Healing shrines and incubation in Asclepian cult

Someone recently mentionned how cool it’d be to bring back sleeping in temples for healing purposes, which created a “hell yeah, let’s talk about incubation” reaction in me. So yeah, let’s talk about incubation as a practice. However, as always with topics that are linked to health and healthcare, I feel a disclaimer is needed: The Ancients’ practice and knowledge of medecine is very different from ours. Their understanding of anatomy, ailments and medical practice also happens to be very different from ours and needs to be considered within its original context. If you suffer from an illness and are medicated, I do not condone nor recommend that you stop modern treatment to substitute it with a religious or magical practice. Any change should be first discussed with your physician or therapist. Let’s start, shall we?

What is incubation?
There has been much debate about the definition of incubation. For the sake of clarity, this post will be using the general definition of “ritual sleep in a sanctuary in order to obtain a dream, mostly for healing” coined by Fritz Graf. Just keep in mind this definition is flexible depending on period, geographical area and context. The focus in this definition I chose, though, is on “mostly for healing”, which explains why incubation is a practice mostly seen in parallel with the worship of Asclepius (though it is not exclusive to his cult), and what I will be focusing on today.

Incubation in practice
Let me start by saying that incubation is a specific ritual that, while being attested as soon as the Archaic period, might not have been available in every Asclepeion. There is evidence of incubation rooms for only about a dozen of Asclepieia. However, since there is no single structure for incubation spaces, it is still likely that there were more sanctuaries performing this service.

The general rule to incubate would be that the supplicant would need to start with a purification of themselves, followed by a sacrifice and a votive. However, each sanctuary would have its own sets of rules. As such, in Perganum, one was to abstain from sex for three days before entering the sanctuary. Similarly, in the nearby sanctuary of Yüntdağ, it was advised that one should not have been recent in contact with a woman who had given birth recently, a newborn or a deceased person.

On a side note, there has been much debate recentely amongst worshippers concerning purification and Asclepius, and I find it interesting to note that the worry seemed to have been more about the pollution of the sanctuary, as a holy place, rather than the pollution of an individual towards the god.

Incubation and medical procedures
As mentioned above, the aim of the incubation ritual is to get a dream. That is, incubation is not meant to give you a miraculous healing overnight, it is meant to get advice or instructions on how to proceed to heal. The interpretation of the dreams thus was an important part of the work of the temple wardens present on the sanctuary.

I will be using the example of Perganum in Asia Minor, as it became by late Antiquity the most important Asclepieion of the Ancient World. Patients came from all over Asia Minor and beyond to stay at the temple. This popularity has also attracted physicians and led them to work alongside the priests. Ancient physicians had no problem considering the mantic value of the dreams induced by incubation. Both priest and physician in the temple share a common professional language and a shared authority when it came to interpreting the dreams and translating them into medical care.

This might be surprising from a modern point of view, but makes sense when considering the closeness between the god and applied medical practice. Asclepius is not a passive god, he is a physician-god who practices his craft. As such, he is described as performing various medical and surgical acts in Ancient sources. For an ancient physician, the intervention and advice given by the god in a dream is valuable information from a divine fellow physician who also follows the standards of empyrical medicine.

The practice of incubation is one of those practices where the Ancients showed agility between mystic revelations and scientific methodology.

Further reading:

Michaelides D., Medecine and Healing in the Ancient Mediterranean World, 2014
Van der Ploeg G., The Impact of the Roman Empire on the cult of Asclepius, 2018
Panagiotidou O., Religious healing and the Asclepius Cult: A case of placebo effect, 2016


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