3) Oracular incubation

In Gallo-Roman times, it was a common procedure to ‘incubate’ sick people in thermal establishments. Incubation, known from the Greek and Roman worlds, was practiced in a specific room or in the temple dedicated to the healing deity, which consisted in a series of rites aiming at salving pilgrims’ pains more quickly.2415 The sanctuary of Asclepius,2416 erected around 500 BC at Epidaurus (Greece),2417 was renowned for its practices of incubation, which was said to be quite effective for the patients in search of recovery. Some of the sick people, after praying and taking the waters, would remain overnight on the premises of the sanctuary to sleep. If they were lucky enough to come into contact with the healing god or goddess, who would appear to them in a dream or vision, they were believed to recover more rapidly.2418 The deity would directly heal the patient during the night, or would procure recipes for salves and ointments to be applied externally, or would give advice on the peculiar foods or plants to be eaten or avoided, etc. The doctor-priests, who played the role of the intermediary between the pilgrims and the healing gods, had sometimes to interpret the riddles or obscure dreams which the patients had had the previous night, or expel the diseases by the use of specific spells or rites indicated by the deity. They also had to make the curative preparations, the formula of which had been revealed by the gods. Those remedial mixtures required deep knowledge of the essence and combination of the natural products, of which the priests were the only holders.

Incubation was not within the reach of everybody, since it touched the supernatural and esoteric sphere. It is indeed highly likely that intoxicating beverages, concocted by the priest-doctors, were ingested, so as to facilitate the connection with the healing deity during the night. It is all the more probable as intoxicating drinks, such as mead, had a double function, i.e. enabling the patient to establish a connection with the otherworld and purveying primary curative effects at the same time.

Even if oracular incubation is not attested for the Celts as regards the field of health, Nicandre stipulated that they had recourse to this practice near the burial places of their dead.2419 It is actually the exact same tradition of sleeping near the burial of a deceased person or near the sanctuary of a god, with the intention of meeting the ancestors or the deities through a dream. If oracular incubation was accompanied with rites of intoxication facilitating the contact and the visit of the deity, the Comedovae could have been the embodiment of some religious customs which consisted in absorbing an intoxicating beverage (mead) in a medicinal context, so as to approach the divine, open the spirit, obtain answers or remedies to relieve the pains. In addition, mead could have at the same time been thought to act on the various illnesses, on account of its diverse beneficial virtues. Accordingly, the ingestion of curative-intoxicating beverages would have been concomitant with votive offerings, ablutions*, incantations and prayers addressed to the deities.2420 And this medico-religious practice could have survived in the very name of the Comedovae, who personified the drink itself, as well as its powerful restorative virtues and the rites of intoxication attached to it.


King, 2001, pp. 3-8 ; Nutton, 2004, pp. 103-114 ; Brunaux, 2000, pp. 178-179.


The god Asclepius was the son of Apollo and one of the most famous healing gods of the Classical world.


Epidaurus is an ancient city of Argolide, a mountainous region of Ancient Greece situated in the north-east of the Peloponnese, which is a peninsula in the south of Greece.


Nutton, 2004, p. 279 refers to Galen of Pergamum’s Commentary on the Hippocratic Oath, a prominent Roman physician and philosopher of Greek origin, who reported that many people had been cured through dreams and visions sent by Sarapis or Asclepius, at Epidaurus, Cos or Pergamum, his home city, and that “people in general bear witness to the fact that god has given them the craft of medicine through inspiration in dreams and visions.”


Brunaux, 2000, p. 179.


Nutton, 2004, p. 269 ; King, 2001, p. 6 explains that ancient Egyptian medicine, known from the Edwin Smith papyrus, dating from the 7th c. BC (a copy of text from a thousand years earlier), was also composed of treatments and recipes based on medicinal herbs and accompanied with magical incantations and rites.