Sleep Temples in the Ancient Period


Sleep temples in the ancient period bear testament to our ancestral quest for mental well-being, predating the advancements of modern science. Ancient priests and magicians served as purveyors of therapeutic aid, employing suggestion, compassionate care, and the passage of time to provide solace.

In antiquity, the emergence of sleep temples marked a significant milestone in the realms of healing and spiritual guidance. These extraordinary centers, known as dream temples or Egyptian sleep temples, took root over 4000 years ago, showcasing early instances of hypnosis that were strongly influenced by the revered figure of Imhotep. Imhotep, who held the esteemed positions of Chancellor and High Priest of the sun god Ra at Heliopolis, played a pivotal role in shaping these practices. The sleep temples provided sanctuary for individuals seeking respite from various afflictions, including psychological maladies. The treatment process involved inducing patients into a trance-like state through chants, examining their dreams, and providing tailored therapies. Augmented by practices such as meditation, fasting, baths, and offerings to deities, these temples cultivated a holistic approach to healing.

However, the concept of sleep temples transcended the boundaries of Egypt alone, extending its influence to the Middle East and Ancient Greece. Greek sleep temples, known as Asclepieions, were consecrated to Asclepios, the god of medicine. Patients partook in the ritual of incubation, engaging in prayers to Asclepios in the hopes of attaining healing. Within these sleep chambers, symbolic snakes, representing the deity, were often present. Likewise, in Hebrew culture, the treatment known as Kavanah involved focusing on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet that spelled the name of their God. A notable discovery occurred in 1928 at Lydney Park, Gloucestershire, where a Roman sleep temple was unearthed with the assistance of J.R.R. Tolkien, then a young archaeologist.

Read About: The Origins of Hypnosis

Sleep Temple – Healing Sanctuary of Asklepios in Ancient Greece

The sanctuary of Asklepios in Greece
The sanctuary of Asklepios in Greece

Within the ancient sanctuaries dedicated to Asklepios, the Greek god of healing, we can find profound insights into the therapeutic practices of enkoimesis through intricate stone inscriptions. These enigmatic inscriptions depict a captivating ritual where individuals intentionally entered a sleep-induced dream-like state within the sacred confines of these shrines. In this ethereal realm, patients eagerly awaited a visionary encounter with the god himself, eagerly anticipating his benevolent bestowal of medical counsel or even miraculous surgical interventions.

Preserved within the venerable Asclepieion of Epidauros are three magnificent marble tablets, believed to date back to around 350 BC, meticulously chronicling the names, medical histories, grievances, and triumphs of nearly 70 individuals who sought solace and redemption within its sacred walls. What astonishes us is the revelation that some of these remarkable healings occurred while the afflicted were immersed in the revered state of enkoimesis.

Among the marvels revealed within these enduring inscriptions, there are four extraordinary instances of surgical healing. These documented procedures include the skillful drainage of abdominal abscesses and the delicate extraction of foreign objects from the jaw, thorax, and eyelid. Technically feasible and rooted in practicality, these interventions bear testament to the remarkable artistry and expertise of ancient surgeons. However, it is intriguing to consider that these patients likely benefited from the administration of soporific substances, possibly including opium, to facilitate their entry into the state of enkoimesis. This sheds light on the pivotal role played by such substances in enabling medical and surgical procedures within the sacred precincts of the temple, as indicated by the presence of coffers adorned with opium-derived poppy flowers adorning the marble ceiling of this sanctum.

Centuries later, the enduring legacy of Asclepius persisted, and his devoted followers continued to employ similar techniques in their tireless pursuit of healing and restoration. These dedicated practitioners of medicine embraced an integrated approach to wellness, harnessing the power of herbs, suggestion, dream analysis, and psychotherapy.

Temples of Sleep and Healing: Ancient Egyptian Sanctuaries of Recovery

Sleep temple in Egypt - Temple of Dendera
Dendera Temple in Egypt, Wikimedia Commons

Physicians in ancient Egypt were primarily associated with temples, such as the temple of Sekhmet or the temple of Isis, based on their esteemed titles. When kings from other nations fell ill, they often sought the services of these revered Egyptian priests or physicians. However, common people had to personally visit the temples for healing since the physicians did not make house calls. Temples functioned as medical centers akin to modern clinics, and one notable temple renowned for healing was the Dendera temple located in Upper Egypt. Dedicated to Hathor, with connections to the goddess Isis, the Dendera temple offered accommodations for overnight stays on its sacred grounds, providing patients with the opportunity to experience healing dreams and receive guidance for their recovery.

The use of water in the healing process was also prevalent in ancient Egyptian temples. Within these temples, statues known as cippi were present, resembling small stelae adorned with carvings of the infant Horus standing on a crocodile while holding scorpions, symbolizing dominion over various elements. Priests would pour water over these statues, which would collect at the bottom, becoming holy water. Drinking or bathing in this water was believed to bring about healing and alleviate ailments. The association with the statue bestowed the water with its magical properties, making it an integral part of the overall healing process.

As mentioned earlier the Dendera temple was among the renowned temples where individuals would seek for healing. The complex boasted a remarkably well-preserved sanatorium, featuring a central courtyard encompassed by axial corridors with cubicles serving as basins or bathtubs. These therapeutic pools utilized holy water flowing from statues placed on pedestals, which then directed the water to a small tank. Depending on the treatment required, the water was subsequently used for immersing body parts or for bathing. The central courtyard housed statues of the goddess, inscribed with magical texts, and priests would pour libations of water from the sacred lake onto these statues. The sacred water, infused with the healing power derived from the statues, was given to the sick for drinking or bathing. Although the healing statues are no longer present at Dendera, an inscription on a stone block in one of the cells of the sanatorium provides additional insights into its purpose.

Notable historical references, such as Homer’s mention of Egypt in the Odyssey and Herodotus’ fascination with the specialization of Egyptian physicians, highlight the extensive history and advancement of Egyptian medicine. Nevertheless, it remains unclear where these physicians received their education and practiced their skills. Temples, particularly the attached “house of life,” are proposed as potential locations. Supporting evidence can be found in inscriptions on the door of Irwy in Bubastis, mentioning the offerings made by the king to Atum, the lord of the house of Life. Similarly, in Sais, Udjahorresnet, the chief physician and chief priest of the goddess Neith, left a detailed text on his naophorous statue, describing the instructions given to him by the Persian king Darius to restore the house of life in Sais. These temples served as destinations for patients in search of medical care.

Another temple associated with healing was the Deir el-Bahri Temple, originally dedicated to Queen Hatshepsut. While it served as a temple during Hatshepsut’s reign, it transitioned into a clinic in later periods. Greek inscriptions on the temple walls indicate its utilization for healing purposes, with visitors expressing gratitude for their recoveries. The sanatoriums within Egyptian temples resembled medical or magical clinics, providing a space for the sick or injured to seek healing from the gods and the wisdom of the temple priests. Although only a few of these structures remain, some rooms in various temples, including Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri and the temple of Imhotep on Elephantine, are believed to have functioned as sanatoria.


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