The origin of hypnosis is intertwined with ancient practices like shamanism, philosophy, and religion. Healing in ancient Egyptian and Greek medicine involved sacred techniques such as incubation, reflecting a holistic approach echoed by Hippocrates, shaping our understanding of hypnosis today.
The origin of hypnosis reveals a rich tapestry woven through the ages, where healing traditions and the pursuit of knowledge converge in a mesmerizing tapestry. Although Franz Anton Mesmer is often credited as the pioneer of hypnosis in the late 18th century, the true story is far deeper and more profound, stretching back into the annals of history and intertwining with ancient disciplines of wisdom.
To truly grasp the essence of hypnosis, it is essential to delve into its ancient precursors, such as shamanism, philosophy, and religion. These extraordinary practices, deeply ingrained in the human experience, served as channels for accessing wisdom from realms beyond our comprehension. Within the realms of ancient Egyptian and Greek medicine, healing was intricately entwined with the sacred and the divine. Through techniques like incubation, these ancient healers embraced the sacred as a means to restore harmony and foster well-being. Among these luminaries, Hippocrates, the revered father of modern medicine, echoed this holistic perspective, anchoring the medical profession in an oath that continues to resonate today. His wise and rational approach beautifully harmonized with the concept of healing through sacred practices.
As our journey unfolds, a profound connection emerges between these timeless disciplines and the realm of Non-Ordinary Mental Expressions (NOMEs). This term, carefully crafted to transcend the limitations of altered states of consciousness alone, encompasses a vast array of non-pathological yet meaningful experiences, including hypnosis and meditation. Embracing this expansive viewpoint, we begin to grasp the intricate tapestry of human consciousness and its manifold expressions.
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Eastern and Western Philosophies on Hypnosis
Tracing the lineage of both Eastern and Western philosophies and medicines, we find ourselves immersed in the primordial realm of prehistoric pan-Asiatic shamanism. Shamans, revered as “men of knowledge,” were the pioneers who approached ailments and treatments through a lens of holism. To them, the body, mind, and environment were inseparable facets of an interconnected universe, transcending the boundaries between the seen and the unseen. Alongside their use of medicinal plants, surgical interventions, and diverse remedies, these healers engaged in practices and rituals entwined with NOMEs. By tapping into the untapped depths of their souls through shamanic journeys, they harnessed profound healing potentials, intertwining the patient’s soul in this transformative process.
In ancient times, Greek and Egyptian medicines flourished, giving rise to remarkable advancements in the healing arts. Temples such as Imhotep’s in Egypt and Asclepius’ in Greece became sacred havens where the convergence of spiritual and naturalistic elements fostered a holistic approach to healing. Within these hallowed halls, an ancient practice known as “enkoímesis” or incubation unfolded—a tradition that spanned millennia, from the prehistoric era to the Dark Ages. Here, individuals sought solace, seeking physical and spiritual restoration in harmonious unison.
Across the vast expanse of the East, an array of profound philosophies also birthed their own medicinal traditions. Traditional Chinese Medicine, deeply rooted in the principles of Taoism, embodied its paradigm and flourished alongside the practice of acupuncture. In parallel, āyurveda medicine, aptly translated as the “knowledge of life,” emerged from the tapestry of Vedic tradition. These Eastern philosophies embraced a non-dualistic perspective, seamlessly blending theoretical and practical philosophy. Their very essence lay in the pursuit of self-knowledge and liberation, shedding the shackles of attachments and conditioning to embark on a transformative path toward wisdom, insight, and enlightenment. Meditation, as a steadfast companion, played an indispensable role in these philosophies—a practice devoted to transcending the illusionary confines of ordinary consciousness.
The Connection Between Modern Hypnosis and Eastern Doctrine
The relationship between modern hypnosis and Eastern meditation techniques is a testament to the ever-evolving nature of these practices. This connection has given rise to a contemporary approach known as mindful hypnosis, blending the wisdom of the East with the insights of hypnotic exploration. Interestingly, this association between hypnosis and Eastern philosophies is not a recent phenomenon but can be traced back to the early mesmerists who recognized the profound parallels between these disciplines.
In the 18th century, Mesmer developed the theory of animal magnetism, also known as mesmerism, proposing the existence of an invisible force permeating all living beings that held the power to heal and produce physical effects. While Mesmer’s theories did not gain widespread scientific recognition, they left an indelible mark on the field of medicine for several decades. Although animal magnetism is no longer widely practiced today, it continues to find its place as an alternative medicine in certain pockets of the world, with practitioners referred to as “magnetizers” or “mesmerizers.”
The concept of animal magnetism revolved around the manipulation of a supposed “magnetic fluid” to elicit effects akin to magnets. Over time, as British practitioners sought to distance themselves from the notion of magnetic fluid, they adopted the term “mesmerism” to describe their techniques. While the term itself may have evolved, the essence of mesmerism as a profound exploration of the mind-body connection remains at the core of hypnosis.
During the 19th century, The Zoist, a renowned journal dedicated to mesmerism, published a multitude of articles drawing intriguing comparisons between Indian practices and the mesmeristic steps that induce trance states. In their exploration, they likened yogic and Buddhist meditation, often described as “hibernation,” as well as the principles of Taoism, to the mesmeric experience. It was observed that practitioners of Yogee achieved states of ecstasy or Mesmeric conditions through deep meditation, further solidifying the interconnectedness of these ancient traditions.
In essence, the origins of modern hypnosis find their roots in two distinct traditions. Firstly, the ancient practices of Greek and Egyptian medicines, particularly the art of incubation, played a significant role in shaping the foundations of hypnosis. Sadly, the technique of incubation was lost during the Dark Ages, but its impact on Western medicine during its existence cannot be underestimated. Secondly, the profound influence of Eastern meditation traditions, with their deep insights into the workings of the mind, left an indelible mark on the early mesmerists.
While there may not be a direct lineage connecting incubation and hypnosis, both can be viewed as mind-body techniques rooted in the dynamic interplay between doctors and patients. They harness the power of the subject’s imaginative capacities through carefully guided procedures. The apparent disconnect between incubation and hypnosis can be attributed to the decline of incubation during the first centuries AD, influenced in part by Christian hagiographic propaganda.
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Incubation: Wisdom of Hippocrates
Imhotep, the architect of Pharaoh Djoser and a priest of the sun deity Ra held a position of remarkable significance in ancient Egyptian culture. His profound wisdom and skill in the realm of medicine were so revered that he was deified as the protector of health after his passing. Initially worshipped in Memphis, the veneration of Imhotep eventually spread throughout all of Egypt, elevating him to a revered status.
The extent to which the worship of Serapis in Saqqara incorporated healing incubation or focused solely on oneiromancy remains somewhat unclear. However, it is known that incubation practices thrived in Alexandria and Canopus, particularly during the reign of Ptolemy I and the subsequent period of Hellenization. The construction of a Serapeum in Rome, close to the temple of Minerva (known as Athena in Greek), further attests to the influence and diffusion of these Egyptian practices.
The field of Egyptian medicine stood as a testament to its advanced development and specialization. Notably, the Surgical Papyrus, discovered by Edwin Smith in 1862, contained descriptions of 48 cases involving head and spinal cord injuries, including conditions such as tetraplegia, aphasia, and hemiplegia, with corresponding brain lesions. Remarkably, this ancient text also documented the presence of cerebrospinal fluid, dating back to 2500-3000 BC. It is worth noting that the Western understanding of cerebrospinal fluid was not described until the 18th century by Domenico Cotugno in Naples, a staggering time span of 4,500 years.
The Edwin Smith papyrus serves as a compelling example of the seamless integration of medical science and its sacred dimensions in ancient Egypt. Similarly, Greek Asclepions, including the celebrated physician Hippocrates, who was believed to be a direct descendant of the God of Medicine Asclepius, featured priests who were also physicians. These healers bridged the realms of naturalistic medicine and sacred practices, recognizing their inseparable connection. Hippocrates himself embodied an enlightened and rational approach, surpassing the narrow confines of modern reductionist biomedicine. His philosophy centered around the concept of “dýnamis” (power), emphasizing the dynamic interplay of the mind, body, and environment as an indivisible whole.
In Plato’s Phaedrus, this holistic perspective is eloquently alluded to when Socrates questions whether it is possible to gain a true understanding of the soul without comprehending the nature of the entire world. The response from Phaedrus cites Hippocrates, who highlights the necessity of embracing the interconnectedness of the mind, body, and the world in order to truly comprehend the intricacies of the body.
Hippocrates’ holistic approach introduced profound wisdom, recognizing that the mind and body cannot be fully understood when isolated from one another or from their larger context. Although the precise definition of the concept of the whole (“hólēs phýseōs”) remains elusive, it is reasonable to interpret it as the dynamic interrelationship between the mind, body, and environment. This concept remains relevant and worthy of consideration, especially in light of the limitations imposed by a positivist-materialist stance, which often disregards the vital roles of subjectivity and consciousness.
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The Mystical Journey of Asclepius’ Temples
In the realms of ancient Greece, the cult of Asclepius flourished, weaving a tapestry of medicine, spirituality, and profound healing. Tracing its roots back to the pre-Homeric era, this sacred tradition endured until the 4th and 5th centuries AD, leaving behind a legacy that transcended the boundaries of time.
The temples of Asclepius were not mere structures; they were vibrant ecosystems, intricately designed to address the holistic needs of patients’ bodies and souls. These magnificent edifices, such as the renowned Asclepius temples in Epidaurus, stood as symbols of hope and refuge. Within their hallowed walls, a symphony of healing unfolded, embracing the interplay of physical and spiritual well-being.
Imagine stepping into one of these extraordinary temples. As you traverse its halls, you encounter not only a place of medical care but a sanctuary for the human experience. The temple complex was a symphony of interconnected spaces, including the stoa, a hostel where patients were admitted, a theater that staged Greek tragedies, and a gymnasium where the body found solace and rejuvenation. Every element played a vital role in the grand symphony of healing.
Greek tragedies performed in the theater held a profound purpose. They served as a portal for patients to confront the depths of human existence, delving into the recesses of psychosocial challenges. These cathartic experiences paved the way for emotional release and, ultimately, healing from psychological suffering. The therapeutic power of storytelling intertwined with the art of medicine, creating a harmonious blend that transcended the boundaries of conventional treatment.
In the innermost sanctum of the Asclepius temples, known as the “sleep temples,” an ancient ritual called incubation unfolded. Here, patients were admitted to the Einkometerion, a secluded space known as the abaton, accessible only to those prepared to commune with Asclepius, the god of healing. Within this sacred chamber, incubation was induced, guiding the patient into a state of dreams where Asclepius himself would impart divine instructions for healing.
At the Temple of Epidaurus, patients embarked on a multi-tiered journey. They ascended to the upper floor, purifying themselves with water and immersing themselves in narratives of miraculous healing. It was a time of preparation, a transformative process that cleansed the mind and spirit in anticipation of what lay ahead. As they descended to the ground floor, the realm of incubation, the stage was set for a profound encounter with divine wisdom.
The ritual of preparation itself was a tapestry of intricate steps, beginning even before one entered the temple’s sacred precincts. Purification rituals, including dietary restrictions, bathing, and a three-day abstinence from sexual activity, were undertaken. A detachment from both the beginnings and endings of life was observed, symbolizing a transcendence of the mortal realm. Sacrifices, be they animals or offerings of sweets and honey, were made, symbolizing a willingness to surrender and embrace the healing journey. The proper attire, a white gown, signaled not only one’s intention to undergo incubation but also the embodiment of purity and devotion.
In the pursuit of purification, the ancient wisdom echoed the profound maxim “gnôthi seautón,” know yourself. Just as the Apollo temple in Delphi bore this admonition, it stood as a reminder that accessing oracles and divine wisdom required a sound and neutral mind. To interpret the messages of the gods, one had to embark on the journey of self-discovery, unburdened by clouded thoughts and personal biases.
In the early stages, incubation involved simple and directive suggestions for recovery. Patients would receive gentle guidance and encouragement, setting them on the path toward restoration. As time went on and medical knowledge expanded, the practice of incubation evolved. Therapeutic suggestions became more sophisticated, encompassing advice on proper behavior, dietary regimens, and physical activities tailored to each individual’s needs.
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The evidence strongly supports the idea that the ancient practice of incubation was an early form of clinical hypnosis, with its roots in ancient times. This psychosomatic procedure, characterized by a focused state of mind, was not only used for healing but also as a sedative and pain reliever during surgeries. In ancient medicine, illness was seen as a disturbance in the mind-body connection, recognizing the significant role of the mind in the recovery process.
Healing, from this ancient perspective, involved an experience that was akin to being on the threshold between life and death. It resembled the state of hibernation in animals, where the body entered a deep rest phase. Interestingly, this procedure shared similarities with various non-ordinary mental states such as shamanic journeys, near-death experiences, and the initiation ritual in the Eleusinian Mysteries. These parallels also drew connections to hypnosis, highlighting the profound potential of the human psyche.
The practice of incubation persisted for approximately fifteen centuries in ancient Greece, from the pre-Homeric era to the 4th and 5th centuries AD. Even during the early stages of Christianity, incubation coexisted with the medical practices of early physician-martyrs like Cosmas and Damian. It survived in the shrine of the Egyptian saints Cirus and John near Canopus, representing a blend of Greek-Egyptian traditions that managed to endure within early Christendom.
However, when the Catholic Church became the state church of the Roman Empire in 380 AD, it actively sought to eliminate pagan practices. Christian hagiographic propaganda aimed to suppress ancient traditions, resulting in the construction of Christian churches on top of former pagan temples and the integration of Christian rituals with pre-existing pagan ones. For instance, Christmas became intertwined with the celebrations of deities like Mithra and Helios, centered around the winter solstice and the birth of light.
Although the care of the sick was highly valued within the Church, and Christ himself was revered as a healer of both body and soul, Christian propaganda sought to dismantle the practices associated with Asclepius medicine. Early Christian physicians became anárgyroi, providing free treatments, and pagan treatment centers transformed into Christian hospitals. Figures like Clemente of Alexandria and Origen discredited Asclepius and his followers, portraying them as false gods or influenced by demons.
As a result, the practice of incubation gradually faded away, along with the traditions of Asclepius and Apollo medicine. Some remnants of incubation persisted in a syncretic form during the Middle Ages, although the term itself was lost. Accounts of healing experiences in Christian shrines near the tombs of saints emerged during the 9th and 10th centuries AD. These reports described individuals spending the night in a state of sleep but with clear awareness, seeking healing within the sanctuaries.
While the term “incubation” disappeared, this description pointed to an altered state of consciousness—an intermediate condition between wakefulness and sleep. This altered state remained a crucial prerequisite for healing. Today, places like Lourdes serve as remnants of a thousand-year-old tradition that originated in prehistory and spanned three millennia, where skilled physician-priests practiced their craft in Egyptian and Greek temples. However, without the technical support provided by Christian priests, incubation became solely dependent on the patient’s faith and hope. The art of healing, along with its associated procedures, was lost forever.
Nevertheless, the belief in miraculous healing persists today, evident in numerous churches and holy places. This enduring phenomenon may not be mere superstition but rather a reflection of a clinically relevant yet misunderstood psychosomatic potential. It represents an unyielding human need, perhaps an innate ability, that has persisted from ancient times to the present. Perhaps, the true nature of this potential extends beyond faith and divine intervention, waiting to be fully understood and utilized in a more profound way.
Facco, E. (2021, July). Learning From the Past: From Incubation in Ancient Egypt and Greece to Modern Hypnosis. ResearchGate. Retrieved from
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