DREAM INCUBATION

SARAH JANES
14 min readFeb 18, 2022

For ancient and modern dream seekers

Sarah Janes, Jan 2022

SLEEP, DEATH AND SPIRIT

Could dreams have provided ancient humans with the first inkling of the existence of an afterlife? One of the most compelling features of dreaming is that it allows the living to gambol with the dead. Even today, many people report having psychologically powerful and cathartic dreams, in which they meet their deceased and departed loved one — or enemies. The same can be true for meaningful dream encounters with those we are separated from (geographically or emotionally). Dream experiences such as this can be very transformative and healing. They allow for closure, an experience which might feel impossible or next to impossible in the ordinary realm.

One of my favourite personal examples of this kind of compensatory dream closure is a dream I had many years ago, following a break up with a boyfriend. In reality I was devastated when he started seeing someone else, but in this dream, all three of us were travelling on a steamboat - Fitzcarraldo-style - up the Amazon and into the deepest, darkest jungle. I was in a tiny bathroom cupboard under the sink, watching my ex and his new girlfriend have sex through the slats of the cupboard door. For one — the act was pleasingly unmoving (thanks brain!) and for two - faced with my worst fear, I actually felt okay, even relieved and slightly joyous at having conquered it. In the next dream scene, I was standing out on the deck with my ex when a huge bittern flew out of the rainforest and landed on the railing right in front of us. In excitement I turned to him and said — “Look, it’s a bittern, it’s the rarest bird in Britain!” He just shrugged his shoulders, totally indifferent to this brilliant ornithological rarity. In that moment, I realised that he just didn’t really get me at all and I felt absolute oneness with the world — this avian inspired epiphany instantaneously released my attachment.

Beyond separation anxiety and on to dreams and death. Belief in some type of life beyond death, in an immaterial or immortal soul, is the very kernel of spiritual philosophy. Dreams then, surely contributed to the blossoming of animism around the world and they continue to influence and inform religious and spiritual doctrines everywhere.

Look it’s a bittern, it’s the rarest bird in Britain!

TO SLEEP WITHIN

Dream incubation is a method to procure a healing or prophetic dream. In ancient times this was most often achieved by petitioning the god(s) for a dream visit, perhaps through creating some sort of phylactery, charm or spell that piques the god’s interest and favour. Incubation usually involves a series of ritual procedures to make one pure enough to receive said dream, and this would often include travelling to a specific site in which a certain goddess or god had a reputation for manifesting. Put simply — dream incubation is very strongly setting the intention — and scene — before sleep to have a particular, desired dream and readying yourself as much as possible to receive it. It is worth reflecting on the sort of magical thinking that was prevalent in antiquity, the idea that words, images and ritual acts had the power to conjure up supernatural forces and influence outcomes. This could undoubtedly be most keenly witnessed in the dream state - as dream scenes are known to calibrate through layers of association, symbolism and word play.

PGM VII.300 Dream Phylactery — ΣΑΧΜΟΥ ΟΖΟΖΟ, you the one who thunders, the one who shakes the heaven and the earth, the one who has swallowed the Serpent, hour by hour raising the disk of the Sun and surrounding the Moon, ΧΩΝΣΟΥ ΟΧΧΑ ΕΝΣΟΥ Ο ΒΙΒΕΡΟΗΣΟΣ. Write on your left hand with myrrh ink these things surrounding the ibis.

Written records of the concept of dream incubation can be found in the earliest known languages, including Sumerian and Anatolian scripts. The word incubation comes from the Latin verb incubare — lie upon. To the ancient Greeks, whose first hospitals were sanctuaries dedicated to the supernatural, dream-healer god Asklepios, the word was ἐγκοίμησις — enkoimesis — sleep within. This is because a healing or oracular dream would often be sought within the sacred precinct of a divine entity. For this reason, the practice is also referred to as Temple Sleep.

ORACLES AND DREAM MEDICINE

There appear to be two primary objectives for dream incubation in antiquity — divination and healing. The earliest records of dream incubation are chiefly concerned with oracles and insight. However, as disease and health were also considered the jurisdiction of omniscient gods - precognizant revelations and human health have likely been entangled from the beginning. This is perhaps evidenced in the practice of astral irradiation — a term coined by Assyriologist Erica Reiner to describe a technique utilised by spirit doctors — ašipu, (regular doctors were the asûs). For astral irradiation, a patient sleeps under the stars so that they might be infused with the beneficent radiance of the star gods. The same technique was used to charge charms and amulets with power.

In Mesopotamian spiritual philosophy, the stars are conscious. They are divine and immortal beings. Arrangements of stars in the firmament, compose the Writing of Heaven. To be able to read this language, is to know the past, present and future, and this links night-time oracles provided by dream divination, to celestial omina (precursor to the art and science of astronomy-astrology). The stars are imperishable and eternal observers of those on Earth. In astral irradiation/bathing, benevolent influence from astral gods is received by a sleeping patient. As they bathe in the sublime emanations of the stars, they are exposed to the harmonising rays of a multitude of infinitely wise, creative entities. Starlight acts as a potent panacea and is woven into the fabric of the night.

I think of this Writing of Heaven as the generative script of reality, a sort of holy Mesopotamian matrix or cosmic calendrical tapestry — within which a bowl of water and oil, or the liver of a ritually sacrificed white lamb, might be seen to reveal the subtle pattern of its machinations. By virtue of its sensitivity and purity perhaps, a delicate morsel such as this lamb’s liver contains special impressions or ripples of events about to unfold. The innocent’s organ, coagulated as it has within the mesh of a living cosmos, can reveal by its anomalies and protuberances, signs and omens to be deciphered by a haruspex — ideally, one who is familiar with a vast store of comparative lamb’s liver/notable event records. This obsession with predicting future events in ancient Mesopotamia, arouses curiosity about perceptions of time and reality. Notable events recorded over millennia contributed to incredible reference libraries for ancient diviners to refer and match phenomenon. This evolved into a basic formula of — ‘if A happened then B will happen’ — likely born out of their invention of, and reverence for, the calendar. This system is elementary in all of their divinatory arts.

The Sumerian King Shulgi puts it succinctly in 2050BC:

In the insides of a single sheep I, the King, can find the messages for the whole universe.

Nanshe (Sumerian: 𒀭𒀏 dNANŠE) Water and fishing goddess of prophecy and oneiromancy.

That a dream might really be able to heal someone is a fascinating concept and plausible possibility to me. But how might such a healing mechanism work? I believe that divine dreams, as they are related in ancient dream records — were probably lucid. The manifestation of an adored god or goddess would likely alert the dreamer to the fact that they are dreaming and subsequently activate the ecstatic and blissful sensations familiar to lucid dreamers. Could it be that this ecstatic, blissful state is healing in-and-of itself? Could it be that a healing event acted out within a lucid dream could draw out from the dreamer, a faith-healing or placebo-type of self-healing response? Lucidity is a special state of consciousness in which the mind and body are uniquely and deeply entangled. I believe this state to be the perfect foundation for mind to influence matter, and that it is therefore the ideal condition for a placebo effect to take hold.

The dream narratives of the sleep temples describe how gods or goddesses appear in dreams to the querent. Such appearances are said to delight the hearts of the dreamers. Examples of healing dream events might include: a luminous entity infusing the patient with healing light, or a god might rub a divine healing salve into their patient’s body, or give them some magical potion to drink. For someone suffering from headaches — the god might cut off their head, tip out the offending bees and sew their head back on. These tangible dream events, could be experienced as realer than real — if in a lucid dream state, and they might therefore kickstart appropriate biophysical responses to selectively match the dream’s data points. For example, think of a real-life orgasm coming from erotic dream stimuli.

I am also very interested in how dream comestibles and libations can act as imaginal agents to transform consciousness. In a dream you can experience getting very drunk after drinking dream alcohol, or you might dissolve into pulsating psychedelic mandalas after eating a brick of meat laced with dream LSD. The power of dreams to improve mental and physical health and to be the greatest source of limitless creative exploration is woefully understudied and underestimated.

CAVES AND GRAVES

Purification procedures for dream incubation include— fasting, ritual bathing, cold water dips and lustration, abstinence, prayers and requests to the god(s), fumigations of (often psychoactive) sacred plants, sacrifices and offerings.

Pre-literate societies are also likely to have engaged in dream incubation at sites connected with the ancestors, at places associated with divine energies and death — such as caves, graves, springs, unusual geomorphological features, hills and mountains. As societies and cultures developed, such sites were often absorbed into the evolving mythologies and lore, manifesting in new architecture, art, ways of perceiving the world, new divinities and religions.

OVERWORLD AND UNDERWORLD

From their lofty vantage point above humanity, and with their great power to endure over aeons — the star gods are privy to the future. It is recorded in countless texts and inscriptions, across many different ancient cultures, that those seeking counsel from the gods, would look to find an audience with them in the dream state. The divine dream is used as a narrative device in many ancient stories.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh dreams provide portals through which mortal and immortal can convene. On the stelae of pharaonic Egypt, a god-given dream establishes a king’s divine right to rule. In Mesopotamia, the Sun god Utu/Šamaš, travels through the Great Below at sunset. As he travels through this realm, he gathers up its secrets. He is reborn at dawn — when he reveals his light to the world of tomorrow. Nightly, we too travel through the underworld of our unconscious in our dreams. In the process of re-membering these journeys, we construct the oracles that unfold into our future. We too can be reborn and perfected with the appearance of the morning sun.

Gods and goddesses of the underworld are imbued with generative power, they are invoked in the initiation rites of the Mystery schools and the agrarian cults of ancient Egypt and Greece. They have the power to heal and they act as supernatural conduits to channel the fecund power of Earth’s dark, chthonic zone up into the light - to revitalise the realm of mortals. One must die to be reborn.

Gardens of Bomarzo

VULNERABLE NIGHT

Without the artificial light, street illumination and light pollution we are all too familiar with in our modern lives, the awesome night could be a time of vulnerability. It was a time of invisible and mysterious threats and potential chaos. In Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece, on inauspicious days, evil spirits travelled as ill winds and could cause sickness. These night creatures had the power to malevolently corrupt and possess unprotected sleepers.

In Mesopotamia, Lamashtu was a female demon that delivered night terrors. She made women miscarry out of fear and drank the blood of men and children as they slept. Lamashtu later fused with Lilith of the Babylonian Talmud and became a vile seductress in Jewish demonology. She harvested semen from her victims — as they contorted in frenzied wet dreams of evil desire. Using these fevered emissions, Lilith created an army of horrifying demon children.

In ancient Egypt, people made anti-nightmare cobras out of clay, to deter the demons of the night. They set them with candles to represent the burn of venom. Images of the dwarf demon Bes were employed to scare away nightmares. Bes frightened off unwanted dream demons with his massive unfurled tongue, gargantuan phallus, knives and snakes.

In ancient Greece, Epiales was the spirit of nightmares and was also known as the Black Dream. Dreams were sometimes personified as the Oneiroi and could travel at the request of one individual to appear in the dream of another.

THE DREAM SANCTUARY

Most of the best information we have with regards to the actual goings-on at the dedicated dream sanctuaries of antiquity can be found in the records kept by attendants at the sanctuaries of the Greek healer god Asklepios.

Over the vast territory of Hellenistic Greece, around 300 of his sanctuaries have been identified and they remained popular centres of healing for over 2,000 years. Some of the most prominent ancient physicians including Hippocrates and Galen are said to have trained as Asklepeion therapeutae. Asklepios, his wife (or sometimes daughter) Hygieia — personification of Health, and his divine children are still invoked today when doctors recite the Hippocratic Oath.

Asklepios was the son of the god Apollo and the mortal Thessalian princess Coronis. Whilst pregnant with Apollo’s child, Coronis had a fling with the mortal Ischys. As punishment, either Apollo or his twin sister Artemis, killed Coronis and her body was burned on a funeral pyre. In a fit of remorse, Apollo returned and rescued the baby, cutting the child Asklepios from his mother’s flaming womb. Apollo delivered him to the centaur Chiron, who taught young Asklepios the healing arts.

According to Greek myth, the young Asklepios receives his supernatural healing wisdom from a serpent in the forest, when the creature either licked clean his ears or was observed by the demi-god bringing a bundle of healing herbs to revive its wounded mate. For this reason, the god’s symbol was the Rod of Asklepios — a serpent-entwined staff. His wife/daughter’s symbol was the Bowl of Hygieia, both are images that are still frequently displayed in pharmacies and other institutions that practice the medical arts today.

Dogs and non-venomous tree snakes (Zamenis longissimus) were kept at the sanctuaries, they mingled with patients in the dormitories as they slept. Both creatures were considered to be theriomorphic forms of the god and were involved in a ritualised healing psychodrama. Successful results seem to have been achieved through a combination of nature therapy, purification, herbal remedies, perhaps dog licks, hygiene (the sites were rather like a spa), catharsis and the placebo/faith-healing response that was activated when a patient had a divine remedial encounter with Asklepios — or one of the other attendant divinities — in the perfectly incubated dream.

The Aesculapian Snake — Zamenis longissimus

That these sanctuaries continued to be popular into late Roman times is arguably testament to their efficacy. They were only closed because of the anti-pagan campaigns of early Christian zealots, in particular the Roman Emperor Theodosius II who shut-down these important centres of pagan worship definitively. However, the sanctuary at Epidaurus, considered by many to be the birthplace of Asklepios, continued to be known as a Christian healing centre. It was the location of one of the earliest churches in Greece and miraculous healing was incorporated into the religious rites practiced there. There was only room for one bearded healer dude on the block.

Marble statue of Asklepios, Greek, 400–200 BCE — Wellcome Collection

BRITISH SLEEP TEMPLES

Designated dream sanctuaries are known to have made it over to Britain with the Romans, although there was certainly indigenous dream culture existing before they arrived. The oracular and healing power of dreams is often described in Welsh and Celtic mythology and Anglo-Saxon paganism.

There is a Romano-British sleep temple dedicated to the Celtic healing god Nodens at Lydney Park in the Forest of Dean. Many curse tablets, offerings and votive dogs have been discovered at this site and there is an iron-rich chalybeate spring in the area — which would have served the bathing complex and guest houses.

J.R.R. Tolkien assisted Tessa and Mortimer Wheeler with their excavation and study of the temple’s remains in 1928–29. The site was known as Dwarf’s Hill to the locals and inspired Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. There was even a curse tablet found on site that described a stolen ring — and asked Nodens to punish the thief until he returned it to the temple.

Lydney Park Temple

DREAM PILGRIMAGE

Recently I met with the author and biologist Rupert Sheldrake and Guy Hayward of the British Pilgrimage Trust. Together, we are working to reinvigorate the practice of dream incubation in the UK, at some of the many beautiful and historical sites that were so important to the spiritual life of ancient people.

I am conducting a study this year to research the experiences of groups sleeping at sites associated with dream incubation, faith healing, spiritual revelation, miracles and even paranormal activity. We shall be sleeping in churches, temples, caves and stone circles. If you would like to join us, please check out the Dream Pilgrimage page on my website.

TOP TIPS FOR ANCIENT STYLE DREAM INCUBATION NOW!

Catharsis: Purge your emotions through art, music, writing, dance, movement and song.

Purify: Fast. Abstain from sexual activity. Have a ritual bath or shower. Take a cold-water dip in the sea. Dress yourself in clean clothes made from natural fibres. Visitors to the dream sanctuaries of old were often dressed in swaddling like babies, emphasising the fact that a visit to a dream sanctuary represented a rebirth and was considered an initiation in the Mystery tradition.

Offerings: Asklepios enjoyed offerings of cock and honey cake. If you are offering to the world, you might plant a sacred flower or herb. You could give some money to charity — or by all means bake a honey cake and feed it to a serpent.

Drink from a Sacred Spring: Drink living water from the Earth, locate your nearest spring that is safe to drink and enjoy the natural power of the underworld’s memory and mineral riches. The more you drink of the unadulterated Earth, the more of the Earth you can become.

Fumigation: A fumigation of frankincense is an ideal final ritual to incubate the desired dream. In the Asklepions, quite often the final invocation was that of the goddess Mnemosyne, personification of memory. She can help you remember that you are dreaming and therefore will aid you in extracting maximum benefit from the healing dream event. Mnemosyne is also the goddess of eloquence and sense-making. Very useful tools for dreaming and waking life.

Request: Write down what you wish to dream about, who you wish to encounter in the dream and what miracle you would like to see performed.

Astral Bathing: Sleep under the stars. Seek out a Dark Skies Reserve to really drink up the majesty of Heaven and influence of the star gods.

Dream Sanctuary: Sleep in sacred sites, or if these are unavailable, turn your bedroom into a sweet-smelling dream temple. Perhaps create an altar to the god or goddess you’d most like to meet in a dream.

Record: Write down your dreams immediately upon waking.

For more sleep hygiene tips and dream scoops visit my website: www.themysteries.org

My next 4 week Dream Course is online and hosted by The Last Tuesday Society:

Initiation into Dream Mysteries: Drinking from the Pool of Mnemosyne by Sarah Janes is published by Inner Traditions - Dec 2022.

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SARAH JANES

Author, researcher, presenter and workshop host exploring the anthropology of sleep, ancient dream cultures and philosophy www.themysteries.org