© 2018 Ágnes LENGYEL

2018 — №1 (15)

Key words: dream, Asclepius, Greek sanctuaries, pilgrimage, incubation, thaumaturgy.

Abstract: One of the main characteristics of folk medical procedures without tools is that they are grounded in faith. My study accounts for the role of faith, dream and fantasy in the history of curing. In my schematic review, through my examples, I would like to draw attention to how these procedures have been ever-present from the antiquities to folk medical procedures to the thaumaturgy of the saints, up to the alternative medical approaches and esoteric phenomena of our time.

The figure of the “divine doctor” Asclepius has been present ever since 1500 B. C., the first traceable signs of Greek mythology. The Greek doctors used to revere Asclepius as their forefather and regarded him as the ancestor of the medic race. The method of curing was incubation, preceded by a few days of preparation, fasting and offering of a sacrifice. Asclepius appeared in the dreams of the ailing. The following day, the priests – the asclepiads – deciphered the dream and gave medical concoctions and advice to the ill.

The incubation was a universal practice in the ancient times, including the East – Mesopotamia, the Hittites, the Jewish, Canaan and Egypt. What’s more, we can read in a study that, allegedly, people in the Islamic countries still to this day keep the habit of going on pilgrimages to the tombs of holy people, sheiks and dervishes for a healing sleep.

In Christianity, the Healing Christ is the harbinger of the wonders of the New Testament: not only the healing of the body but, above all, that of the spirit as well. This conception meant and brought on radial novelty, though the cult of Asclepius lived on and the Christ-like features of the deity came into prominence. The custom of “sleeping in a temple” for the sake of healing known from the antiquities subsisted in Christianity as well. The intercession of the Christian saints, thaumaturgy and curing also occurred in dreams and, similarly to the case of the ancient deity, one had to fall into a healing sleep by the tomb of the saints of the church. The study introduces further recent examples related to this.

One of the most typical features in the traditional therapeutic, tool-less treatment is that everything is based on faith.

According to József Megyesi who cures with prayers and Vince Tüdő Engi who has gotten remedial strength from Virgin Mary, it was necessary to have faith in order to recover from diseases (Koltay 1994: 54, Molnár 2002, Vajkai 1938, Gryneaus 1974). The way that leads to full recovery is traditional practice of prayer, atonement, fasting and pilgrimage.

In this study, I would like to give a review of what the faith, dream and fantasy mean in the history of healing. In this schematic summary I would also like to attract attention to the fact that these methods – through the traditional folk healing methods and the good deeds of the saints – can be found in today’s alternative therapy and esoteric phenomenon. In this short essay I can only offer a handful of examples as a matter of course.

The figure of the “god-like healer” Asclepius has been around since the beginning of the first demonstrable sign of the existence of Greek mythology, ca 1500 B.C. The Homeric and Hesiodic poetry from ca 600B.C. is the heyday of the oldest sources of Asclepius and his family. The story of “Cures of Apollo and Asclepius” and the Epidaurian Isyillos’ hymn arose before ca 300 B.C. The foundation of the cult on the Tiberis Island in 291 is a decisive step towards the spread of the cult of Asclepius in the Roman Empire (Kerényi 1999: 17). The Greek doctors often called as “Asclepiads” and “sons of Asclepius” respected their ancient father in Asclepius.

Asclepius, the son of Apollo and Coronis, was originally a mortal and later became the god of medicine and healing because Zeus had elevated him among the Gods. Apollo sentenced Coronis to death because she had committed adultery. As she was burning on the pyre Apollo recovered the child Asclepius from the womb. “Born in the death” – notified by this mythologem – is such a parallel absurdity as the recovery of a lethal disease in the Empire of Asclepius. According to the myth, Asclepius learned his science while Centaur Chiron was nursing him. Zeuskilled Asclepius with a thunderbolt because as a forerunner of Christ he raised people from the dead (Kerényi 1999: 11). All we know about Asclepius’ father, Apollo, the medical gods and demigods are through the myths and cult memoirs. They also appear through archeology, religious literature, psychology and medical psychology, therefore it is possible to get to the ancient roots of the healing in this area.

The medical god, Asclepius who exists in a vivid genealogy involving all the medical men, appears in the dreams, visions, myths and cults (Kerényi 1999: 20).

The Asclepius sanctuaries were built around medicinal springs and caves. The most famous sanctuary, the “Asclepion” was in Epidauros, the place where ill people went in the hope of being cured. This sanctuary differed from the other famous Greek sanctuaries because of its double portico that embraced two levels. These porticos were used as a sleeping hall with beds where numerous votive boards hung on the wall as well. The official lists of the recoveries were also engraved in a stone here.

Before the “incubation” which was the healing method used in the actual building (pilgrims slept overnight) there were such preparations as fasting and immolation. The deity appeared to the ill people in their dreams while they were asleep. The deity could take different forms: he either appeared as leaning on his serpent-entwined rod or as a serpent. The following day the priests interpreted the dreams, prescribed a cure, often being a visit to the baths or gymnasium, and gave medicines. There is a large amount of sources about Asclepius including miracle-based accounts engraved in stones that tell us about seventy different stories (Pócs 2010: 433). If a story on a votive board represents family members or helpful staff that are not involved in the healing process, they are pictured as wondering reverently. Another visible aspect that cannot be separated from the religious experience is portrayed with this. One of these accounts tells us about Pamheas from Epidauros who had a rampant tumor in his mouth. While he was sleeping in the sanctuary he had a dream in which God opened and expanded his jaw and cleaned his mouth. He recovered from the sickness after the dream (Kerényi 1999: 37; Pócs 2010).

This method of the healing happens through sleeping and dreaming. The sick patient goes into isolation, away from their doctors and all other people while preparing for sleep. During their slumber they dedicate themselves only to what is happening in their body. The incubation used to be a universal healing method even used by the Hittites and the Jews. It was also practiced in the East, including areas such as Mesopotamia, Canaan and Egypt. According to a study in Islamic countries, people still go to dervishes’ and other sacred figure’s tombs in the hope of getting some medical sleep.

In Christianity, Christ the Healer came with the miracles of the New Testament, however he did not only heal the body, he healed the soul. It meant something radically new even though the cult of Asclepius was still around at the time. Those features of the deity that were similar to Christ came into view. This can be seen in a sculpture of the child Asclepius known from the 2nd century.

The incubation is not only known in antiquity but in Christianity as well. The intercession, curing and miracles of the Christian saints occurred in dreams and are similar to the ancient deities’ (Pócs 2010: 433). Ill people should fall into dreams at the saints’ tomb to get recovered.

Patron saints of the doctors in the middle age, St. Kozma (Koszmasz) and St. Damján (Damianosz) cured those who slept in the atrium of their Byzantine church with the same dream incubation method in the 3rd century. Their churches were built in such places that had been used as pagan sanctuaries before. In the dreams the Saints acted as doctors, they did surgeries, gave away medicines and medical advice. Sometimes they touched the ill part of the body as (according to accounts) Asclepius would (Klaniczay 2003). As for the Saints, we can name a few; Saint Thecla and Saint Martin in Anatolia, Virgin Mary in Sicily and in the Balkans. Saint Therapon was also worshipped in favor of Isis in North Africa (Pócs 2010: 436).

Gregory of Tours witnessed such recoveries in the 6th century. Incubation also used to be a healing method in the church of Anthony of Padua in Padua even in the 19th century. His relics are still kept in the church in Padua. Even in the 20th century in Greece ill people including children were taken to the church to stay overnight. “It is hard to forget seeing those little yellow faces sleeping on the podium in front of the icons in the nightly candlelight”, says Károly Kerényi (Kerényi  1999: 60).

The curing vision that came in the dream can be read in the Legend of Saint Margaret, it fits the tradition that goes back to antiquity. According to this tradition one night had to be spent in the church where the relics were kept with the intention of experiencing a divinely inspired dream or cure. According to the legend, a nobleman, Petrik Kátai “who suffered from illness but was filled with faith and piety towards a nun Saint Margaret, wanted to come to her tomb. (…) However he suffered badly that he was unable to go neither by dray nor by any other vehicle. With his piety and faith he then deserved the appearance of Saint Margaret in his dream. (…) The Saint touched the crippled side of the body with her hands motherly then she said: “Accept the desired health in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ!” This legend gives us a good example that the power of the Saints is not only sensible by touching their relics, but they can as well “visit” and cure the ill people who can not go to sacred places where the relics are kept.

According to Éva Pócs, the curing Saints that appear in dreams cannot be considered the Christian version of the Greek curing gods, however there is evidence for this continuity in the Mediterranean. In fact, the similarity between Greek sanctuaries and visions in medieval and modern times is astonishing.

In her study, Éva Pócs mainly analyzed the spontaneous curing dreams since these occurred recently. These dreams and the saints that appear in them spontaneously are no longer asked for, although the result is the same as before recovery.

In many dream accounts, Jesus, the Virgin Mary and other Saints console ill people in their dream. Apart from that they also predict the outcome of the disease and cure them (Pócs 2010: 431). In these dreams different curing methods occurred, such as touching or placing one’s hands on the sick, as it had been described before in antiquity. There are accounts of how the sick had to perform a rite for the sake of the saint in order to get cured.

The habit of the church incubation was still around in the 19-20th century in the Hungarian pilgrim places and in Csík, Gyimes and Moldva (Transylvania, Romania). According to the country people’s faith one night spent in the church increased the chance of the recovery. The cultic root of this habit is that people believed that praying and sleeping next to a thaumaturgical statue would bring the cure for the body and the soul sooner. These phenomena can be correlated with the church vigilance and the matins performed at church-ales. The waiting for the rising sun can be found in the Hungarian tradition many times and is a part of the medieval symbolism of Virgin Mary. At the dawn of the church-ale of Csíksomlyó (Șumuleu Ciuc, Romania) the believers were seeking the Holy Mary in the sun-disk where the Holy Spirit could appear in a shape of a pigeon.

Healing with dreams can be found in the scientific cure and in psychiatry. The dream therapy played a major role in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory. He considered the dreams as a semiology with which our unconscious mind expresses its desires and complaints. According to Freud we can recognize the reason of the problem if we interpret the semiology accordingly.

Some of the today’s popular esoteric, alternative medical therapies still use the dreams for healing. The word “esotericism” comes from the Greek. It means “the inner things” or “self-salvation”. The proclaimers and followers of different schools promise mystic and healing experiences that are based on the faith and the faith that people have for themselves. The practitioners of the so-called “guided imagery” try to generate dreams using various technics that can cure the diseases. According to one of these practitioners “your sleeping state is more important than your wakeful state because in the sleeping state you are not locked in your body. Also, in your sleeping state you more often use your pectoral body functions instead of your physical body and it can move quickly back and forth. It can move into the past or the future. Several tissues located in your brain can connect to your super ego while you are asleep therefore your pectoral body can do much more than your physical body” (Pócs 2010: 434). The dream and faith; it is the human psyche that tries to connect with the supernatural. It can be seen in the esotericism and has been around through Christianity since it first began. We can name several studies stating that the majority of people believe in what is incomprehensible and supernatural while refusing any medical interventions (Lengyel 2010; Kis-Halas 2010).

In one of our current alternative medical therapies, Ghost surgery, healing is based on faith and fantasy. The sick must believe that their physical body heals when the pectoral body is healed. According to ghost surgeons, people that act upon the Ten Commandments, ask for forgiveness and forgive those who trespass against them can be cured with the same therapy that was used by Asclepius. Asclepius changed the sick part of the body while his patients were dreaming. If the sick depurated their soul, it was then called to an imaginary     “beautiful flowered mead” from where they got accepted into the “Church of the Heavenly Jerusalem”. There is a gold-crossed ghost hospital next to the church that has two times forty-seven stories shining in gold. The soul of the sick is healed here as well as their diseased organs are changed for the healthy ones. One of the surgeons has said the following: “One comes to me with an infected kidney. I pull it out in my thoughts, put it on their hand and turn it to gold, … then I put back the healthy kidney and the sick is recovered” (Lengyel 2010: 632).

Finally, I would like to share one more example about turning to Asclepius for cure that happened recently. Mária Szepes has reached Asclepius using her fantasy’s healing power. According to her “she goes to Asclepius, to the eternal island of healing that hovers behind the stars and relative time. I live it, as it is more real than the real. We embark on a blue-sailed ark that is pushed by a tender breeze that we call God’s breath. I see the rocks as we hang in our legs in the warmish water. This ark takes us to Asclepius’ harbor. A human-shaped light without a face waits for us. We disembark one by one because I brought my friends with me. He leaves as we follow him. There is a pool in which the water of life pours in through rocks from the Infinity. There we step down seven stairs and stand underneath. Then we take a bath in the water of life. We even give a bath to our inner-self because the pineal body, the rudiment of our third eye hides behind our forehead. The water of life leaches our inner and outer as an infusion from the sky. We stay in there until we step up the seven stairs of the consciousness. Then we find the divans where we stretch ourselves. The shiny, curing Asclepius then draws his palms of his hands or a light over our bodies from which we feel the healing warmth. When it is done we leave the divans and walk to a white marble church that has four columns. It deepens into the dark blue sky surrounded by a noisy, whispering, mythical laurel park while its leaves tinkle from the Light.  There is an altar in the middle of the church from where a long Light comes up. We know that Light is our Divine Self. And then we fade into it among the lotuses. A bird hovers over us many times and we hear the hymn of joy in us. The bird of our soul signs in us. I give up my ego for my humble self. I fade into an impersonal happiness and I do it all over again every night. This is a prayer, too.”

Here we arrive schematically to the esoteric phenomenon of our days through the antique Cult of Asclepius, the medieval church sleeping and the saints that cure the sick in their dreams.


A reality of wonders… (1999) Bela Hegyi conversation with Mária Szepes, The National Szechenyi Library of Historical Interviews and Freshwater publisher’s production.

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Kis-Halas J. (2010) Jézus katonái a Földön és a Mennyei Jeruzsálemben: Szellemsebészet: egy kortárs ezoterikus gyógyászati rendszer [Soldiers of Jesus on the Earth and in the Celestial Jerusalem: Spirit surgery: a contemporary esoteric medical system]. In Pócs É. (ed.) Mágikus és szakrális medicina: Vallásetnológiai fogalmak tudományközi megközelítésben[Magical and sacred medicine: Notions of the ethnology of religion with an interdisciplinary approach], Budapest: Balassi.

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Molnár V. J. (2002) “Nem én segítök…” : adalékok az “eszköztelen” népi gyógyításhoz, Debrecen: Főnix Könyvműhely.

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