Episode 70: Gil Renberg on Incubation

The ancient Hellenic practice of incubation – ritualised dreaming in a sacred precinct to obtain hidden knowledge or healing through a face-to-face dream-encounter with the presiding god – is a puzzle. In a world dominated by public, social cult, incubation offered an open door to one-to-one contact with a god. In the Græco-Roman context, in which many forms of divination were proscribed by the state, incubation occupied a central and universally-approved place in the religious lives of citizens. We have a large amount of data surviving from antiquity documenting miraculous cures at the hand of the god, divinatory visions, and much more, all of it attained through incubation at temple-sites.

In this episode we are fortunate to have Gil Renberg, a leading expert on all aspects of ancient incubation, to lead us through the subject. Topics covered include:

  • The etymology of the basic term incubatio/ἐνκοίμησις, and a basic taxonomy of the types of Hellenic incubation into divinatory and therapeutic,
  • The near Eastern antecedents to the practice (and here important evidence survives in the Gilgamesh epic and Atrahasis, and the question of whether or not Egyptian incubation-practices were autochthonous or developed under Greek influence,
  • The earliest evidence for Greek incubation (starting from the sixth century BCE), and Renberg’s argument that divinatory incubation arises earlier than therapeutic incubation as far as the current state of the evidence shows,
  • A fascinating look at the different cults with incubation-rites, including the famous healing-cult of Asclepius, which spread as far as Rome and beyond, but also the more localised (and sometimes incredibly strange) cults of more minor deities like Amphiaraos, Pasiphæ, Amphilochus, Mopsus, Brizo, and, last but definitely not least, the subterranean oracle of Trophonius,
  • And the final days of incubation, when the pagan cults were gradually suppressed under Christian hegemony. Incubation seems to have come to an end in the fourth century …
  • Or did it? (Cue dramatic music heralding further explorations in the podcast).

Works Cited in this Episode:

Primary:

  • Æschylus: Amphiraos predicts his disappearance beneath the earth, where he will become a subterranean mantis: Seven Against Thebes 587–588.
  • Aristophanes: the messenger-speech describing the act of incubation at the Asklepeion is found at Plut. 649–747.
  • Libanius on the revival of an Asklepeion sanctuary under Julian the Restorer: Ep. 695.2.
  • Livy on Rome’s importation of Asklepios and his incubation-cult through consultation of the Sibylline Books in response to the plague of 291 BCE: 10.47.6–7; cf. Ov., Met. 15.622–744; Val. Max. 1.8.2; and Ps.-Aur. Vict., De vir. ill. 22.1–3.
  • Gilgamesh and Atrahasis: see our interview with Matthew Neujahr for more information about these interesting gentlemen.
  • The Archives of Mari: see Durand 1988 and Dossin 1978 in Recommended Reading below.

Secondary:

  • Gil Renberg. Where Dreams May Come: Incubation-Sanctuaries in the Greco-Roman
    World, 2 vols. Brill, Leiden, 2017.
  • Snyder, Zack. 300. 2006. [The horribly-wrong and cringe-inducing representation of the oracle of Pasiphae in this film must be seen to be believed. But don’t bother.]
  • M.L. West. The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth.
    Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997.

Recommended Reading:

  • P. Cox-Miller. Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a Culture. Princeton, NJ, 1994.
  • G. Dossin and A. Finet. Archives royales de Mari X: correspondance féminine. Paris,
    1978.
  • J.-M. Durand. Archives royales de Mari XXVI: archives épistolaires de Mari I/1. Paris,
    1988.
  • E.J. Edelstein and L. Edelstein. Asclepius: Collection and Interpretation of the Testimon-
    ies. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1998.
  • Hedvig von Ehrenheim. Greek Incubation Rituals in Classical and Hellenistic Times.
    Kernos Supplément 29. Liège, 2015.
  • J.S. Hanson. ‘Dreams and Visions in the Greco-Roman World and Early Christianity’.
    ANRW, 23(2):1395–437.
  • W.V. Harris. ‘Roman Opinions about the Truthfulness of Dreams’. JRS, 93:18–34, 2003.
  • Lynn R. LiDonnici. The Epidauran Miracle Inscriptions. Scholars Press, Atlanta, GA,
    1995.
  • Gil Renberg. Where Dreams May Come: Incubation-Sanctuaries in the Greco-Roman
    World, 2 vols. Brill, Leiden, 2017. [This work is exhaustive, definitive, and makes a great read. It will be the standard study for the foreseeable future.]

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