Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Return of Asklepios: reclaiming ancient arts of dream healing

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 centaur.
    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


Knocker said...

I'll get the book!

My healing occurred in a dream of what appeared to be a hospital room from the turn of the. Century. A friend was talking with me when she suddenly indicated we should lie down. As we did, I found what felt like human arms lift me up. As my consciousness pulled away to view the scene from another angle, I realized robotic arms, attached to a robot that seemed to come from the early sci-fi films, held me wrapped in a white shroud and I began to become enshrouded in bright white electrical light. I began to sizzle!

The sizzling and light became so intense that I could no longer see my shrouded body, but I began to feel so wonderful and well that I uttered, "Oh!" I promptly woke up having felt I'd awakened too soon. Sure enough, a month later, I was found to have only one diverticuli rather than three. My doctor fired me after checking CT scans which proved I'd had three. He didn't even want to talk about what had happened.

I've been a bit disappointed that I could find no symbolism to relate to the dream other than the love of my friend who accompanied me in the dream. But as other problems cropped up around an incomplete healing, a dream character I could not see told me the rest of the healing would come about after hard work in my waking state. I accepted that and am fine today.

I don't think I could have had the healing dream without having read and practiced methods in your books, however. I'm so grateful, even though I'm confused about events having been rather like a Twilight Zone episode.

Robert Moss said...

Thanks for sharing this powerful experience. It occurs to me that what you saw as an "early sci-fi robot" covering you with light might have been very similar to visions of Asklepios in the ancient healing temples, where he was often perceived as an animated gold statue. The test of these things is always in the results, and I am happy that this big experience delivered for you. I should add that in addition to Ed Tick's excellent work, I have written about the Asklepian experience in two of my own books, "Dreamgates" and "The Secret History of Dreaming".

matthewm said...

I've been following you from afar - and benefitting from your teachings Mr. Moss. And I was very pleased to find out about your radio show. I look forward to listening to it .. I hope it is as informative, enlightening, and, -in its own way- challenging as the online course on dreaming you offered last summer. many thanks for this !

Knocker said...

Thank you! I have both books you mention and loved them. The Three Only Things is the most dog eared though. It opened my eyes to the magic of creation through dreaming, something no one had ever shared until I read your books. It's one of my favorite gifts to friends today.

Soda Dreamer 49 said...
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Robert Moss said...

Dear Soda Dreamer

Thanks so much for sharing your profound experience. And for the link. I agree with the author of that paper that though Hygeia is usually described as the daughter of Asklepios, the dynamic between them, confirmed by images like the 5th century BCE relief from Salonika, is much more that of consorts, uniting male and female, Nature and Culture.