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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Caduceus (3k)

Dream incubation

Bob Trubshaw

On the green and abundant Greek island of Cos, the home of the priest-healer Hippocrates, there are the remains of a number of special Classical temples known as Aesculapia, that is, dedicated to the healing god Aeslepius. Considered to be places offering natural healing, they were usually associated with mineral springs - and with large snakes kept in pits. Whether the snakes had a functional part in the healing processes or were symbolic we no longer know. Remember that the magical caduceus of the Greek healing gods features two inter-twined snakes.

What we do know is that, after ritual purification and the offerring of sacrifices to the local deities, the sick person spent a night in a special part of the temple, the incubation. If the gods willed it (and they seem usually to have done so) the patient received a dream. These were interpreted by a therapute (yes, the origin of our word therapist) who made a diagnosis. While this sounds similar to modern-day psychoanalysis, we should remember that the key difference in Classical times was the sincere belief that such dreams emanated specifically from the deities.

The main Aesculpation near Chora on Cos was said to have been under the gaze of a famous statue of Aphrodite. The dream incubation chambers here eventually occupied three terraces, tucked attractively into a fold of the limestone hill. The restoration visible today is of the most recent, Roman, buildings, but there is evidence of several previous enlargements to the earliest Classical shrines.

Another famous Aesculapion was on Aegina at Epidaurus. Little remains of the temple today, although large number of votive offerings - minatures limbs or organs - were discovered. Just such tokens may still be seen today in Greek Orthodox churches, presented by the faithful by way of thanks. The temple at Epidauris became especially popular so an amphitheatre and a large stadium holding 15,000 people were constructed to entertain the patients and their friends. This amphitheatre now forms the main tourist attraction during the summer.

In the words of the arch-raconteur, Lawrence Durrell [1], Cos and Aegina 'seem to bask in the same choice calm and smiling peace.' Durrell was travelling leisurely through the area during the late 1930s and early 40s. He came across a museum curator who informed him that anyone sleeping on the Aesculapion would have confused and frightening dreams. Durrell wanted to try this out for himself, but the outbreak of the Second World War required him to leave Aegina. However, he did visit Cos during the War and came upon a couple of soldiers camping at the Aesculapion there. He stopped to share their brew-up and was informed that they had intially camped among the ruins 'but had slept so badly that they had moved their tent higher up and into the open where there was more wind. I asked if they had any special kind of dream - but no, it was just something about the place that had made them feel uneasy.'

Dream incubation temples are known in Britain. In an especially attractive, and steeply undulating, part of the Forest of Dean near Lydney in Gloucestershire is the Temple of Nodens [2]. The remains which can be seen are of a fairly late (third/fourth century) basilica- type Roman temple. Whether this was a continuation of an earlier Celtic rite is unknown, but is perhaps unlikely as the site had previously been used by the Romans as an iron ore mine.

Another Roman temple has a similar ground plan. This is well within Mercian territory, near Thistleton in Rutland (130:c.910172). Before the rectangular Roman temple there was a circular iron age structure. Successive rebuilding took place during the Roman period, with the final phases being fourth century. To one side was a large building which is strikingly similar to the dream incubation chambers at Lydney and, according to Leicestershire County Archaeologist Peter Liddle, 'might be used for healing whilst visitors were asleep' [3].

The Thistleton temple site was lost to quarrying - for open cast iron ore. The temple at Lydney was preceded by Roman iron ore working operations. It is reasonable to assume that both sites have deposits that are particularly rich in iron and would have a pronounced effect on local geo-magnetic fields.

Paul Devereux has taken a particular interest in stone circles and other places where there are strong magnetic anomalies. Most remarkable perhaps is Carn Ingli in the Presceli Mountains, Dyfed (145:063373) - where the sixth century St Brynach slept and had visions of angels. A number of anolamous experiences have been reported in recent years including 'Earth lights' [4]. Recently Devereux has persuaded a number of volunteers to sleep on this wind-swept peak and recorded their dreams; the results are currently being evaluated [5].

In the same vein, according to folklore reported by Janet and Colin Bord, 'There is a cromlech in Dyffryn woods (probably Tinkinswood chambered cairn) near St Nicholas (South Glamorgan) where it was considered unlucky to sleep on the 'three spirit nights' of May day eve, St John's eve (23rd June) and Midwinter eve. Anyone ignoring this advice would be liable to die, go mad, or become a poet.' One man who did ignore this reported distinctly unpleasant out-of-the-body experiences [6]. This is closely akin to the legend linked to a stone chair on the summit of Cader Idris (Gwynedd), and with other cairns in Wales, such as Bedd Taliesin (Taliesin's Grave) in Llanfihangel, Dyfed.

The susceptibility of the human brain to the Earth's natural magnetic field had been denmonstrated by the work of Dr Robin Baker at Manchester University in the 1970s [7]. He took coach loads of blindfolded students on circuitous journeys and then stopped to let them off. When asked to point the direction of home by far the large majority were more-or-less correct. But placing small magnets on either side of the head during the journey destroys this ability.

As might be expected for semi-nomadic people who cover great distances, Australian Aborigines possess a well-developed sense of direction. Even when taken to hospital many hundreds of miles from home, they can point to 'home' through the walls of the room. Even blind Aborigines have an accurate compass sense. This orientation is inextricably linked to Aborigine language; one cannot simply be said to be lying down, a person always lays down north or falls down south, or whatever [8].

A mechamism for this subtle compass sense was offered by Serena Roney-Dougal [9] who argued that the pineal gland at the centre of the brain (but not, technically, part of the brain) becomes calcified at puberty - and, at this time, becomes sensitive to minute changes in magnetism. The more active aspect of the pineal gland is to control the production of the hormones which regulate sleep - but these hormones are chemically similar to the active ingredients in some psychoactive plants such as the Amazonian vine species ayahuasca, which seems especially effacious in enancing precognition, clairvoyance, healing and out-of-the-body travel.

As I have speculated previously [10] the links between the magnetically-sensitive pineal gland and the brain's natural 'psychoactive' hormones open up the possibility that the journey to a sacred site may be capable of inducing altered states of consciousness. I am not thinking of the typical Mercian Mysteries field trip, where one merely jumps out of a car and strolls across a field, but a more lengthy pilgrimage paced at the body's natural rhythm of walking. This will take one through an ever-changing sequence of variations in natural geomagnetism - caused by underground water, differences in underlying rocks, even fault lines - that may in some way refresh or reactiviate the pineal's functions.

Although not necessarily connected to subtle magnetic sensitivity, other research has revealed how high voltage electricty may cause adverse mental and physical changes in some people [11]. More subtle electrical effects on the brain have been investigated in detail by Michael Persinger and, as recent TV programmes have demonstrated, he now seems capable of triggering on demand experiences which closely resemble 'alien abductions' [12].

What we lack is any direct consciousness of these subtle effects on the brain. By its very nature the pineal gland can only 'communicate' with the brain by the most fundamental limbic processes. In a manner akin to dowsing and other psychic sensitivities, the perceptions are channelled by tenuous methods. The nett result is, at best, impressionistic and resonant rather than focussed and fine-tuned. The nearest way of expressing this in words seems to be in the mythological landscapes of the Australian 'Dreamtime', or the vestiges of 'fairy land' which still endure in our folklore.

But were the subtly-psychoactive effects of magnetism also available in more portable form? The god to which the Greek Aesculpaia were dedicated, Aesclepius, possessed a famous wand which gave the owner the power of healing. Was this, rather than the inter-twined snakes, the real power of the caduceus? [13]

Caduceus (3k)

In this article I have deliberately chosen to emphasise the links between magnetism and dream incubation. Clearly, seeking auspicious dreams, or 'vision questing', is an age-old and worldwide cultural phenomena. In ancient Egypt Thothmes IV, before he became pharaoh, slept near the Great Sphinx and received instructions to clear the sand from that already- ancient monument. A carved stone stela records the dream and deed. Not so far away in time and place, the Hebrew patriarch Jacob slept with his head on a stone and dreamt of a cosmic ladder reaching from Earth to heaven [14]; this is perhaps the best-known of many visionary dreams which feature in the Old Testament.

In an unbroken tradition, Bear Butte mountain in the mineral-rich Black Hills of Dakota remains a vision quest site for Plains Indians. Indians in New England appear to have chosen as 'praying villages' places in close proximity to the most significant geomagnetic anomalies [15].

The Chumash Indians until recently went into the hills above Santa Barbara, California, where there are hundreds of caves used to seek visions, some of which have been recorded in the extradordinary rock art and carvings [16]. The links between rock art and altered states of consciousness among the traditional people of southern Africa have been explored by the anthropologist J.D. Lewis-Williams [17]. Neolithic rock art and probable links with initiations and - although the evidence is insubstantial - maybe also altered states has been revealed in southern Italy [18].

The British Isles has its own traditions of vision seeking, some of which entail sleeping wrapped in the hide of a sacred ox, as Penny Drayton has recently explored in Mercian Mysteries [19].

Our modern day minds generally find it difficult to atune to subtle and diffuse perceptions and have little time for 'vision seeking'. We are not, therefore, well-placed to begin researching the mechanisms by which our ancestors responded to changes in consciousness - slight or otherwise - which natural electromagnetic effects might trigger. That the brain can be affected by geomagnetic fields is beyond dispute; the links between magentic anomalies and sacred sites seem increasingly unlikely to be merely coincidental (although further work is undoubtedly needed); and we are yet to really grasp how this might affect sleeping or waking consciousness. Given the high levels of man-made electromagnetism, perhaps it is doubtful if we can ever get back to the unsullied subtleties of pre-twentieth century landscapes.


1: Lawrence Durrell, The Greek islands, Faber, 1978
2: Lydney Park Gardens are open to the public only on a few days between April and June. Dates and times vary each year. Information from 01594 42844. Although many votive offerings were recovered at Lydney there are no depictions of Nodens. Intriguingly, the most attractive of the offerings is a miniature of a dog. In Celtic lore Nodens links to Nuada who was especially associated with dogs. In Greece there is a folk belief that the lick of a dog can heal a wound - and this have been part of the healing process at Lydney and the Aesculapia (it also has intriguing links with the concept of the dog being the pre-eminent 'liminal' species of animal, as explored in my 'Black dogs - guardians of the corpse ways' in Mercian mysteries No.20 1994
3: Peter Liddle, lecture to Loughborough Coin and Search Society, 1991 reported previously in my article 'Does magnetism distort your dreams?' in Mercian mysteries No.6 1991.
4: Paul Devereux, Places of power, Blandford, 1990.
5: For an insight, see Lawrence Main 'A sleeping angel, goddess and giant', The ley hunter No.122, 1995
6: J. and C. Bord, The secret country, Paladin 1978
7: Robin R. Baker, 'A sense of magnetism', New scientist 18th Sept 1980
8: C.G. von Brandenstein, Narratives from the North West of Western Australia, Australian Aboriginal Studies No.35, Linguistic Series No.14, 3 Vols; cited in James G. Cowan, The elements of the Aborigine tradition, Element 1992
9: Serena Roney-Dougal, Where science and magic meet, Element 1991 (also 'Earth, science, magic - the pineal connection' in The ley hunter No.114, 1991 and a lecture at The Ley Hunter Moot 1991)
10: 'Magnetism does distort your dreams', Mercian mysteries No.10, 1992
11: M.G. Morgan et al. 'Power line fields and human health, IEEE spectrum Feb 1985 p62-8; Albert Budden, 'The "Quantock horror" revisited', The ley hunter No.122 p10-13
12: Susan Blackmore, 'Alien abduction - the inside story', New scientist, 19 Nov 1994 p29-31; BBC2 Horizon on 'Close encounters' broadcast 28th Nov 1994.
13:This idea is suggested by Elizabeth Pepper and John Wilcock in Magical and mysterious sites, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1976
14: Genesis 28:11-22
15: James W. Mavor and Byron E. Dix, Manitou -the sacred landscape of New England's native civilisation, Inner Traditions International 1989
16: James A. Swann, 'The spots of the fawn' in J.A. Swann (ed.) The power of places, Gateway 1993
17: J.D. Lewis-Williams and T.A. Dowson, 'The sign of all times' in Current anthropology, Vol.29 No.3 1988; also popularised by R. Lewin as 'Stone age psychedilia', New scientist, 8th June 1991
18: Ruth Whitehouse, Underground religion, Accordia Research Centre, 1992
19: Penny Drayton, 'Oxhide myths' in Mercian Mysteries No.22 1995

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.23 May 1995.

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