Oneiric Incubation: Past and Present


Incubation comes from the Latin word incubare, which means “lying on”. Originally an incubation meant sleeping in a specific place in order to obtain a revealing dream. It was both a religious and medical practice, which occurred in the Asclepeions, the sanctuaries dedicated to the deity of medicine Asclepius, Apollo’s son.

The Asclepeions represent the first clinics which appeared in our civilization, and the dream seems to have been the first therapy, both medical and psychological, in our culture. As a matter of fact, the modern word “clinic” comes from the klinč, the place where the initiates lay in order to obtain transcendent dreams.

The rite of incubation was elaborate. It started with the pilgrimage to the temple, and proceeded with acts of purification, such as fasts and bathings. The culminant moment was the dream: Asclepius himself appeared to the dreamer and healed the ill or prescribed the right therapy for him. Asclepius’ symbol was the snake twisted around the caduceus which is still found at the entrance of clinics and pharmacies today. Under Asclepius’ guidance, the dreamer was regenerated much like a snake renews its skin.

The presentation will provide an overview of incubation rites practiced in the Mediterranean basin, then demonstrate the continuity between the customs of incubation in the ancient Greek world and modern practices such as the holy incubation in Northern Africa on the one hand, and, on the other, psychoanalysis and psychotherapies in the Western world. This continuity stresses the intercultural value of dream and its role as a means of exchange among different civilizations and as a factor of cultural growth.

In both ancient and modern dream therapies, oneiric imagination is a means of recovery and regeneration, a way to contact the deepest parts of the self and to integrate them. In contrast with the main course of modern medicine, in the ancient cult of Asclepius and in current psychotherapies, healing is not simply the disappearance and curing of the symptoms, but involves a radical transformation of the personality and a superior integration of the self, and both dream and imagination play a central role in this process. The act of lying in a protected place, which was the core of ancient incubation, is revived on the analyst’s couch. Another connection between ancient and modern cults of the psyche can be found in the relationship with a therapist who receives the dream and works on it with the dreamer. Finally, the ex voto that the dreamers offered to Asclepius after having been recovered can be compared to the remuneration due to the therapist. Following Meier’s Dreams as therapy, the presentation will trace a parallel between ancient dream therapy and modern psychotherapy.

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Luisa De Paula