Art and the Healing Power of Dreams / by Chris Hall

Bronze head of Morpheus, Greek god of Dreams.

Bronze head of Morpheus, Greek god of Dreams.

“Physician, heal yourself:  thus you will heal your patient too.”  Friedrich Nietzsche.

“It is only by retaining and enhancing the original power of the image that the artist can take back his or her role as a redeemer and healer of the psyche from the theologian.”  Ann McCoy.

Many modern and (some) contemporary artists are aware of the power that dreams can have on healing the psyche.  In the Western culture, however, we have stepped away from dream analysis as a tool for healing, viewing it as irrational nonsense, favoring instead physical medicine, psychiatric drugs.  But dreaming can be more than a reflection of our fears and desires (the domain of Sigmund Freud). Dreaming can be a shamanic technology.  Dreams can be used for healing, guidance, and power — the classic domains of shamanism (championed by Carl Jung).  Jung considers the dream to be a vital and natural expression of the unconscious psychic process, and an X-ray of not only what is going on inside us individually, but also collectively within our culture.  Dreams are made up of a matrix of symbols, and as such, can be deciphered and analyzed.  The West hasn't always eschewed the power of dreams.  The Bible is full of episodes where dreams are used as signs to guide people on a proper course of action., from the psychopomp Joseph who correctly interprets the Pharaoh's dreams, thus avoiding starvation from a future famine, to Saint Joseph, Mary's husband, whose dreams foretold of consequences (the Massacre of the Innocents) if they did not flee with the Christ child to Egypt.  But dreams can do more than predict the future, they can also heal.  The ancient Greeks knew this well.  

Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream.

Joseph interpreting Pharaoh's dream.

In ancient Greek culture, dreams had a special significance.   The Greeks had not one, but three gods responsible for dreaming, and several other accessory gods to help produce the conditions necessary for dream to take place.  First and foremost were the three gods known as the Oneiroi (meaning Dreams).  Morpheus was the god of dreams, specializing in projecting human forms.  It is from his name that we derive the name morphine.  Phobetor was the god of nightmares, who excelled at projecting images of birds, beasts, and serpents.  We get the word phobia, “fear,” from his name.  Phantasos was the god of false dreams and illusions who was an expert at projecting the landscape, and things made of earth, rock, water, or wood.  From Phantasos we get the word phantom.  The father of the Oneiroi was Hypnos, the god of Sleep.  We derive the word hypnosis, meaning “sleep condition,” from the Greeks.  The Roman name for Hypnos is Somnus, from where we derive “somnambulism” (sleep walking) and insomnia (the inability to sleep).  Hypnos' wife, Pasithea, is the goddess of hallucination and relaxation.  Hypnos' twin brother is Thanatos, the god of Death, or the eternal sleep.  Hypnos' parents are Erebus, the god of Darkness, and Nyx, the goddess of Night.  Together they live in a mansion in a cave, where they never see the rising or the setting of the sun.  At the entrance to the cave grows a number of poppies and other hypnotic plants.  Their home doesn't have a door or gate, so that they might not be awakened by a creaking hinge.  The underworld river Lethe, known as the river of forgetfulness, flows through the cave.

Saint Joseph dreaming.

Saint Joseph dreaming.

Jungian psychologist Carl Alfred Meier tells us that “the Greeks, especially in the early period, regarded the dream as something that really happened; for them it was not, as it was in later times and to 'modern man' in particular, an imaginary experience.  The natural consequence of this attitude was that people felt it necessary to create the conditions that caused dreams to happen.”  To induce these dreams, the ancient Greeks would go to one of the thousands of temples dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of Medicine, hoping that their dreams might prescribe a healing course of action for everything from chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, and spiritual malaise.  These healing temples, called Asclepieia, were set in beautiful natural surroundings, often near a cave or a spring (the home of the Oneiroi and the source of Asclepius' healing powers).  

An Asclepius temple in Rome.

An Asclepius temple in Rome.

Asclepius, the god of Medicine, is the son of Apollo.  Asclepius' daughters Hygieia (health and cleanliness), Panacea (universal remedy), Iaso (recuperation from illness), Aceso (healing), and Aglaea (Beauty - yes beauty is important to healing and well-being) helped him in his practice.  The original Hippocratic Oath, used to swear in doctors up to the 1960's, began with the invocation "I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods ..." The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, is still used as a symbol of medicine today.  Apollo (himself known as a healer) carried the baby Asclepius to the centaur Chiron (Sagittarius) who raised him and instructed him in the art of medicine.  It is also said that in return for some kindness shown by Asclepius, a wise snake licked Asclepius' ears clean and also taught him secret healing knowledge  The Greeks believed snakes were sacred beings of wisdom, healing, and resurrection.  Today the non-venomous Mediterranean serpent, the Aesculapian Snake (Zamenis longissimus), is named for the god.  

Asclepius mosaic.

Asclepius mosaic.

Asclepius became so proficient as a healer that he eventually surpassed both Chiron and his father, Apollo.  Ascelpius was even able to raise the dead.  This caused a population boom, which displeased Hades, who had a lack of fresh souls in his kingdom.  Hades complained to his brother, Zeus, and Zeus resorted to killing off Asclepius in order to regain a balance.  After Asclepius' death, Zeus placed his body among the stars as the constellation Ophiuchus the Serpent Holder (acknowledged as the 13th sign in the zodiac).  Some sources, however, state that Zeus later resurrected Asclepius in order to prevent a feud with Apollo, but only on the condition that Asclepius never revive the dead without his approval again.  

Asclepius healing a sick girl.

Asclepius healing a sick girl.

Patients at an Asclepieia would first purify themselves in the gardens outside the temple, often leaving token votive offerings called pinakes.  Many of these pinakes were clay depictions of the body parts to be healed, everything from hands and feet, arms and legs, breasts and genitals, eyes and ears, and heads.  Patients would spend days, sometimes weeks, outside the temple before being let into the inner sanctum, the dream incubation chamber called the abaton.  Many abatons, like the one in the Asclepieia  Epidaurus, were located underground, in a labyrinth, symbolizing the dark and mysterious place where dreams come from, or a journey to the depths of the unconscious.  Here the injured or sick would sleep and pray in the chamber while non-venomous snakes sacred to Asclepius would slither around the temple floor unmolested.  The purpose of the incubation rite was to induce a vivid, ecstatic dream, a mantike atechnos or “artificial mania,” from which a dream interpreter might prescribe a course of action.

Pinakes from an Asclepieia.

Pinakes from an Asclepieia.

Sometimes the process of inducing a mantike atchnos would take days.  To help induce the healing dream, priests and priestesses would employ a number techniques.  First, the beds used in the ritual, called klines, were more like couches than beds, with a stone headrest encouraging the clients to elevate their heads and sleep on their backs.  It is thought by many that this sleep position encourages active dreaming.  Patients were also given powerful soporific drugs, such as opium in order to promote sleep and dreams.  Being underground, in constant total darkness, also disrupts circadian rhythms.  Light sleep, with more awakenings and a longer REM stage is the result, leading to powerful lucid dreaming.  Priests and priestesses would also whisper into the ears of the sleeping in order to facilitate dreaming.  Today we know that dreams can successfully incorporate sounds and suggestions into the dream narrative, as well as smells.  It would seem that the result of all of these techniques, used in combination, produces vivid dreams, if not realistic hypnagogic hallucinations.  

Mosaic of a dreamer at an Asclepieia.

Mosaic of a dreamer at an Asclepieia.

Asclepieia dream incubation chambers must have been powerful places.  These places were designed to produce dreams  providing healing wisdom as well as instant cures - and if we are to believe the boasts of ancient graffiti, they were successful.  Successful cures were also honored with inscriptions on the sanctuary walls, advertisement for future patients.  The Greeks believed that healing is holistic enterprise.  Life vitality comes as a result exercise and proper diet, but also spiritual practice and mindful study.  In the Western culture today, the first two are now the exclusive domain of the physician, while the later (and too often neglected) is a role being filled by theologians and artists.  But as the role of dreams in our life are continually being downplayed in contemporary religious practices, mirroring the advance of scientific rational thought, the mantle should be picked up more by artists.  In this regard, artists ought to be considered professional dreamers and even dream interpreters, like the shamans of old.  Through our art we should hope to not only heal ourselves, but also the world at large.  

"... in dreams we put on the likeness of that more universal, truer, more eternal man dwelling in the darkness of primordial night. There it is still the whole, and the whole is in him, indistinguishable from nature and bare from all egohood. Out of these all-uniting depths arises the dream, be it never so infantile, never so grotesque, never so immoral.”  Carl Jung.