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In the City of Corinth, a traveller approaches the steps of a temple to an unfamiliar god. What is the story of the divine physician Asclepius, and his disciple Polyidus?

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  The Healer’s Dream is based on the legend of Asclepius, a Greek deity of healing, whose followers and worshippers were known for the practise of dream incubation. He was the patron god, and reputed ancestor, of the Asklepiades, the ancient guild of doctors.  Individuals who were sick would journey to his temple, the Asclepeion, to receive guidance on how they could be healed from their ills from priestly physicians there known as the Theraputeau. In Asclepius' statues, which would stand in the temple grounds, he was depicted as kindly, bearded man with a staff with a snake coiled around it. This symbol is the Rod of Asclepius, and it is still used today as a symbol of medical and health professions, although it is often confused with the caduceus, the staff carried by Hermes with features two coiled snakes rather than a single one.


The resurrection of Glaucus of Crete is a feat attributed, in different stories, to both the seer Polyidus and the physician Asclepius, so we have merely merged the two into a joint venture in this telling. The story as it relates to Polyidus is thought to be contained in the lost Euripides play, Bellerophon. Whichever of the two revived Glaucus, Asclepius was supposed to have restored a number of individuals to life while he was a man, including Hippolytus, who had been killed by a curse called upon him by his father, Theseus.  Legends tell that he incurred the wrath of Zeus for this perversion of the natural order, and for fear that he would teach this Zeus struck him dead with a thunderbolt. Apollo then appealed to Zeus on his son’s behalf, and Asclepius was transformed into a God, as well as entering the heavens as the constellation Ophiochus.


Serpents are notable in Greek mythology for being associated both with danger and death, but also with healing and life-giving. They were also often believed to be the guardians of sacred springs and wells, which were often believed to have healing properties. This is why non-venomous snakes would often roam freely around the grounds of these temples. As visitors entered, they read testimonials from other visitors to the temple of how the intervention of Asclepius had healed previous visitors to the temple, and see the gifts they dedicated to the god, often carvings depicting the part of the body that been healed. After rigorous ritual preparations of purification, fasting and religious devotions, which could last for days, months or even years, guests would be invited to sleep in the Abaton, or inner sanctum, where they might receive a visit from the God in their dreams. Upon their waking, the priests of the temple would speak with the dreamer to try to interpret messages imparted by Asclepius, and would recommend treatment upon this basis.


Asclepius is mentioned as a healer or physician in the writings of Homer, but was not depicted as divine. His sons, Machaon and Podalirius were called to heal the wound of Philoctetes in the Iliad. The cult of Asclepius as a god of healing did not arise until long after the Bronze Age, and even after the time of Homer. It’s epicentre was the Asclepieon at Epidaurus on the Argolid Peninsula, the mythological place of Asclepius’ birth: the cult rose to the height of its prominence after the plague of Athens in the 5th century BCE. 


The historian Robert Moss argues that the pool of Bethesda, where Jesus is said to have performed healing miracles in the gospel of John, was originally an Asclepian shrine, though one in which he had been merged with the Egyptian God Serapis. Asclepius-Serapis, he believes, would have been the “angel that troubled the waters”, whose healing the people had gathered to receive. Certainly the cult of Asclepius was popular in the Levant at the time of Jesus, just as it was in many places across the Mediterranean, including Rome.




Attempting to induce revelatory dreams is known as dream incubation, and usually involved sleeping in a sacred space or area with the hope of receiving divine guidance or assistance. These spaces could include caves, temples, sanctuaries, groves, tombs, hillsides, wells and even churches, shrines and altars: any place that was thought to have a special connection with divinity.  It is a process that has been part of many cultures and religions throughout human history; in Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity and Buddhism, in ancient China and Mesopotamia and beyond.  For many believers, religion, wellbeing and medicine were all intimately connected. When orthodox methods of care failed, individuals turned to the divine for help, seeking knowledge causes and cures they assumed were not just purely physical, but also moral and spiritual in nature.



Though the methods of the cult of Asclepius may seem superstitious in our era, the practice of dream interpretation was tightly intertwined with the growth of medicine in the ancient world. The order or guild of physicians that emerged in Greece became known as the Asclepidae; some believed them to be the descendants of the god in his human form. The practice inspired and guided many of the intellectual forefathers of scientific medicine; including the Greek physician Hippocrates, and the Romans Rufus and Galen. The original Hippocratic oath required physicians to swear by the gods of healing; Apollo, Asclepius and his daughters, Hygieia and Panacea. These ancient writers tended to view dreams as a very important diagnostic tools. The idea, presented in this story, that sicknesses of the body can be most clearly seen in dreams when removed from the distractions of daily life, is drawn from the Hippocratic text On Regimen. This text, attributed to Hippocrates, may have been written by a different individual, but they would have been part of the same tradition. 


However, this places the dreams of Asclepius at a crossroads in Greek thought. In the majority of Greek myths, dreams are presented as visits, either from dream-spirits, or from real individuals; humans or gods. Naturalistic explanations began to develop with the growth of philosophy and natural science from the 8th century BCE, and by the fifth century, reference to dream spirits had declined considerably. The Hippocratic view mentioned above, as an exploration of the inner life, is a naturalistic interpretation, but many of these influential physicians did have dreams of their own, which they believed to have been visits or messages from Asclepius, including Galen. And even as belief in dreams as external visitations declined, belief in prophetic dreams remained alive; even Aristotle believed that some dreams were genuine guides to future events.




In Greek thought, a pharmakon is a substance which is both poisen and cure, an idea embodied in the ambiguous power of the serpent to deal death and give life.  A herb that brings the dead back to life appears in numerous stories in greek mythology. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, there is a story of a fisherman finds a herb that bring his dead fish back to life, and so he eats it himself. He receives immortality at the cost of becoming part-man, part-fish. This man, as it happens, was also called Glaucus, though no myths have linked him to the son of King Minos.


Some ancient writers have suggested that the herb was actually sown by Cronos, the Titan and father of the Olympian Gods. The herb therefore fits into the mythical pattern of ongoing conflict between the intentions of Zeus and the Olympians on the one hand and the powers that predate them on the other. In another story, the power to raise the dead came from the blood of a Gorgon, which was given to Asclepius by Athena. As the Gorgons were described by Hesiod as descendents of the primordial Gods, this also reflects that basic instability; though the Olympians rule the Earth, there are clearly other powers that defy their order.


The story has echoes in later legends. Alexander the Great was said to have had a dream about snakes and reviving herbs during his invasion of Harmatelia, in present-day India. The Harmatelian soldiers tipped their weapons with snake venom, which caused his soldiers a grim and painful death. Legend has it that Alexander dreamt he saw a snake carrying a specific plant in his mouth. When this herb was applied to the wound of one his soldiers, they recovered, and this discovery allowed his armies to overwhelm the defenders. This is most likely an apocryphal tale designed to heighten the divine significance of Alexander and his campaign, and may, therefore, have drawn from the legend of Asclepius or Polyidus.


Most of the important features of this tale also appear in a Grimm fairy tale called the Three Snake Leaves (Aarne-Thompson type 612). As in the Greek myth, one snake revives another with a special plant (the three leaves) and a human takes it to revive another human. The lasting impact of the herb myth is perhaps unsurprising, given the appeal that the prospect of immortality tends to bring. Through the Christian era, in which God ordained a natural life and death for each person, many people still ardently sought after the philosopher’s stone to provide them with the elixir of life and eternal youth. 

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Sebastian Odell


Rick Scott


Source Texts


Research Sources


 Adrienne Mayor, 'Alexander the Great and the Arrows of Doom', chapter II in Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World (2009)

Further Reading

Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimonies, Volume 1


Story interpreted and performed by Sebastian Odell.
Sound editing, audio design and original illustrations by Rick Scott.

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