Archaeologists found an amazing story engraved on a stone tablet at the temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus in Greece. It described how Ithmonike of Pellene came to the temple to ask for offspring. She fell asleep and dreamt she saw the god, who promised she would become pregnant. When he asked if there was anything else she wanted, she said “no.” After leaving the temple she soon fell pregnant, but her pregnancy lasted three years. Finally she returned to the temple to dream again. Asclepius explained that he had given her what she had requested, but she had asked for nothing more. Now he would grant her new wish, Ithmonike gave birth as soon as she left the temple.
The Epidaurus tablet listed many other miraculous healings attributed to Asclepius, god of medicine. His cures were given in dreams, by a process called “incubation.” In this, the sick person slept in the temple precincts after offering sacrifices and performing rites invoking the god. As at other dream temples, petitioners drank from or bathed in the temple’s sacred spring. Then, their unconscious minds full of expectation, Asclepius appeared to them in their dreams.
Cures were of two main types. Either Asclepius miraculously healed the patient, perhaps appearing to operate during the dream, or he recommended a course of treatment. A team of priestly doctors, or therapeutais, were on hand to interpret the god’s instructions and oversee the treatment that followed. People suffering from lameness, blindness, insanity and nervous diseases were among those most likely to come seeking cures.
Epidaurus was the most celebrated of a number of temples dedicated to Asclepius in the Greek world. At temples sacred to other gods, the incubation process produced answers to questions, rather than cures. The shrine of Amphiaraus, a well-known seer, was at Oropos. During the siege of Thebes, he was said to have driven his chariot straight into the underworld while still alive. The procedure at Oropos was to drink from the sacred spring, and then sacrifice a ram and skin it. The questioner slept wrapped in the animal’s skin and awaited a response. He might hear a spoken answer in his sleep, or receive a normal dream – either way, interpreters at the temple helped him to understand the answer.
Trophonius, who reputedly built the oracular temple of Apollo at Delphi, was also believed to have been taken alive into the underworld. Because sleep was regarded as a halfway stage between life and death, it was thought that those who were still alive in the world of the dead were especially able to send oracular dreams. Trophonius had an oracle at Lebedea, where the questioner slept in a cave, but what happened there is not clear, and the cave has never been found.
Ordinary dreams could also be prophetic, but they were not always to be trusted. According to Homer’s Odyssey, written in the eighth century BC, dreams dwelt in the far west, near the sunset and the kingdom of the dead. From there they spread out over the earth, the deceptive dreams leaving through a gate of ivory, the true ones through a gate of horn.
Philosophers were more concerned with the mechanics of dreams than with their meanings. Democritus (c. 460-370 BC) believed that dreams were spectral images that penetrated the body through the pores. The Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century BC) was the first to explain dreams as daytime worries carried over into the night. But both Democritus and Herodotus thought some dreams were sent by the gods. Cicero, writing in Rome in the first century BC, thought dream divination was totally unreliable.
Yet books of dream interpretation were used to help dreamers understand. The most famous, written in the second century AD by Artemidorus, is the forerunner of today’s dream books. Among hundreds of dreams interpreted, we hear that to dream of a chef in your house is good if you want to marry, because you need a chef for a wedding. But a dream of a descent into the underworld means you will lose all your money.