Tiber Island, Dream Temple in Rome from 290 BC

Asclepius in Rome

Tiber Island, Rome
Tiber Island, Rome

It seems fitting to follow a post on snakes with a post on the archetype of healing, Asclepius. Homer identified Asclepius in the Iliad as the physician father of a couple of excellent physicians. Carl Kerenyi argues that a narrow interpretation of that slender reference misled Asclepian scholars throughout the nineteenth and half the twentieth centure in assuming he was some local tribesman not far removed from Homer’s hometown. There is evidence of an older and more developed notion of Asclepius and of the wounded healer several hundred years before Homeric times. At any rate, Asclepius is most identified with his major temple at

Asclepius with Serpent-Rod
Asclepius with Serpent-Rod

Epidaurus in Greece, but in the center of Rome, not a mile (as the vulture flies) from the Colosseum, lies Tiber Island, home to an ancient Asclepian Temple. Separating myth and legend from fact concerning the origins of Tiber Island is no easy task, so we will let all three stand together as so frequently occurs in these posts. Tiber Island dates to antiquity and legends that go back to ca. 510 BC and to the fall of the unpopular despot Tarquin the Proud. That a temple of Asclepius thrived there comes into more historical clarity in the documentation surrounding a third century BC outbreak of plague in Rome. The Senate consulted the Sybil, priestess of Apollo, and were told to seek the cure for the plague in “the one who wounds,”  specifically, to fetch Asclepius himself from Epidauros. So a boat was dispatched for that purpose.

Hesitant to leave the comfort of his temple for travel to the Roman Senate, Asclepius agreed to send his proxy in a snake. He announced his decision by appearing – in a dream of course – to the Roman Senator Ogulnius. Ovid gives this a Roman account: “Be not afraid; I shall come and leave my statues,/ But see this serpent, as it twines around/ The rod I carry: mark it well, and Learn it/ For I shall be this serpent, only larger/ Like a celestial presence.” So the divine, celestial passenger rode first class from the Temple at Epidaurus

Tiber Island Coin showing bridges, snake
Tiber Island Coin showing bridges, snake

and within just a few oar strokes of the seat of the Roman Empire, the enthusiastic snake jumped ship and headed for the Tiber Island. Now, if you are captain of that ship, sent to bring home a Greek god and returning empty handed, you have two choices: either admit you lost the sacred snake and that you spent two months traveling for nothing, or amaze the senate with your tale of how the snake chose the island with religious zeal. So there, three hundred years before Christ started teaching, in this manner upon Tiber Island was founded the Roman Temple to Asclepius that later became the site of St. Bartholomew.

So, what happens in a dream temple? Yes, the goal is healing, and just how is this to be accomplished.? Anthony Shafton tells us in the SUNY press Contemporary Dream Reader that the setting and the process was to facilitate a dream through incubation. Shafton reminds us of the Freudian notion of day residue, that virtually anything that happens in the day may become grist for the dream mill. People came to the temple in order to receive inspiration from the god, Asclepius himself, dwelling in the temple, much the same as Christians might look for the Holy Ghost at church.  Now for a fun fact that Shafton points out: The online Merriam-Webster links the word “clinic” to the following etymology:

Clinic MWSo there it is, straight from the Asclepian Dream Temple to the 19th century Viennese consulting room couch. Dreamers were encouraged to relax, bathe, and recline for the dream or vision that would come in the temple. In the Abaton, a holy dormitory, pilgrims would lie on a couch, and sleep for a numinous encounter. The inspiration would carry the medicine. Because a one thousand year old temple stands on the site of the ancient dream temple, there are no archeological excavations of the Dream Temple at Tiber Island to verify location and floor plan. We do know that a well predating the church operated for quite some time, and water was an important cleansing part of the overall healing ritual.

In working with dream images today, it is my belief that every dream -even the dark ones – carry a form of medicine within. The wonderful thing about a dream group is that neither I nor the dreamer has to be smart enough to figure that out – someone in the group will inevitably find a peace that is affirming and available to the dreamer, which the dreamer has the right to accept, reject, or revise. Whether the Greeks and Romans would largely personify Asclepius as the god of the dream, or whether the images themselves seemed to be a part of the pantheon, we can only guess. I suppose many people had concrete notions of Asclepius, and others understood him as a spirit of the living dream image.

Tiber Island Image 4