. Thoughts have all sorts of strange qualities of their very own, and there’s maybe a bias within our culture to regard everything that arises in the mind as some form of thought, and maybe there’s something in the nature of thinking itself that tends us towards this. As a contrast to thinking, let’s think about imagining for a moment. So, suppose I asked you to imagine Sigourney Weaver, for instance. Now it’s possible that instead of imagining Sigourney Weaver, you might bring up an image of Susan Sarandon instead, let’s say. If we’re imagining something then it’s possible to confuse one thing with another: that we might intend to imagine “a” but we end up imagining “b”, and we realize this later. The weird thing about thinking is that this doesn’t apply in the case of thoughts; a thought always hits its mark without fail, and this is something we take for granted we probably don’t notice it much of the time. But it’s a really strange thing. So, although you might imagine Susan Sarandon when you were trying to imagine Sigourney Weaver, you can’t think about Sigourney Weaver without actually thinking about Sigourney Weaver. In the same way you can’t think about the number five, for instance, without actually thinking about the number five and not accidentally thinking about the number six.
When you think about something, that thought always hits its mark. Now, that’s not to say the lines of thought or the conclusions that we draw from thoughts might not be wrong sometimes. Of course not. But the thought of a thing is always actually about that thing, whereas other types of phenomena we encounter in the mind don’t have that infallibility about them.
Images, as we’ve seen, can fail to hit their mark. Memories, of course, are fallible. Perceptions can mislead us. But if we’re thinking about something then we know it is actually that thing that we’re thinking about and not something else, and because of that this gives thoughts a certain objective quality about them. This characteristic of thoughts almost makes them seem as if they’re part of the objective fabric of the world. In a way, there’s an actuality about them, which makes it seem as if human beings thinking are, through their thinking, making the fabric of reality. Sort of like termites building their mounds.
There’s a sense that thoughts construct, create, build, and endure, in contrast to feelings, perhaps, which, like we said, pass away more readily and lack variety or creativity. They do, however, make life worth living – or not – so don’t go thinking that I’m privileging thoughts over feelings! Not at all. The point I wanted to make from this digression is that we often tend to look at human existence as a dichotomy between material and mental, body and mind, and it’s easy to be seduced by that into the idea that mind stuff is all one kind of stuff, but actually it’s lots of different kinds of things, and I think it’s useful to take this approach into our exploration of dreams.
Now, the example of a dream that I’ve been discussing: I gave an interpretation of it, and that interpretation was a Jungian interpretation that included Jungian terms: the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious. And I’ve presented it as a healing dream, and that’s quite a Jungian approach to dreaming as well. I suggested that I was feeling depressed, and the dream had presented something that compensated for that depression, and that’s a very Jungian notion of what dreams do: this idea that, originating in the unconscious, they present something that’s in opposition to or counteracting whatever our conscious attitude might be at a given moment.
But other types of interpretation of that dream are possible, of course, because there are lots of different ways of interpreting dreams and different writers, thinkers, have adopted different approaches to dreaming.
Freud, of course, has been very influential in his approach to dreams. He regarded dreams as the disguised fulfilment of a repressed sexual wish. And then there was Fritz Perls, the gestalt psychologist, who took an approach to dreams seeing each element in a dream as a representation of a part of the self. I think it’s evident that these theories of dreams are in conflict with each other. They contradict each other. But at the same time, over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that all of them are true, in one way or another, and the reason that they can all be true to some extent, even though they’re often at odds with one another, is this diversity of the inner world. It’s my impression that you get different types of dreams, that not all dreams are alike, that they’re structurally quite different, that they perform different sorts of processes, and for that reason sometimes a Jungian interpretation is more illuminating than a Freudian one, and sometimes vice versa.
The dream I’ve presented, I’ve suggested, was transformative. It did something. It changed me. It healed me. The Freudian approach towards dreams, on the other hand, is very, very different. As was mentioned, a Freudian dream is an unconscious repressed sexual wish that’s been dressed up in a way that enables it to come to awareness. In the dream, at night, we’re asleep, we’re unconscious, the defences that we use to protect our ego during the daytime are less active, and a dream is a way in which parts of our self that we’d rather not acknowledge find a means of expression.
Earlier, we were thinking about the difference between thoughts and feelings, and there’s a kind of analogy between thoughts and feelings and between Jungian dreams and Freudian dreams. Jungian dreams perhaps are a bit more like thinking: they are creative; they perform some sort of work; they have an objective. Freudian dreams, on the other hand, are a bit more like feelings: they’re a bit more affective; they are an outpouring of desire; and, from a certain perspective, they can seem quite monotonous. In fact, Freud suggests in The Interpretation of Dreams that, despite appearances to the contrary, dreams can’t create anything. They don’t reason. They don’t originate. They’re merely the expression of a wish.
One of my favourite dreams in Freud’s collection of dreams in his writings is one of a woman, a patient of Freud. She comes to Freud during a session one day, and describes this dream and tells him that she dreamt the previous night, of – I can’t remember what it was – but something like going to dinner with her mother-in-law. She doesn’t like her mother-in-law. Going to dinner there is the last thing she wants to do. So, she triumphantly says to Freud: “You tell me that dreams are expressions of wishes. Well, obviously not. Because I don’t want to go to dinner with my mother-in-law.” Freud reflects on this for a moment, and says to her: “Well, what can I do? You’re right. That’s what you dreamt last night, and we both know that you wouldn’t want to go there. However, what’s finding expression in the dream is not anything to do with you wishing to go to your mother-in-law’s. It’s about you wishing that I was wrong. You dreamt that dream because it’s a dream that proves I’m wrong.” And Freud mentions that there was material coming up in the analysis with this patient at the time that she would very much have preferred that Freud was wrong about.
I know that kind of Freudian reasoning drives a lot of people insane, but if you work with dreams for a period of time sometimes that approach does seem to be valid. Years ago, I remember, one night I had a dream. It was quite a strange one and it puzzled me for a while after waking. In the dream I saw an icy landscape: snow, ice, and a cold, cold wind blowing, and superimposed over this landscape was a grid of a crossword puzzle, and there was one of the clues that remained to be filled in, and the one clue remaining said: “Greek hero, eight letters”. And I looked at the grid, and immediately in the dream to my mind came the solution: Hercules. It was obviously Hercules, and when I woke up, I was struck by this because at the time I was reading Freud and thinking about dreams a lot, and his assertion that nothing creative happens in a dream. And I was thinking to myself, well, how was it that I could have a dream and, in that dream, work out the answer to a crossword clue and for that to be obviously correct? Surely, I’d worked that out in the dream. I’d done something creative. I’d engaged in a process of thinking rather than just the blind expression of a wish, and this puzzled me for several days until one afternoon I had to put some clothes in the airing cupboard, and it was a shared house I was living in at the time, and I went upstairs, and I put the clothes in the airing cupboard, and then I caught sight of the boiler. There was a brand name on the boiler, in big letters that I’d never really noticed before. And the brand name was: Hercules.
Now, like I said I was living in a shared house at the time and one of the guys who lived there was a bit of a tyrant and we always used to have arguments about putting the heating on. I mean, he was always quite stingy about spending money, and he was always very resistant when one of the rest of us wanted to turn the heating on. The night I’d had that dream, I realized, had been a really cold night, and again we hadn’t been allowed to turn the heating on and I hadn’t been warm enough in bed, tossing and turning a bit, because I was so cold. So, there was indeed a wish finding expression in that dream on a number of different levels. On the most surface level, the wish to be warm. The solution to the puzzle in the dream was Hercules and indeed Hercules, in the shape of the boiler, was the solution to the problem of being cold. And maybe, on a deeper, more unconscious level, there’s also something there about needing, wanting a Greek hero to overrule the tyrant in our shared house who prevented us from turning on the boiler. There’s other stuff in there as well. In Freudian dreams everything is rooted in the personal life of the dreamer. What appears in a dream is not so much mystical, universal symbols, but links between ideas that are often very mundane, very personal. As I mentioned, I was studying dreams and a psychoanalytic approach to them at the time, and there’s a famous quotation from the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who once commented that people training to be analysts should do crossword puzzles as a way of getting to grips with how the unconscious works. At that time, I think, I was wishing and hoping that I could discover something that would indicate that dreams were something more creative than Freud suggests, and maybe that’s how the image of the crossword came into the dream, and the whole idea that in that dream I was accomplishing something. Something creative. Something original. In short, then, it seems to me that there are all sorts of different dreams, and all the theories that we have about them are true to some extent, because maybe different sorts of dreams are indicative of different sorts of processes, or different sorts of levels of consciousness maybe. An anxiety dream, for instance – those sorts of dreams where we’re worried about something and basically we lie in bed, not quite awake, not quite asleep, just reliving whatever it is that we’re anxious about – maybe something like that is a very low level of dreaming, hardly removed from daily experience at all, and maybe Freudian dreams come from a level beyond that, perhaps where we’re more asleep and there’s an opportunity for things that are beyond our daily awareness to come into the dream, but this tends to be fairly personal, mundane stuff, although that’s not to say that there isn’t material here that isn’t valuable to us. And maybe Jungian dreams come from a level beyond that, where we can connect with processes and ideas beyond personal experience, from a transpersonal realm. And, of course, there’s maybe many other types and levels of dreaming beyond this. There’s lucid dreams, of course, and out-of-body experiences, and things that we might describe as visions, intense immersive experiences that can seem like we’re transported to a different realm. You know, sometimes this can happen when we’re awake and meditating, or if we’re in trance states. It’s very important, I think, simply to be open to this idea that dreams can perform all sorts of processes and open up onto all sorts of different levels of consciousness, and that somewhere among all of these are dreams which heal, because maybe they affect some sort of shift in the structure or position of the soul that makes an adjustment to something that previously was causing us pain.
Thanks to Freud’s interest in dreams, dreams, of course, came to occupy quite a position in therapy and psychoanalysis. Dreams can bring into therapy issues that the client might not quite be aware of or look at in the same way when they’re awake, and in that sense, they can be useful and can lead to insights that might be healing, might be helpful. In my own therapy I’ve talked about my dreams quite a lot and when I first started working as a counsellor I was surprised and a bit disappointed to discover that clients didn’t seem to talk about their dreams at all as a matter of course. I found this quite frustrating sometimes. What I tend to do now, depending on the person and the situation, is just to ask outright if clients have had any notable dreams recently, and I’d say that probably seven times out of ten, if you choose the right moment to ask, that would actually elicit some interesting dream material that moves things along in some way.
The idea that dreams can provide us with something helpful, something healing, goes back way, way earlier than Freud, as you might guess. I came across an interesting book a couple of years ago by Guy Dargert called The Snake in the Clinic, and in this book, he attempts to trace the earliest possible origins of psychotherapy, and it seems to trace all the way back to the ancient Greeks and the somewhat beguiling and mysterious figure of the god Asklepios, who is also the god of medicine in general.
Asklepios was said to be the son of Apollo, who was the god of light, and the sun, and harmony, and reason. His mother was a human princess, and the myth is a little bit vague on what happened with Asklepios’s mother, but she died in childbirth or soon after his birth, and Apollo entrusted him to the care of Chiron, the centaur, who is another amazingly rich figure in Greek mythology. Chiron is the the healer par excellence, but he’s an ancient, chthonic figure. He’s not human. He’s a centaur. There’s something very nature-based about his approach to healing, something magical, and part of his healing power comes from the fact that Chiron himself is wounded. He nurses a constant wound. It’s almost as if Asklepios brings an extra dimension to medicine and healing, a human dimension that includes that Apollonian light and striving for harmony and reason, and Guy Dargert in his discussion of Asklepios mentions how statues of Asklepios would usually depict a figure that wasn’t distant and vengeful like the majority of the Olympian gods and goddesses, but usually had an expression that looked compassionate or full of emotion. He usually had long hair and a beard, and he was venerated for a long, long time. The Romans took up the figure of Asklepios and traces of him have been found all over the outposts of the Roman Empire, and it seems as if Asklepios may have been a strong influence upon the imagery and iconography of Christ.
According to Dargert, it wasn’t until the church had finally put an end to polytheism that representations of Christ showed him with long hair and a beard. Apparently before that he was often shown as a shaven youth with short hair, so it might be that the elements of Asklepios got transferred over into what we recognize today as the figure of Christ. Furthermore, apparently the supplicants of Asklepios would refer to him as “savior”, and in the Greek myths Asklepios finally meets his end when he’s killed by Hades, the god of the underworld, in revenge for Asklepios raising the dead.
Another aspect of Asklepios that has survived to the present day is his emblem: his staff. The physicians of Ancient Greece were itinerants. They used to wander around, ministering to the sick wherever they felt they were needed. So, the staff symbolized their wandering nature, and around the staff of Asklepios is entwined a snake. The symbolism of the snake, of course, is very ancient and subtle. Snakes have an apparent power to renew themselves by shedding their skins. They make their homes underground, which associates them with the element of earth, and perhaps their tunnels were thought to provide them with access to the underworld, to the subterranean gods.
Jung, in The Red Book writes about snakes and the way they move, the way they slither left and right, and the sense in which snakes represent transitions between opposites, moving left and right in order to move forwards. What the snake might be taken to represent in the emblem of Asklepios’s staff, then, could be ideas about regeneration, transformation, connections with the underworld, and deep animal and vegetative energies. And, of course, Asklepios’s staff is still the emblem of the medical profession to this very day although, curiously, the profession itself seems to have got a bit confused about its own emblem and often it’s the caduceus of Hermes that you’ll see on the side of ambulances or on doctors’ letterheads. This is perhaps ironic. As Dargert points out, Hermes was not the god of doctors and healers, but rather a trickster god sometimes associated with thieves and deceivers.
Some of the most intriguing passages in Dargert’s book are about what happened in the temples of Asklepios, of which there were many in the Roman world, in all sorts of different places. Supplicants would come to the temple of Asklepios when they were seeking to heal themselves. The temples would usually be in out-of-the-way places, so it would be necessary to make a kind of pilgrimage to get there. They would often be large, beautiful, impressive buildings. They would be away from the centres of population, where there was plenty of fresh air and pure, running water. Dargert suggests that we would probably now conceive of these places as a kind of combination of a hospital, a health spa, and a spiritual retreat centre all rolled up into one.
You wouldn’t be allowed in if the physicians thought that you were likely to die or be close to death, nor would you be allowed in if you were pregnant. So, the emphasis in these places was very much focused upon the self and upon self-renewal. There would be a theatre, and the plays that were put on were designed to elicit deep emotional responses, and they’d be presented in a specific order. So, first of all there would be tragedies, followed by farcical, rude, rough-humoured kinds of plays, and then finally in the sequence would come the comedies, the idea being to elicit from the supplicants a means of expressing and accessing a wide range of emotions. There was magnificent architecture and art and statuary in these places. Lots of statues of the gods. Devotion to the gods would be encouraged, perhaps as a means of connecting people with those sorts of archetypal energies. But after a period of physical and psychological purging, the physicians would decide at a certain point whether the supplicant was ready for the main feature of what happened in these places, which was an encounter with the god Asklepios himself.
You would be led into a place called the abaton, which translates as “the place not to be entered unbidden”, and here there will be a chamber in which there will be a larger than life-size statue of Asklepios. And also, in this place there would be snakes roaming freely, and dogs. The snakes that were used would be non-venomous varieties of a kind that grow to a big size, but aren’t poisonous, and you could make offerings of honey cakes to the snakes, and the dogs roaming around would lick wounds or be there for people to pet them or cuddle up with them – sort of therapy dogs, basically.
So, you’re in this space with the dogs and the snakes and the big statue of Asklepios, and it’s all dim and it’s all filled with incense and there are attendants walking around, dressed as Asklepios or as his daughters, and their attending to the supplicants. And then eventually it’s time for the ritual sleep. Everybody lies down in this temple space on a couch, and you sleep in this special, atmospheric, strange place, and you hope that the god will send you a dream. A special dream. A dream of healing. And this dream might take the form of an encounter with Asklepios himself, or one of his sacred animals – a snake or a dog. And in the dream one of these figures might tell you what you needed to do to heal yourself. The figure in the dream might prescribe a cure or a remedy or some other kind of message or advice, or you might have some other kind of dream, in which case one of the physicians on hand would try to interpret it as best they could and tell you what the meaning of it was and how you should proceed.
And after this dream you might feel cured straight away, or it might then be time to follow the advice in the dream, or you might feel somewhat better. But if you didn’t have a dream or if you didn’t feel better at all then the physicians might recommend that you stay a while longer and come back to the abaton and try again. And if you were feeling better then some kind of payment would be due at this point. This would generally be cash, depending on the means of the pilgrim. Apparently, a sliding scale of fees was operated, and additionally it was traditional to make a votive offering to Asklepios, to compose a song or poem in his praise, to write a little account of the benefit that you’d received and offer praise to the god.
These places lasted for centuries, which suggests they must have been of some use. They had all gone by the end of the fourth century, due to their suppression by Christianity. But, as we’ve seen, the figure of Christ perhaps owes an iconographical debt to Asklepios.
The ancient Greeks didn’t have the knowledge of anatomy, of course, that would develop later, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t know anything about healing. What happened in the temple of Asklepios evidently seems designed to address the psychological dimensions of illness, disease. They seem designed simply to transplant people into an unusual environment that would take them out of what they were used to at home, give them an opportunity to express strong emotions, connect them with images of the divine, and give them an opportunity to dream, to really connect, perhaps, with what was going on within themselves. The ancient Greeks may not have had the knowledge to fix illnesses to the extent that medicine can achieve these days, but it seems they did have some kind of handle on what could make people feel better. They couldn’t tackle illness to the extent that is possible today by tackling it through the body, but it seems that they were able to tackle it through the mind. No matter what kind of suffering or disease we might be facing, if it’s possible to affect some change, some helpful change, in our state of mind regarding that then some kind of recovery to some degree may become possible. That’s what the temples of Asklepios seemed designed to set out to achieve.
But after the temples had vanished it was hundreds of years before dreams would feature again as a possible means of relieving distress, when Freud turned his attention to them and started to use dream interpretation as part of the technique of psychoanalysis.
These days, if you’re in search of a healing dream you might find it in therapy, but there’s nothing to stop you from creating your own temple of Asklepios. It could be depression or illness itself that shows you the way in, although hopefully that won’t be necessary. The way in is past the fireplace, the centre of our everyday life that always consumes our attention. It seems that there’s no way around that without harming yourself, but there is. You can wriggle past or through it and then you’re into that half-remembered place, that mouldy, mildewy room full of all those issues from the past. But then, if you twist and wriggle about, again you’ll find yourself outdoors in that vast, collective space that puts everything else into perspective.
As the poet Rumi puts it:
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,From Rumi, “The Great Wagon”.
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other”
doesn’t make any sense.