I go back from time to time to the testimonies of those who received healing in the ancient temples of Asklepios and Apollo. We have a convenient and fairly exhaustive collection of these thanks to the work of Emma and Ludwig Edelstein in the 1940s. The second edition is available in a single-volume edition from the Johns Hopkins Press.
I was talking last night in an online class for The Shift Network about the experience of healing with the sacred guide in the Asklepian tradition, which was immensely popular in the Greco-Roman world for more than a thousand years. I am now preparing to take people on a deeper dive into this tradition, in a new online course on Seven World Traditions of Dreaming that will start in August, as well as in live workshops.
So, as is my way, I opened the collection of testimonies at random. I found myself considering again the fascinating case of a young Spartan woman named Arata, and her devoted mother, who made the long and often dangerous journey to the great Asklepian temple of Epidaurus to seek healing for her daughter.
Arata, we are told, was υδρωπ, "dropsical". Today, we might say that she had an edema, a serious swelling due to the build-up of fluids in the cavities of the body. When ordinary medicine could do nothing for her, the mother embarked on her journey. She must have undergone the customary cleansing and ritual purification, and made simple offerings to the sacred powers of the sanctuary, including honey cakes for the serpents of Asklepios.
She would have been assisted by the therapeuts - the helpers of the healing god - to incubate a dream of invitation and to clarify her request to the god, for the benefit of her beloved daughter. She would have been shown testimonies of those who had been healed before, and images of the gods, building a mental climate of positive expectation. Eventually she was ushered into the abaton, the inner precinct of the temple, where she would have been encouraged to lie down on an animal skin and await the coming of the healing god in the sacred night.
In the night, "She slept in the temple and saw the following dream: it seemed to her that the god cut off her daughter’s head and hung up her body in such a way that her neck hung down." We can picture how a butcher might hang an animal carcass on a meat hook. Out of the neck came a huge quantity of fluid matter. Then the mother took down her daughter’s body and fitted the head back on the neck.
After she had seen this dream, she went home and found her daughter fully recovered, in good health and excellent spirits. Her daughter reported she had the same dream.
In this wild and primal experience, glimpsed through a few lines of an inscription chiseled on stone, we see the lineaments of a healing practice that reaches beyond ordinary medicine and beyond time and place. A sacred power appears to the dreamer, in response to a heart-felt prayer. Let us notice that the experience unfolding is possibly best understood as a lucid dream playing in the liminal space between sleep and awake.
The god of this dream is a ruthless surgeon, but his cutting is true and precise. Something that was wrong in the body of a person at a distance is drained and healed during this operation., Not only is the effect transferred to Arata, hundreds of miles away, but Arata sees the whole thing, as if she were with her mother and the god in the sacred space.
We have here remarkable evidence of the reality and efficacy of remote healing and shared dreaming. We have confirmation that direct engagement with the sacred is the ultimate healing resource. We have a reminder that even the most terrifying image - if it is authentic and truly belongs to us - can open a way to healing and transformation, if we are willing to stay with it and work with it.
Source: the testimony of Arata's mother is printed in Emma J. Edelstein and Ludwig Edelstein, Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies (second edition, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Press, 1998) as #423.21.
Photo: the author with the serpent pillar of Asklepios at Pergamon (modern Bergama) in Aeolis (western Turkey).