In his classic work Asklepios: Archetypal Image of the Physician’s Existence, Kerenyi (1959) traces the movement of the healer/god, son of Apollo, backwards through history from the Temple on the Tiber Island in Rome to Epidauros, Kos, and Thessaly in Greece. The sacred serpent was transferred from Epidauros, the main Temple/Sanctuary of Asklepios, in 293 B.C.E. to Rome. The plague had broken out in Rome two years before. Kerenyi says,
“To the ancient mind the disease was like a fire….in the background, behind the bodies charred by an inner fire, behind the burning heaps of corpses, the Greeks sensed the wrath of Apollo…In such cases the Greeks turned to Apollo in accordance with an ancient principle of homeopathy expressed in a famous saying of the oracle of Apollo: “The wounder heals.” (p.7)”
So the Romans consulted their oracle of Apollo, the Sibylline Books, and were told to invite Asklepios to Rome. When the Romans attempted to bring the god to Rome, the Epidaurians sent the sacred snake. Kerenyi quotes Ovid’s account of how the emissary from Rome, Quintus Ogulnius, dreamed Asklepios appeared before him carrying his staff and around it coiled the sacred serpent. Asklepios told Q. Ogulnius that he (Asklepios) would leave his statues at Epidauros and become the serpent, “only larger, like a celestial presence” (p. 10).
Kerenyi (1959) has given us an account of how the ancients respected the oracles, a theory of the origin of disease, and the importance of dreams in diagnosis. Through homeopathy the burning fires of the sun and Apollo’s golden arrows were regarded as the cause of the plague, therefore help must be sought from the source itself. Koronis, the mother of Asklepios, had been unfaithful to Apollo, so the god asked his sister Artemis to shoot Koronis with one of her painless (moon) arrows. “On Koronis’s pyre Asklepios was born: Apollo delivered the child from the dead mother” (Kerenyi, p xix). In the birth of the god Asklepios, the father’s anger causes the mother’s death, and through fire comes the child, whose name means sunrise. As Kerenyi puts it, “the effulgent Apollo, the Apollo who flares up, appears at Epidauros as Asklepios. . .the child Asklepios shone like the rising sun”(p. 29). Here we see the ancient association between death and birth, with new life coming upon the dawn.
At the sanctuary of Asklepios in Epidauros there were fountains with an abundance of water. Kerenyi notes that water, “for the Greeks was a kind of communication with the depths of the earth” (1959, p. 27). This is probably true for all cultures. Water is necessary for life, without it we die. Darkness is also necessary for dreams. Kerenyi thinks it to be “no accident that Apollo Maleatas was worshiped on a eminence dominating the eastern end of the valley and that here on the heights the child Asklepios shone like the rising sun” (p. 29). The dog is associated with the mountain where Asklepios was born and is considered golden.
Kerenyi (1959) noted that the wolf, which is identified with darkness, was sacred to Apollo. The cypress tree is also associated with the dark side of the god. Kerenyi notes,
“There can be no doubt as to which of his aspects Apollo disclosed in a cypress grove. In the Mediterranean countries the relation between the world of the tombs and this dark tree with its everlasting green and its masculine upward-striving power, bearing witness to indestructible life, has remained unchanged from antiquity to our own day. And it is not without significance that the statue of the Roman Veiovis, who had the attributes of a dark Apollo and was worshiped on the Tiber Island in close association with Aesculapius, was carved of cypress wood. According to the legend, the cypress was originally a beautiful youth, named Kyparissos, Apollo’s favorite.
This youth killed his pet stag by mistake and, consumed by grief, was ultimately transformed into a tree. (p.54)”
Along this line of thought, Kerenyi says, “in general we may say that in mythology the “father” is always “darker” than the “son” “(p. 30). So in a sense the darkness, which makes dreaming possible, is an entering into the dark side or realm of the father, the domain of the wolf god/Apollo. In that time the sick person slept within the Sanctuary, with the hope of being visited by the healer/god. Kerenyi (1959) compares the dark night of the soul to a descent into the underworld. When, during the night, the patient experiences a crisis (which means turning point in Greek), the divine child, the son of Apollo appears as a kind of sunrise. This is an event “enacted as it were on the borders of the realm of the dead. Underworldly when it accompanies Hekate, the dog also suggests the rising of the light; here evidently it designates a transitional situation: the transition between below and above, night and day, death and life. And the more familiar of the animals sacred to Asklepios, the snake, marks the same situation. (p. 32)”
Asklepios appears in dreams in the company of dogs and snakes. In referring to the anecdotal cure tablets, which refer to dogs and snakes involved in curing the sick person, Kerenyi suggests,
“On the whole these stories about animals should be interpreted as dreams. The sacred animals symbolize life at the threshold of death, a hidden force, dark and cold, but at the same time warm and radiant, that stirs beneath the surface of the waking world and accomplishes the miracle of cure. (p. 34)”
When the patient sleeps and dreams, he “withdraws from his fellow men and even from his physician, and surrenders to a process at work within him” (Kerenyi, p.35). And that process is the intervention of what Jung called the Collective Unconscious. This powerful source of information gives the sleeper the cure; it heals. It could be called “god stuff” as Hillman (1979) refers to dreams in The Dream and the Underworld. At Epidauros it is that stuff, that god, as He is experienced by the dreamer, Who is the healing. The capitalization of the words ‘he’ and ‘who’ indicate the divine or supernatural quality of this experience. The Greek gods were referred to collectively by the word δαιμων, which is a plural form. The root is related to a power source and hence the modern explosive dynamite. We know from experiencing the gods that their intervention is powerful. How they accomplish their works, just as how healing occurs, must remain a mystery.
In referring to the tablets at Epidauros, which attest to miraculous cures, Kerenyi points to the total mystery involved with healing. These cures
“are “miraculous” only insofar as every cure, every happy end to a situation implying the possibility of an unhappy one, is a kind of miracle. Wherever a living creature—who might equally well be called a dying creature—is gravely ill, every turn for the better involves an element of mystery, even when the physician has recognized and eliminated the cause of sickness. For the physician cannot act alone; side by side with his outside intervention something inside the patient must lend a helping hand if a cure is to be accomplished. At the crucial moment something is at work that might best be compared to the flow of a spring. . . .The significance of a god specifically characterized as a god of healing is that he, in a manner of speaking, is the fountainhead. He not only assists at the turn for the better; his manifestation is the cure, or, to put it the other way round, every cure is his epiphany. Thus the cures at Epidauros are no more mysterious than the cures effected anywhere else; healing itself is the mystery. (1959, pp. 24-26)”
Looking at the images connected with the Sanctuary at Epidauros and the cult of Asplepios several things emerge as important aspects of the healing god and his temple. The orientation is eastward toward the rising sun, anticipating a renewal, like a sunrise. The alignment of east to west also implies the dark night of the soul, the possibility of death, and the time of dreams. In the meditation of sleep a transcendent reality enters the soul of the sick person and there is often a mysterious crisis or turning point when a transformation occurs. This mysterious activity when it results in a remission of symptoms is called a miraculous cure. As Kerenyi (1959) notes above, “healing itself is the mystery” (p.26).
In Marie-Louise von Franz’ book, The Problem of the Puer Aeternus, she notes that in myths and fairy tales, when there is hopelessness and an impossible situation, supernatural beings appear. She says that this indicates a time when the conscious personality does not know how to continue living. Von Franz describes it thus: “One feels completely disoriented, with neither goal nor outlook in life. In those moments, energy, blocked from a further flow into life, piles up and generally constellates something from the unconscious” (1970/2000, p. 28). She gives an example from the Koran, where Moses and his servant Joseph discover their provisions have disappeared. With nothing to eat, Moses waits; the immortal angel and first servant of Allah, Khidr (the verdant one), appears and performs a series of miracles which he knows Moses will not understand. Von Franz says the story illustrates “the incompatibility of the conscious rational ego with the figure of the Self and its purposes . . .[and that people] should be able to doubt their conscious attitude and should always expect the miraculous thing from the unconscious to happen. (p. 30).”
If we follow this line of thinking to its logical conclusion, one should expect miracles from the Self. In the ancient healing temple of Asklepios, that is exactly what happened. The conscious ego, sick in mind and body, gives itself into the hands of the divine. As we have noted above, that is when the intervention of the dream and the god occur.