The Miracles of Saints Cosmas and Damian: Characteristics of Dream Healing
By Ildikó Csepregi
Annual of Medieval Studies at CEU, Vol. 8 (2002)
Introduction: In antiquity, dreams were regarded everywhere as a means of contact with the supernatural, and while they were made a frequent theme in philosophical and scientific speculation they remained an everyday experience. Among the Greeks, two major fields existed for the operation of dreams in the framework of religion: divination and dream healing. One common type of dream healing took a form called incubatio in Latin and enkoimesis in Greek, in which the believer went to a specific place (temple, church, tomb, or cave) to sleep there either to obtain a cure or receive oracular advice. The fact that the medium of each was the same, a dream sent by a god, enhanced the similarities between dream healing and the oracular dream. In antiquity, incubation was an important element of worship and played a major role, above all in the cult of Asclepius the healing god. We have a great number of testimonies relating to the practice of incubation in his cult, both from ex votos placed in the temple, inscriptions compiled by priests, and from personal experience, e.g. Aelius Aristeides’ autobiography, in which he records his dreams received from Asclepius, who directed his life for decades.
Due to the intertwined nature of the cult’s healing practices and the oracle, dream-responses frequently involve word-games, riddles, or indirect prescriptions. The mechanism of a healing dream and an oracular dream was often the same. A famous example will help to illuminate the phenomenon. When Alexander the Great was besieging the city of Tyre, he saw a satyr, satyros, in his sleep and his dream-interpreters were happy to inform him that the dream meant sa Tyros, Tyre is yours. He then redoubled his attack and took the city: the point was that he had to chase the satyr for a long time, but finally managed to catch him. This type of wordplay functioned in a similar way in medical prescriptions: a man seeking health dreamed that Asclepius stretched out his fingers (daktyloi) as a sign that he should eat dates (daktylos). Playful prescriptions and riddles were closely connected with Asclepius’ well-attested sense of humour.
My favourite example is the spontaneous cure of a blind man who received a sealed letter from the god. While he struggled to decipher the text his eyesight returned. The words he read were: “two thousand gold pieces.” Sometimes solving a riddle or understanding a pun brought an immediate cure; in other cases, especially in punishment miracles, when the god wished to teach a good lesson to the incredulous or the unjust, we meet with “bad jokes.” The strangeness of the remedy works on the patient in another way, too: “The god tells him to do things which would make end of an ordinary man. The sick man not only survives these things, but thrives on them. The more unheard of the treatment is, the more the patient is convinced that the god is interested in his case, that his case is a special one, and that he is the most privileged being on the face of the earth.”
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