He is the archetype of the wounded healer. He is both human
and divine, the son of Apollo by a mortal woman. He is deeply connected to the
realm of the animal spirits. His familiars are the snake, the dog and the cock.
The name of his mother, Coronis, suggests a link to the family of crows and
ravens. He is mentored by Chiron, the
His symbol is a long staff, shoulder
high, with a snake wrapped around it. We see this everywhere today, on the
sides of ambulances, on the doors of hospitals, as medical letterhead. Our
doctors still take the oath that ancient physicians dedicated to him, and his
divine family, though the god-names have been removed. Western medicine begins
in his precinct, though it no longer honors his name and often omits the
essentials of his way.
His name is Asklepios, Latinized as Aesculapius
by the Romans when they floated his statue up the Tiber to make him at home in
Italy. I had the pleasure of talking about him today on my “Way of the Dreamer”
radio show with Dr. Edward Tick, a gifted and compassionate therapist who has
labored for many years to revive the way of Asklepian dream healing. As Ed Tick
noted, the name Asklepios evokes “a tradition
of holistic healing that was prized in the ancient world for two thousand years,
a tradition in which dreams are regarded as epiphanies through which
communication is opened between humans and divine powers.”.
Pilgrims journeyed to more than three
hundred temples of Asklepios around the Mediterranean and (according to recent
archaeology) as far west as Britain. The helpers of Asklepios – the original
therapeuts, or therapists – and his followers looked to dreams for diagnosis, prescription
and an invitation for direct contact with the sacred guide and healer. The
pilgrims traveled in hopes of a big dream
that would be a “showing forth” of the god or one of his family and might, in
itself, deliver healing from complaints that human remedies could not cure.
Ed Tick evokes Asklepios and his way
with passion and eloquence, scholarship and deep familiarity with the ancient
sites. He is the author of an excellent book on the Asklepian tradition, The Practice of Dream Healing and of two
important and profoundly moving books inspired by his work to heal wounded
warriors and bring them home, War and the
Soul and Warrior's Return.
In our conversation, Ed recalled how
the Asklepian tradition was suppressed by the Christian authorities and
disappeared or went underground after the fifth century, to revive, under
extraordinary circumstances, in the aftermath of World War II. A world
catastrophe of that order, Tick suggested, calls forth tremendous archetypal
powers. The return of the god was heralded by a curious incident involving a
company of British troops bivouacked at Epidauros, the site of the most famous
Asklepian temple in the Hellenic world, at the end of the war. As Ed tells it,
soldiers came one by one to their commanding officer to request that the unit
should be moved to another camp site. Why? They told their captain the place
was haunted. They had all seen the same “ghost” – a bearded man carrying a long
staff with a snake wrapped around it.
Asklepios entered modern psychology
in the same period through the dream of a patient of Jung’s student and
colleague C.A. Meier. She gave Meier a one-line dream report. She heard the
words, “The best thing he ever created was Epidauros.” Meier did not recognize
the Greek place name, but he embarked on a search that eventually led him to
write an important work on the ancient practice of dream incubation and dream
healing. As Tick tells it, there was an Asklepian touch in the play of
synchronicity between Jung and Meier. When Jung was reflecting on who
would do most to continue his work as
they walked and talked together by the lake, a snake rose from the water and
slithered between Meier’s legs, which the ancients would certainly have taken
as a numen, a nod of approval from greater powers.
A key principle in Asklepian practice,
as Ed presents it, is that “you do not ask the gods for help until you have run
out of human options.” Another, quite foreign to modern medicine, at least in
the United States, is that “you do not put the patient under financial
pressure.” This mode of healing is open to everyone who is ready to make the
journey to the temple and to dream with the god. “Fees are paid only after
healing, and in proportion to a person’s resources. A slave may give an apple,
an emperor may pay for a new temple or theater.”
The practice of Asklepian healing
begins as a quest. You go on a pilgrimage, when you have failed to find other
remedies for what ails you. You travel to a holistic center. You pray. You are
shown images of the gods, and evidence of what happened before”. You see hundreds,
maybe thousands of votive offerings and inscriptions depicting healings that
have taken place. This stirs up the psyche, fires the imagination, primes you
for a big experience in the sacred night. The temple helpers will ask you about
your dreams, looking for a dream of invitation, noting when the caliber of your
dreams indicates that you are not ready for the big experience.
Quoting the ancient documents, Ed
recounts the case of a rich man who was denied entry to the abaton – the place of encounter with the
god in the sacred night – because his dreams suggested that his character was
so defective that he was unready and unworthy. He was told he must dedicate
himself to the care of the sick and the poor, even of lepers, for a year before
he could return to try again.
Pilgrims hoped for night visitations
from figures resembling the statues and paintings they had been shown – from Asklepios,
or one of his three daughters, or one of his animal familiars. “Collective
images will help produce archetypal dreams,” Ed observes. A visitation of this
kind could deliver full healing in a single night. The ancient testimonies include
the account of a soldier who came to the temple with an arrow embedded in his
body that could not be extracted by surgery. In his night vision, Asklepios
himself deftly removed the arrow. In the morning, the soldier was fully healed,
the arrow extracted.
Such experiences must be honored.
Dreams require action. As Ed Tick puts it, “once you have the dream you have to
bring it into the world.” This sometimes meant taking actions that would seem
crazy to most people and certainly most doctors. We discussed the case of
Aelius Aristides, a famous orator who turned to Asklepios many times for
guidance and healing. When he was in the grip of a raging fever, he was ordered
by the god in a dream to obtain a horse and ride to an icy river and plunge in –
which he proceeded to do.
Contact with animals and animal
spirits is a vital part of this tradition. The snake is a primary healing ally
of Asklepios. There were snake pits in the Asklepian sanctuaries, and seekers
of big dreams often had to brave up to serpents (non-venomous, but still scary
for many) slithering over them in the night. In the testimonies, healing was
often delivered by the experience of a snake licking or biting or coiling round
an afflicted part of the body. Ed talked about how he experimented with a
modern reenactment of this by inviting a woman snake dancer to bring some of
her serpents to one of his retreats. He was fascinated by how the snakes
behaved differently with different persons, sometimes as if they understood
where someone was experiencing a problem. The same snake would coil on the head
of one person, and wrap around the belly of someone with intestinal complaints.
The dog, the second Asklepian animal
ally, is the guide of souls and guardian of passage to the Underworld in many
traditions, the friendliest of animals to man, and a primary “bridge to nature”
in many lives, ancient and contemporary. As we discussed the dog of Asklepios,
my mind flew to an experience I had when I attended a workshop with Ed in the
Bahamas when we were co-presenters at a conference there last January.
Ed had described how the philosopher
Proclus received relief for his gout after he invoked Asklepios. When he was sitting with his leg up, swathed in
bandages, a sparrow landed on his foot and proceeded to
strip away the bandages. His gout was gone. I was keenly interested, since I
suffer from occasional flare-ups of gout, and my left foot was feeling very
sore that day.
Ed gave us a short meditation – to go to a
place in the body where we felt aches or pains, and ask any of the divine
figures mentioned in the Asklepios story (including his animal triad of snake,
dog and cock) for healing. I went to my aching left foot. I tried to visualize
Proclus’ sparrow. Instead, a beloved black dog who shared my life and often
appears in my dreams, leaped on me, licking my toes, rubbing joyfully against
my body, licking my face. This was all but physical. I saw again the great
craters made by that big dog’s paws as we walked on a Sag Harbor beach in
winter. My heart swelled to bursting with love. Dogs love you no matter what,
and they may be healing gods in disguise.
The rooster, or cock, is the third
Asklepian animal familiar, the animal of sacrifice – and also the liminal creature
that heralds the transition from night to day, from sleep to waking. The famous
last words of Socrates after he drained the hemlock were, “Crito, we owe a cock
to Asklepios”, reminding us that the most famous voice of Greek philosophy was
also deeply immersed in the Asklepian way.
We need this practice today, in our
lives and our world. Ed and I discussed how to apply the key elements of
Asklepian practice, both at special places and healing centers, in small groups
and in our individual lives. Ed gently insisted that gentleness is a primary requirement. Though the derivation of the name "Asklepios" is disputed, Robert Graves suggested that it means "unceasingly gentle."
I proposed that a vital principle from the Asklepian way to be applied in our lives today is that help from greater powers is always available, and that we want to
remember to ask nicely. I quoted
Aelius Aristides, the ancient orator who asked for healing by speaking to his
god along the following lines: “I ask for the measure for the measure of health
my body requires to serve the purposes of the soul.”
Ed reciprocated by reciting for us
lines from the Homeric Hymn to Asklepios:
Great to humanity, soother of cruel suffering…
You are welcomed, Master. By this song I beseech you.
My conversation with Ed Tick on my radio show can be downloaded from the Way of the Dreamer archive. Ed's website is Soldier's Heart.
I highly recommend the following books by Edward Tick Ph.D.: The Practice of Dream Healing, War and the Soul and Warrior's Return: Restoring the Soul After War