The Ancient Healing Practice Of Dream Incubation

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Dream Incubation is an ancient practice dating all the way back to the Sumerians in Mesopotamia over 6000 years ago. It was practiced by cultures all over the world to receive wisdom, answers, prophecy, guidance & healing.

The ancient practice of Dream Incubation which cultures all over the world practiced to receive wisdom, answers, prophecy, guidance & healing.

What is Dream Incubation?

Dream Incubation is an intentional ritual which creates a space during sleep for heightened receptivity to energies from outside the usual sphere of waking awareness. It involves the mind, body and soul as it’s not just the conscious intention that is required, but also a change in the dreamer’s physical sleeping conditions, a reorientation of the body and soul.

How was Dream Incubation done?

It was said, to have an extraordinary dream, you should sleep in an extraordinary place. A place where the powers and energies of whatever the dreamer holds sacred are concentrated, such as a cave, temple, mountain, desert or graveyard. The underlying logic of dream incubation always involved a dramatic shift away from the dreamer’s normal sleeping conditions.

When combined with additional activities such as fasting, purification and chanting, the mind-altering and dream simulating effects of these rituals become even more effective.

Dream Incubation was Practiced Worldwide

As I mentioned earlier, Dream Incubation was a wide spread ancient practice. It wasn’t just the Ancient Greeks and Romans; Dream Incubation practices and stories can be found in the historical and religious texts of Buddhism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. As well as in ancient Pagan, Animist and Indigenous practices all over the world from the Mayans, Celts, Scandinavians, and Africans, to the Australian Aboriginals, Māori and Pacific Islanders. All with varying methods and their own cultural ritualistic activities, but all with the same end goal, to induce divine dreams to receive answers, guidance, prophecy and healing. All over the world, all throughout history. Dreaming is just as natural to humans as breathing is after all.

Temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus, the most famous centre of Dream Incubation.
The ruins of The Temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus, the most famous centre of Dream Incubation.

Dream Incubation Amongst the Graeco-Romans

Lets head to the Graeco-Roman era where for many centuries, thousands upon thousands of ancient people travelled from far and wide to sleep in the temples of Asclepius in the hopes to receive a divine dream.

The benefits of Dream Incubation these ancient people received, were answers, guidance, prophecy, wisdom; as well as healing; healing of illnesses, injuries, mental illness and psychosomatic maladies that we as humans suffer during the natural course of our lives. It’s no wonder why people have practiced Dream Incubation in so many different cultures and historical eras.

the Graeco-Roman dream incubation process

We have a good idea of the kinds of ritual activities that occurred in the Asclepius temples as there are many sources of information covering many centuries. Even a few of the temples are still standing today. We know that non-poisonous snakes roamed the temple grounds freely and dreamer’s spent their days bathing, praying and cleansing themselves and their minds of ordinary concerns.

At night, the dreamer’s slept on a kline (“clinic”, a ritual bed) in the inner sanctum of the temple. When they awoke, they would tell the priests of the temple about their dreams. The priests would interpret and explain the information the dreamer had received in their dream.

how science views dream incubation

From a scientific point of view, temples such as the Asclepius Temples can be seen as centres for generating a dream-mediated placebo effect using the combination of intense personal desire, ritually consecrated space, and repeated external encouragement to induce vivid and memorable dreams that would plausibly have the effect of stimulating whatever autonomous healing systems are at work in the human body.

Science may not believe that the priests fully understood the physiology of those self-healing systems, but neither do the medical doctors of today. Nevertheless, the priests and all dream incubating practitioners in the ancient world were experts in the practical methods of activating divine dreams and in putting them to highly effective therapeutic use.

The Staff of Asclepius symbol
The Staff of Asclepius symbol

Asclepius is the Ancient Greek God associated with healing and medicine. His symbol, the Rod of Asclepius, which consists of a physician’s staff with a snake wrapped around it, is still used today as the symbol of the modern medical profession.

If you’re interested in delving further into the ancient global history of Dream Incubation, I highly suggest grabbing yourself a copy of Kelly Bulkeley’s book, ‘Dreaming in the World’s Religions’.

The ancient practice of Dream Incubation which cultures all over the world practiced to receive wisdom, answers, prophecy, guidance & healing.

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  1. Thank you for this beautiful and highly informative post, Bethany. In my culture people who were searching for answers would go to cemeteries or “pogosts” (as cemeteries are called in my native language) and slept there. They would bring ritualistic gifts for the ancestors, ask them for guidance and spend the night in the vicinity of the cemetery, by the trees.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it and thank you for sharing your information on the subject! That’s super interesting! I find it absolutely fascinating how widespread this type of practice is, and yet, not all that surprising considering every human that’s ever lived dreams.

  2. This is absolutely fascinating Bethany! I just discovered your blog and will be looking forward to your future wisdom. Thank you so much for posting. Xx

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