Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Practice of Dream Healing: Bringing Ancient Greek Mysteries into Modern Medicine

Book Review: The Practice of Dream Healing: Bringing Ancient Greek Mysteries into Modern Medicine  by Edward Tick, Ph.D.    ( Quest Books 2001)

This was an awesome and meaningful book from several different angles. The subject of the book is the great healing tradition of Asklepios – the Ancient Greek god of healing and medicine. The author is a psychotherapist and he traces the beginnings of psychotherapy to this tradition. Asklepios was one of the most popular of the Greek hero-gods with hundreds of temples and healing chambers – yet he is hardly known these days.

In the Asklepian tradition lie the roots of western medicine and psychology. Hippocrates and Galen were part of it. The tradition was active for nearly 2000 yrs – from around 1300 BC to around 600 CE. The name Asklepios means, “unceasingly gentle” and echoes the great love the ancients had for this kind hero-god. He was the son of Apollo and the mortal woman Koronis. After Apollo impregnated her she fell in love and married a mortal man. One of Apollo’s sacred animals, the crow reported this to him, after which in a fit of anger he blackened the formerly white crow. He then bid Artemis to kill the woman with her golden arrows. After this he felt remorse and pulled the child from the dead mother’s womb on the funeral pyre and sent him to the kentaur (centaur) Chiron to be brought up. The wild horse-man Chiron taught Asklepios all manner of healing with herbs, healing waters, and incantations. He also derived healing gifts from Apollo and Athena. His fame and skill in healing grew. When he was able to raise a man from the dead he was slain by Zeus with a thunderbolt. After this he was elevated to Olympian status as the god of healing, probably due to his popularity among humans.

The author examines Asklepios’s mythic persona as a healer and a savior. He may have been specifically and strongly suppressed by the early Christians since he was a rival as savoir and healer. Animal totems of Asklepios are the dog, the serpent, and the cock. Dreaming of these animals or otherwise encountering them was considered an encounter with Asklepios, particularly when partaking in a healing regimen. Dogs are considered guides to the otherworld in several cultures and were sometimes sacrificed to the dead. The cock was the typical sacrifice to Asklepios and was only sacrificed to him. This may have had something to do with the rooster’s call at dawn awakening us from the dream state. The serpent was the foremost totem/symbol of Asklepian healing. Asklepios is depicted with a long staff about which a long serpent is wrapped. This was likely the original medical symbol before the caduceus, or the double-serpent wand of Hermes, was probably accidentally mixed up with the longer staff of Asklepios. The serpent may represent many things in relation to healing. One is likely the homeopathic principle that poison in small amounts may act as medicine. Priests and priestesses of the chthonic earth-goddess cults were thought to have taken small amounts of serpent venom in order to become immune to being bit so that they can work with the poisonous snakes all the more. Snake venom was also a small component of medicines.       

Regimens for Asklepian healing included dietary changes, fasting, exercise, ritual bathing, rest from duties, and contemplation of tragedy. Great theatres were built near Asklepian shrines where the tragedies were performed. Apparently this is still done at Epidauros, the most famous Asklepian shrine. After these regimens, the patient would enter the abaton, or dream chamber, in order to seek a dream of Asklepios, that would indicate the method of healing, or how best to deal with the illness or affliction. The idea is to return to the unconscious in order to find the source of the source of the affliction and to know whether it is truly healable or not. The physician-priests of the Asklepian healing chambers were considered guides, and assistants of the god himself. The healing was done by the patient in combination with the god. The inter-relationships of dream, myth, and ritual in the human psyche are emphasized in Asklepian healing. The healing complex may have functioned more like a resort or health spa than a hospital. The notion in Asklepian healing was not merely to treat symptoms but to discover the deeper roots of illness in the soul and to find the best course of action, whether that be total recovery or acceptance of the situation.

The author is a psychotherapist. He has worked extensively with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) as well as with people suffering from terminal illnesses and debilitating injuries. He has found success in utilizing myth, ritual, pilgrimage, and dream healing into his treatment programs.

The next several sections of the book trace Asklepian history as well as the author’s modern pilgrimages to the ruins of Asklepian healing complexes in Greece, islands in the Aegean, and in Western Turkey (Anatolia). Patients and others often traveled with the author and dream healing ritual practices were concocted in or near Asklepian complexes. Some interesting and remarkable occurrences were noted.

The traditional birthplace of Asklepios was at Trikka in Thessaly in central Greece. One legend is that he was half-god and half-human, being the son of Apollo and Koronis. Another is that he was born a prince in Thessaly and became noted as a healer. The third was that he was one of the chthonioi, or spirits, coming from within the Earth. These three themes are woven into his mythic history. In any case, he was known in 1300 BC in this area of Greece and there at Trikka became associated with healing. Asklepian dream practices typically took place in caves and crevices built into the earth to link to the god’s chthonic nature and his association with serpents who tend to inhabit such fissures. Asklepian shrines were often within or associated with the Temples of Apollo and one would be expected to honor and make sacrifice to Apollo before approaching Asklepios. The most famous Greek shrine to Asklepios was at Epidauros in the Argos peninsula of Southern Greece. Some legends say that he was born there and that his tomb is there. In any case it was arguably the largest and most famous of Asklepian healing complexes. At Epidauros the three daughters of Asklepios were also venerated. These are Hygieia, Panaceia, and Iaso – meaning Health, All-Curing, and Healer. Hygieia was the most famous, having a cult of her own. They are often depicted with their father in statuary. Asklepios himself is often depicted as a kindly bearded and robed Greek man with his long serpent-entwined staff. Hygieia and Panaceia were known before Epiodauros as titles of the Earth Mother goddess Rhea Koronis. They were the two breasts of the healing mother, giving the milk of kindness and healing. The author and his group next traveled to Korinth where they visited the Asklepion there and then to Troizen. These healing temples began in the 400’s BC. In Korinth there is a Greek Orthodox church near the Asklepion and the locals know the history and legends but at Troizen it is more or less abandoned. Next he goes to Athens and Kos, interweaving tales of Asklepian healings with Ancient Greek history. Hippokrates, famed as the father of medicine, lived and practiced at the Asklepian healing sanctuary at Kos. Although he was known as the bringer of medicine into the scientific realm he also had great confidence in the Asklepian method of sacred medicine. The author brings out some interesting ideas about the inter-weaving of scientific and sacred medicine and how healing can be enhanced when these two modes become complementary. The scientific observations made at Asklepions undoubtably led to the formulation of modern western medicine but also to modern psychology and psycho-therapy. Many case studies were documented at the healing temples but also many healings involving dreams, personal myth, and the miraculous. The return of the sacred component or the mythic component to medicine may have a great future in our modern world as we seek to bring the patient to discovery of his own destiny and sanity as well as to heal outward symptoms. The fault of modern allopathic medicine is that it tends to ignore the very real psychosomatic component of disease that has a tendency to defy the scientific method. Myth, dream, and ritual work more with psychosomatic energy than the physical.

Next we come to the installing of Asklepios, now Aesculapius, into the Roman pantheon around 291 BC when he was brought in as a god healer to deal with a plague. The legend was of Asklepios boarding a great ship in his serpent form and coming to Rome where he ended up on a great island in the Tiber River. The Asklepion was made to look like a great ship. This ritual establishment of the god may have helped in the healing of the plague as Aesculapius was accepted as the healing archetype. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius who reigned from 161-180 CE was a great devotee of Aesculapius. He and many others noted various pharmacological dreams where the proper medicines and combinations of medicines were given in dreams. Earlier in the Greek temples the dreams were noted to be more an interaction with the god or his totems where one was touched and healed. As the author notes, this change in dream styles may possibly reflect the growing prominence of the more scientific healing principles as the effects of more and more medicines became better documented. In the first few centuries CE the harmonization of the sacred and the scientific was taking place more and more. This basically ended when Christianity came and wiped out the rival savior-healer Asklepios, although in a few cases the subsequent Christians continued in some sense some of the local healing traditions with a Christian twist. At Pergamum on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean in Turkey, then part of the Roman Empire from 150-175 CE lived the physician known as Galen. He continued the mixing of the scientific and the sacred, documenting many case histories and noting connections of the psychological and the medical that are well-known today. He is often known as the father of psychotherapy and psychiatry. Here also there was a temple to Telesphoros, a mysterious figure known as a son of Asklepios. He is seen, often in dreams, as the nocturnal hooded dwarf assistant to the healing god. Galen was known for his deep scientific insight into medicine and psychology and left many written works. Aelius Aristides was another famous personage at Pergamum. He was originally an orator but due to afflictions he found his way to the healing center there and remained using his communication skills to write poems, odes, and paeans to the healing gods and their festivals. He also documented some of the healing practices such as fasting, bathing, cleansing, dunking, vomiting, and drinking. He mentions pharmacological dreams and dream surgery. There was also a practice of surrogate healing where someone would go into the abaton to seek dream healing on behalf of someone else. Religious cures could be paradoxical, sometimes being interpreted by priests in the manner of interpreting oracles.

When Christianity gained power the Asklepian healing centers were gradually destroyed.  Aklepios was then deemed a great deceiver. The author notes some features of Christianity that made it more popular. For one it offered personal immortality, an eternal home with the divine, rather than mere communion with the gods. “And it offered a simple path, free of intellectualism and effort. As Paul said to the Korinthians, “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom.” Christianity required only prayer, faith, and surrender. The poor and oppressed found this new faith attractive and flocked to it, slowly at first, then in droves.” Another interesting observation is that the pagan religions were tight with the Roman Empire – allegiance to the gods was allegiance to the Empire. Early Christians considered their allegiance to the future kingdom of God to be their primary and only loyalty. However, part of Church doctrine did acknowledge the healing powers of dreams and some aspects of Asklepios were given to Christ and so some of the local traditions continued on in a new form.

The rest of the book is devoted to modern forms of Asklepian dream healing. In the mountains of Krete near an Asklepian healing center they find a priest who restored a monastery built in 1000 CE where he is devoted to a miraculous healing tradition devoted to St Nicholas.

There is a discussion of dream healing and the use of imagery and myth in psychology. The Asklepian methods usually involved a period of preparation to make one more open to an encounter with the god in dream. “The altered state of consciousness engendered by Asklepian purification and preparation rituals changes our body chemistry, disrupts our sense of time and space, and shifts our understanding of who we are and how the universe is organized. This shift allows us to approach the divine powers open, undefended, and vulnerable. In other words, purification entails surrendering our usual ego boundaries. During the ritual, these boundaries will be realigned into a new pattern that better serves our overall health and functioning.” The author classes Asklepian method as – radical ritual – with which he includes such things as vision quests, sweat lodges, ecstatic dancing, sacred chanting, prolonged meditation, deep wilderness excursions, pilgrimages, and extreme athletic challenges. These are often oriented towards personal transformation. He notes that Freud discovered the personal nature of dreams and Jung discovered the transpersonal nature of dreams. Having an encounter with the Soul Doctor Asklepios in dream gives one a personal experience with a deity or an archetypal image-energy. The Asklepian method was used by Jung’s main disciple C. A. Meier. It has been used by psychologist Jean Houston and Gay Luce in Jean’s Mystery Schools. Stephen Larson, a psychotherapist and author also practices this healing mode.

The author gives the following – key elements of an Asklepian healing:

a call to relinquish the old self through radical ritual

a sense of having reached the limits of scientific healing and a desire to seek further healing through nonrational means

the willingness to sacrifice and surrender

beckoning dreams that announce that dreamer and cosmos are aligned

visits from animal representatives of divine powers

a descent into the underworld where dream work occurs

the sense of grappling with hidden forces revealed through the descent

the realignment of the body/mind into a new depth organization

the rebirth of a new unified, integrated, and aligned self

immersion in a community that supports the unfolding of radical ritual

Many examples are given of the experiences of the author and members of his pilgrimage groups. There are people seeking healing from grief, PTSD, and debilitating illnesses. Some situations are stabilized through dreams and others through the group experiences. The idea is that of a healing quest, a mythic journey in search of healing the soul. Sometimes meaningful dreams came during the dream incubations but at other times they came before or after. Sometimes the meanings of previous dreams were understood. Immersing oneself in the tradition through the pilgrimage was certainly a factor as well. Some life-changing effects were seen in the examples. The idea of catharsis and bringing it about is talked about in the book. Digging deep down in the manner of a crisis and finding the suppressed emotional pain and dealing with it first by merely accepting it as part of one’s experience is suggested as a beginning.

All in all, this is a great book, with vast implications for healing. Even if one is not suffering some great ill or trauma, the quest for meaningful dreams regarding one’s choices or destiny can be beneficial. To focus sincerely on these choices through dream questing can even be considered a spiritual practice. We dream meaningful dreams when we need to, but through dream practices we can better recall them and develop our own ways of cataloging and interpreting them. I would most highly recommend this book to anyone in the medical, healing, and/or psychological professions.

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