You have earned right of entry to the abaton, the “forbidden dormitory” of the sacred healer, by following the path described in the previous article.
Your bed for the night, in the womblike space of the darkened chamber, is an animal skin. A lambskin is always acceptable, and comfortable, but you may need to lie on the skin of animal that has shared your dreaming or your life odyssey in a deeper way. You may even lie on the skin of a lion, though if you presume to do that you must be ready to face the trials of Herakles, who had to earn his lion skin.
As you enter deeper into the night, you’ll want to add your own statement of intention to the ritual formulas. Aelius Aristides, who walked very close to the gods of healing, addressed Asklepios like this: “You in your kindness and love of man, relieve me of my disease and grant me the health that is required for the body to serve the purposes of the soul.” Now that is a creative way to invite the benign intervention of a god of healing!
From the viewpoint of a god, or angel, a human who asks for help to serve “the purposes of the soul” must be rather more interesting than one who is just ringing the changes on “Gimme” (as in: “heal my liver” or “cure my baldness” – something people actually wished for at Epidauros). However, Aelius Aristides, as a gentleman of late antiquity, could not resist slipping in a further wish: “And grant me a life lived with ease.”
What happens in the temple of dream healing, in the sacred night? We learn from the testimonies that survive from the ancient temples of Asklepios.
In a dream vision, a man infested with lice encountered the god, who stripped him naked, stood him up straight, and cleansed him with vigorous scrubbing with a broom. In the morning, the vermin were gone. A man with chronic headaches was also made to stand up straight and adopt an athlete’s stance.
“Get up!” the god ordered a man named Hermodikos who was “paralyzed of body”. He was instructed to pick up something heavier than a sleeping mat: he was to fetch the biggest stone he can find and place it in front of the abaton.
There is no more gripping account of the experience of meeting the healing god than in Aelius Aristides’ Sacred Tales: “I seemed almost to touch him. Halfway between sleep and waking, I perceived that he was there in person; one was between sleep and waking. I wanted to open one’s eyes but I was anxious that he might leave. I listened and heard things, sometimes as in a dream, sometimes as in waking vision. My hair stood on end, and I wept tears of joy, and the weight of knowledge was no burden.” Who can put this experience into words? Not even Aristides, who prided himself on being one of the foremost rhetoricians of his day. “Only if you have been through it can you know and understand.”
That night, the god of Aelius Aristides gave him an unlikely prescription. Though he was weak and frail, wracked by a host of maladies – and though it was a very cold January – he should go and bathe in an icy river. It seems the remedy worked.
We will open the Temple of Dream Healing at a lovely private retreat center near Seattle from July 16-20. Then we will join in even deeper experiences of Asklepian healing at a beautiful site on the Aegean coast of Turkey from September 28-October 2.