Ecodreaming and Finding Home: the Case of the Bedrock Mortar

We don’t live our lives in a vacuum, but embedded in the natural world.

Of course it can be hard to get past our cultural and personal blinders, that ever-present cognitive domestication of 21st century life.

Enter ecodreaming.

With attention and patience, we can learn to recognize invitations and warnings from our nightly dreams so we can live more in tune with the natural forces that subtly form the container of our waking lives.

As a result, we are more intuitive, emotionally grounded and likely to survive a zombie apocalypse.

When we attend to our dreams, we are building bridges between the waking world and the dreaming world. It’s slow work at first, but then it gets easier, and the results more obvious. Psychic dreams, health warning dreams, and creative insights begin to spill out from one realm to the next.

It’s a feedback loop that gets stronger with each passing night.

Spending time in nature, and reflecting on dreams about nature, brings us closer to the evolutionary conditions from which we originated. In these conditions, intuition and dream-thinking comes in handy in ways that make sense from an ancient but perennial standpoint: to find safety, innovation, and balance in our lives.

And as in the case I’m going to describe here, to find belonging and acceptance.

Uncertain Homecoming

A few years ago, my fiancé and I left Florida after a series of unfortunate circumstances involving her schooling and my work. We came back to the San Francisco Bay Area to lick our wounds. It was 2008, and finances were tight, especially after I lost most of my clients when the recession hit. I was not certain we had made a good choice coming back to California, and was often demoralized.

One night, two months after moving back, I had the following dream:

I walk out into a wooded yard and onto a pile of rocks. I look up and can see beyond the horizon of trees to hills beyond. I see Panola Mountain in the distance, as from the vantage of Mt Arabia. [granite outcroppings in Georgia, where I grew up]. Delighted, I say hello to them and then the horizon spins and new mountain is there – it is Mt Diablo [mountain near where I currently lived in California]. “Diablo!” I say. It is huge, majestic, and lit golden. It [the horizon] spins again and it looks like a wooded hill, green, East coast. Then again: Diablo. Then again: another California hill, and then another. (8/13/2008)

The next day upon awakening I knew immediately what to do: visit Mt Diablo, which was only a 20 minute drive away, and greet it with a personal offering. I had not been there since coming back to CA.

I drove halfway up the mountain, and then got on a hiking trail that my fiancé and I once hiked when we were first dating.

At one point, the trail passes a steep seasonal drainage that cuts down from the embankment above. I felt a sudden—and unmistakable—tugging in my chest to leave the trail and follow up the drainage.

Bedrock Mortars, 2010 CC by Kurt Hunt

So I parted the veil of the thick foliage of scrub oak and climbed up over the rocks, long out of view of the trail below. I felt like I was in last night’s dream. I emerged onto a large flat rock with an expansive view to the West.

Instantly I knew this was the place to make my offering to Mt Diablo. As soon as I had that thought, I noticed the prehistoric bedrock mortar on the stone. A bedrock mortar is a depression in stone that is made by native people to grind plant materials—such as acorns—into meal. I flood of joy washed over me. I intuitively felt that the mountain had called me with last night’s dream, and now trusted me enough to reveal this artifact of the ancient past on Diablo.

The mortar was the first artifact I had ever seen on Mt Diablo, and believe me, I had been looking for years, having logged in hundreds of hours on and off trail.

I wrote in my journal the next day:

“I think it not a coincidence that as I begin to steep myself in men’s psychology, with all its emphasis on yang, drive, and seeking, that Diablo presented me with the receptacle, the woman’s seat, an acorn processing spot from ages ago. Perhaps there is a truth here, that what men are so actively seeking is our own receptacle of surrender. Thank you Diablo for welcoming me here.” [8/14/2008]

Present Day Reverberations

I have been planning to explore this dream for some weeks now. But coincidentally—or synchronistically as Katrina would remind us—I actually found my first bedrock mortars on a hike in Pennsylvania today.

Yeah, today.

It’s too weird not to mention, as the idea to go hiking—on Indigenous People’s Day no less—was a spontaneous decision. Just a few hours later, I was running my fingers along the smooth inner walls of the mortar, imagining the clanging of a river cobble pestle reverberating through the forest.

I’ve been in Pennsylvania for 2 years now, on many hikes and explorations for bedrock mortars and other signs of prehistoric living, so this is indeed an uncanny experience. More importantly, I felt the same kind of belonging from that day on Mt Diablo warm me from the inside out.

Welcome home. You belong here.

When I look back at the dream, I am further struck at the progression of spinning horizons: starting with Panola Mountain  (my boyhood home), then Mt. Diablo (my home in 2008), and then an unknown wooded hill that I described as “a wooded hill, green, East coast.”

Could this be the Pennsylvania woods I visited today?

Or am I just making this stuff up? There are surely moments that I shake my head out how coincidences pile up when doing dreamwork.

This is ecodreaming—there are no sure answers, but if you follow the intuitive pulls from the landscape, you will be rewarded with resounding blessings that ripple backwards and forward in time.

To practice ecodreaming yourself, check out the article I wrote a while back about rock art and dreams. And I invite you to share your own waking/dreaming experiences of nature below. What did you learn? How did it affect your life?

About the Author:

Ryan's recent dream research focuses on lucid dreaming, sacred sites, the anthropology of dreaming, and sleep paralysis. DreamStudies.org

Lucid dreamwork: Healing the Snake Axis

This is the last article in a series about snake dreams. By now, the DreamTribe has explored the meaning of snake dreams from many perspectives: historical, archetypal, snakes as initiation, snakes as earth wisdom, and even how to cultivate your own snakey powers through flower essences.

Today I want to continue the theme of cultivating snakey wisdom through the lens of lucid dreamwork, a method of exploring themes of power and choice in lucid dreams for personal development.

Like most people, my snake dreams have mostly been marked by fear, recoil, and panic. Snakes hold an alien kind of presence—their very existence brings uncertainty and threatens our mortality.

I hold that snake energy is autonomous: it’s not a part of “me.” Rather, snake energy is real, vital, and has its own agenda when it comes in relationship with the dream ego. That is the depth perspective, and it comes with millennia of traditions for snake symbolism as the giver of life and death, and as the ultimate transformer.

But while there are many connections to be made with snake power, the most visible connections to my life have been to creativity, authenticity, and connection to the primal life force.

In my repetitive snake dreams, a large snake is discovered (sometimes red and yellow banded, sometimes green, sometimes black), and invariably turns towards me to attack.  What follows is the predictable dream drama of scrambling for higher ground, and lashing out with whatever defenses I can muster.  I usually awaken panicked and with a sour feel in my belly.

As a lucid dreamer, I began to encounter the snake in my self-aware dreams too. Having conscious choice in these dreams has been transformative of my relationship with snake, although it’s been an ongoing process of many years, not something that happened overnight. And it’s far from over! Like Carl Jung suggested years ago1, repetitive dream series are really more enlightening to work with than solitary dreams, as each dream in the series adds new dimensions to a theme that stretches across the lifespan.

In a memorable and powerful dream encounter eight years ago, I mustered up the courage to stand still and a huge snake crawled up my leg, and wrapped itself around my neck and chest. I held still in its strong embrace and the scene dissolved without further incident. This dream actually stopped my occassional scary snake dreams for quite some time, leading me to believe I had “accepted” my snake power. Not exactly!  Like all worthy adversaries, it came back and presented more difficult challenges.

Two years later, I was invited deeper.

Spiral Snake Staircase

I enter a spiral stairwell and walk down the steps. I am aware I’m dreaming, nervous and excited. The banister is also a snake, winding its way down. I feel a sudden surge of humility as I walk down, knowing I am close to a source of power. The staircase becomes a round tunnel and I slide down quickly, enclosed but not restricted, emerging on a platform.

I look down and am horrified to see that I am bleeding profusely from my chest and abdomen. Blood splatters the floor and I am simultaneously holding a box in front of me that is also bleeding. I feel I am close to something powerful. I hurriedly make one more downward turn, where the axis of the staircase winds tightly into a standing column of blood and light. It is alive, transparent, and pulsing with energy.

I hold up my box and it fits into the column at about chest level. Suddenly, I feel relieved, and am no longer bleeding. Still lucid, but unsure how to proceed, I am struck with a pang of humility again. I fall to my hands and knees, prostrating myself in front of “the source.” I thank it for this opportunity and feel very emotional, both ecstatic and sorrowful. I feel a compassion for myself (in my own thoughts) and I know that I am safe. (recorded in 20062)

I’ve been working with this powerful dream for six years now, and there’s a lot I could say beyond the scope of the conversation today. The dream came at the beginning of a creative surge in my writing career, as I was writing a MA thesis on lucid dreams and becoming more comfortable with my ability to dance with the strong energies from doing intensive dreamwork. That’s the dayworld parallel to this dream.

But for now, I want to draw attention to how the snake in this dream takes on the form of a banister, an architectural feature that literally provides guidance and support for moving deeper to lower levels.

This snake-banister then spirals into a raw energetic source: alive and bristling with power, yet needing something from me –my own contribution. My action completed the circuit, relieving pressure and stopping the leak of life force (blood) from my dreambody. By healing the snake-energy column, my own dreambody is healed.

Towards a Lucid Dreamwork

Lucid dreamwork, as I practice it today, is not only about exploring dream images and symbols, but also the choices we make in our dreams3. Our choices are often hidden in waking life, but in dreams the decision point behind what happens to us (and what we allow not to happen) is easier to spot, as well as the consequences to our thoughts, beliefs and actions. In this dream, I made the choice to follow the staircase down in spite of my fear: that is lucidity at its best, going against the grain. Conscious action to complete the snake column was also integral to the dream, as was the spontaneous decision to enact a posture of surrender.

When do we know we have made good choices?

It’s always debatable, of course, but if you awaken from a dream with increased vitality or energy, that’s a good first sign. Waking up with a feeling of dread, or a sick feeling in the stomach, on the other hand, is a sign that we have worked against ourselves in some way, or that we may have bitten off more than we can chew. Over days and weeks, a transformative snake dream will continue to reverberate, and affect waking life attitudes and choices.

I’m always careful to not use lucid dreamwork to chide myself for not acting this way or that way in the dream– that’s key. It’s not about blame, but about noticing our patterns, and knowing there will be another opportunity to make a different choice the next time we lay down to sleep. In this way, repetitive dreams serve as a living record of how we are balancing our mortal, daily lives with the inner path of soul that slowly unfolds in the dreamworld.


1 The best introduction to Carl Jung’s work with dreams is his autobiography Memories, dreams and reflections.

2 This dream was first publicly shared in Ancestral knowledge in lucid dreams, Electric Dreams, 13(4), with an emphasis on Celtic ancestry and the theme of reverence.

3 My own evolving practice of lucid dreamwork is heavily influenced by the continuity theory of dreaming, and also the clinical work of G. Scott Sparrow.

First Image: Pachacuteq Monument staircase by mcgmatt (CC)

About the Author:

Ryan's recent dream research focuses on lucid dreaming, sacred sites, the anthropology of dreaming, and sleep paralysis. DreamStudies.org

My Training as a Dream Warrior

A few years ago I realized I’d been unconsciously living out my life according to the plot of A Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors.

This 1987 slasher flick centers around a young woman named Kristen (Patricia Arquette in her first role), who leaves her hometown to study dream research after suffering from realistic nightmares starring the gruesome undead figure Freddy. She then returns home, and begins working in a psychiatric hospital to help others who have powerful but destructive imaginations.

But then (cue the creepy music) the nightmares begin again… and this time stronger than ever before.

I had forgotten entirely about this movie, which I must have seen in the 1980s as a child, but apparently it lodged itself so deeply in my mind I decided to go ahead and model my life after it.

Like Kristen, when I was a teenager I suffered from lucid nightmares– those dreams in which you know you are dreaming but feel powerless to act in the dream or sometimes even wake up. I also had some terrifying sleep paralysis nightmares that I was too afraid to mention to anyone lest I be thrown in the lunatic ward.

Trial by horror

Looking back, I see that the dreamworld was throwing initiations at me: important dreams that revealed core fears and wounds, providing opportunities to move beyond them. These dreams often come at transitions throughout the lifespan — the ones on the cusp of adulthood are particularly grueling.

Many of my lucid dreams were also nightmares, just like in this horror movie

But in my late teens and early twenties, I wasn’t looking for knowledge; I was thirsty for experience. So rather than face my fears with equanimity or self-compassion, I dug deeper into the horror with the attitude of “bring it on!”  I thought if I could just embrace the utter depravity of my mind I could somehow rise above it or “integrate” it.

Unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t really work. Rather than heal, I was actually enforcing my core wounds and re-traumatizing myself.

This is an important point as many people think that simply recalling and working with dreams will magically resolve our inner demons. Not so. A powerful dream or nightmare needs to be tended with support from a community or some kind, even if all you have access to is a good book from someone who has trod the territory of the dark heart before.

Dreaming as medicine

Strong medicine is ambivalent: it can kill just as easily as heal, which is why doctors always take an ethical oath at the end of their training.

Dreaming is strong medicine, but I wasn’t treating it that way. I was a natural lucid dreamer and operating under the assumption that I could do whatever I wanted in the dream without repercussions to my own wellbeing. It’s just a world simulation, I told myself, it’s just a schema playing itself out according to my conscious expectations.

Well, that paradigm failed the reality check.

Getting grounded

What happened next is something that probably happens to many who are destined to be big dreamers but unlucky enough to be born into a culture that has no understanding or respect for dream power: I simply lost interest in my dream life altogether. Boredom, as it turns out, is a healthy defense against the unknown.

[pullquote]While I got grounded, my interest in dreams returned.[/pullquote]In hindsight, I was grasping for grounding. I wanted certainties, sure bets, material realities. Now in college, I focused my studies on archaeology, which is about as close to the earth as you can get in academia. I spent two years studying prehistoric pottery in a lab, and then after graduation went on the road as a field archaeologist.

I got grounded alright, spending all day in the woods looking for buried or forgotten cultural sites. For close to a decade, I investigated and recorded historic ruins, ancient American Indian encampments, and excavated some human grave-sites too (as if I needed any more curses).

And slowly, my interest in dreams returned. But this time, I was more respectful of the dream. I didn’t have an agenda, and was more receptive to what showed up. I didn’t always fly away in my lucid dreams, but stayed put and participated courageously. I found allies and spots in the dreamscape where I knew I was safe to speak my truth.

Finding teachers

Still, I knew that I couldn’t hack it alone: the nightmares came back too, and it was time to find teachers. So like Kristen in the Nightmare of Elm Street 3, I went to grad school to get my training. I lucked out, landing in California at the height of an academic dream movement.

I walked away three years later with an advanced degree, but that was just the icing. In grad school, I found a supportive community of elders who knew the territory and spoke from experience. I got serious about dreaming as a spiritual practice, and in the process transformed my dreamlife from one of terror and uncertainty to one of healing, self-discovery and insight into the natural world.

Passing the knowledge on

Since 2007, I began a new life with the aim to encourage dream education and help those big dreamers like myself, especially those who struggle with the isolation that comes with lucid nightmares and sleep paralysis. These visions are gifts, but it takes some time to navigate the realm, and there are no easy answers.

With my son Connor

My central mission today is to reintroduce imagination and dreaming into modern life, and save the next generation of dreamers from having to reinvent the wheel by providing some framework for what we are going through in our dreams, nightmares and waking visions.

My work with The DreamTribe is a key part of this mission.

And interestingly enough, I often now wear the same kind of hat — a fedora– that Freddy sports in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. The fedora is also the hat of choice for ironic archaeologists who grew up in the Indiana Jones era. It’s been with me since my terrorized teen years, my travels, and now my present adventures in parenting and education.

After all these years, the hat fits.

About the Author:

Ryan's recent dream research focuses on lucid dreaming, sacred sites, the anthropology of dreaming, and sleep paralysis. DreamStudies.org

Waiting In The Lucid Void

Since I was a child, I have had conscious dream experiences that take place in immense, spacious realms. Sometimes these spaces are truly voids and my own dream body does not exist. Other times, these spaces fill up with abstract geometric patterns, or multi-colored buzzing particles that resemble the “snow” from a television set.

It’s a terrifying place to be sometimes, simply because everything is stripped away and I am facing the unknown. However, this void simultaneously has held some of my most trusting moments in the dreamstate.

In the lucid void, we have an opportunity to die to our self-perceptions and be reborn in every moment.

Charting Imageless Lucid Dreaming

I call these uncanny spaces imageless lucid dreaming. In the dream studies literature, the works of Kenneth Moss and Linda Magallon in particular resonate strongly with my experiences. More recently, thanks to The Lucid Dream Exchange, I was able to read about many others who have also visited this lucid space that seem to resemble my “void,” most notably Robert Waggoner and Ed Kellogg. Waggoner talks about “the gray state” and Kellogg details his lucid journeys into a vast abstract world he calls “the Matrix.”

[pullquote]We are still in the dark about the state’s physiological signatures[/pullquote]

Also, psychologist Fariba Bogzaran has detailed a similar realm that she has named “Hyper-space lucidity,” characterized by lightning-fast travel and filled sometimes with dark light. For Bogzaran, the experience is non-dual in nature. The spectrum of possibility here no doubt has to do with the individual’s paradigm of reality, mental set, and cultural background.

To date, there have been no laboratory studies that look at this experience in particular, so we are still in the dark about the state’s physiological signatures. Is it REM? Hypnagogia?  Imageless lucid dreaming is in a similar place to where lucid dreaming was thirty years ago: experienced first-hand by many, and scolded by other non-believers that it is merely a “micro-awakening” between dreams.

Until we have third-person validity, therefore, it’s important that we continue to document the first-hand experience of this unique altered state. I hope you join me in this exploration and share your findings.

Moving into the Void

I’d like to now share my lucid void practice that appears to invite powerfully emotional lucid dreams.

By engaging in a meditative state during the lucid void, the dream recrystallizes around you. If you hold an attitude of trust and acceptance, the new dream scene will spontaneously regenerate.

What emerges is different for everyone, but suffice to say that you will be brought precisely to the place you need to be.

It begins with realizing you are dreaming and remembering your intention. You can then enter the void at will by disturbing an ongoing dream scene by walking through a mirror or sinking through the ground, or whatever works for you.

I used to crawl into television sets, but I lost a few opportunities as I would wander around the dream looking for a TV. The best methods are those you can do anywhere, without a prop.

From there, you may experience a number of disorienting spaces.

Entoptica, 2005 Ryan Hurd

I often experience various geometric shapes and bizarre bodily feelings of flying or drifting. Sometimes a vortex is created –such as in my painting above — and I (the ego core without a dream body) enter the swirling lights, travel through a twisty-turny tunnel, and am then spilled out into a dream scene with a normal dream body.

Many of these new dreams would be powerfully emotional dreams, with opportunities for working with issues core to my personal mythology.

Waiting and trusting in the unknown

Try waiting in the void with a meditative attitude.

Notice what is happening around you, and notice your thoughts as they come and go.

Try not to have any goal or expectation, but when one does crop up, note it and then return to your waiting posture. If you feel fear, remind yourself that you’re safe in this space and if you choose, you can wake up at any time.

Sooner or later, the dream will re-form around you.

Where will you end up?

You may be surprised.

This article is adapted from my new ebook Lucid Immersion Guidebook, which is now available on Amazon as a Kindle download.


Bogzaran, F. (2003). Lucid art and hyperspace reality. Dreaming, 13(1), pp. 29-42.

Kellogg III, E.W. (2005) Enter the Matrix: Exploring the Source Code of Dreams. Presentation at the 2005 Psiberdreaming Conference.

Magallon, L. (1991). Awake in the dark: Imageless lucid dreaming. Lucidity, 10(1&2), pp. 46-48.

Moss, K. (1991). Experimentation with the vortex phenomenon in lucid dreams. Lucidity, 10(1&2), pp. 49-51.

Waggoner, R. (2009). Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self. Needham: Moment Point Press.

CC First image: Tunnel by Mariana C.

About the Author:

Ryan's recent dream research focuses on lucid dreaming, sacred sites, the anthropology of dreaming, and sleep paralysis. DreamStudies.org

Hermes and Health: Balancing Curing and Healing in Modern Medicine

What is the universal symbol for medicine?

Chances are, you thought of the caduceus – a staff with two snakes spiraling up, flanked with two outspread wings. Used today by thousands of doctors and medical associations, including the US Surgeon General, this image has a secret history that taps into an ancient mythological power.

But contrary to popular belief, the caduceus is not primarily a healing power. It wormed its way into our mythos in a decidedly slippery way. In fact, the use of the caduceus as a modern medical symbol may actually be the result of a clerical error from the 19th century, in which the caduceus was mistaken for another, much older symbol of healing.

This medicinal bait and switch reveals the underpinning of contemporary medicine, including where we came from, and where we’re headed.

Hermes Slips In

Sometime in the mid 1800s, the caduceus appeared for the first time as an insignia for hospital stewards in the US Army. Stewards were basically well-trained office managers for surgeons: they supervised nurses, prepared drugs, did the accounting, and organized meals.  In 1871, the caduceus was further adopted by the US Marine Hospital Service, which protected and serviced merchant seaman and the growing international trade industry.

The use of the caduceus in these two roles –as business manager and as merchantile protector –makes some sense, as the caduceus is known in Greek mythology as the Staff of Hermes.

This god wears many hats, as Linda pointed out in her piece on the trickster nature of Hermes. He is  protector of sailors, shepherds, thieves, warriors and travelers: all ways of living that exist on the boundarylands of human society. He also shepherds souls from that ultimate boundaryland, the realm of the living to the realm of the dead.

Most importantly, Hermes serves as the spirit of commerce and communication, dealing with exchange and negotiation.

In 1902 Hermes’ staff became the official symbol of the US Surgeon General, as well as the Medical Department for the US Army. Not all were happy about this choice, feeling the symbol had little to do with healing or medicine.

One astute editor wrote, “the rod represents power, the serpents stand for wisdom and the two wings imply diligence and activity, qualities which are undoubtedly possessed by our Medical officers.”1

But healing?  Not so much… or so it seems at first glance.

Aesclepius: the Other Staff

So how did Hermes’ staff pick up the mantel of healing?

Many scholars argue that it was essentially a case of mistaken identity –  the hospital stewards accidentally picked the caduceus rather than the more obvious of healing in Greek mythology: the Rod of Aesclepius.

This rod is depicted with a single snake swirling around it. Almost no one today knows who Aesclepius is, and how he represents the beginnings of Western medicine, even though our medical professionals pledged allegiance to Aesclepius well into the 20th century when they recited the original Hippocratic Oath. (These days, the oaths to Greek gods have been scrubbed, although the original sentiment remains).

Statue of Aesclepius from the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece. CC: DerHexer, 2008.

In Greek mythology, Aesclepius is known as the God of Healing. As a half-human son of Apollo, he teaches that healing is holistic. Vitality in life comes through exercise, proper diet, spiritual practice and mindful study.

During the Hellenistic era (the first three centuries of the Common Era), people flocked to thousands of dream incubation temples that were staffed by priest-physicians. In fact, dream temples made up the single most popular spiritual healing institution in the Mediterranean world, rivaling the early Christian Church.

These restful sanctuaries, set in beautiful settings, were designed to produce dreams that provided healing wisdom—and also instant cures—if we are to believe the boasts of ancient graffiti. Successful cures were honored with inscriptions on the walls of the sanctuaries, acting as advertisements as well.

The dream healers of ancient Greece were also surgeons and herbalists, teaching their young doctors the art of empirical observation coupled with an environment of safety and spiritual cleansing.

Key to the Aesclepian model of medicine is the patient’s responsibility for his or her own healing. Often, healing came from contact with the god Aesclespius — or one of his consorts — in a vision or dream that was incubated through a period of cleaning, meditation, prayer and sleep disruption, much like the contemporary vision quests of Native Americans.

Rather than limiting the endogenous healing response (often called the “placebo effect” today), Aesclepian rituals were designed to heighten, refine and direct one’s intention.

In the Aesclepian model, healing comes from within, especially when we are in balance with nature.

Hermes’ Pills and Other Tricks

Unfortunately, when modern medicine chose Hermes, God of Commerce, over Aesclepius, –whether the choice was made consciously or not — our paradigm of healing changed as well. Hermes is an important figure to have around for accounting for lost souls when your patients are mostly dying soldiers, but not necessarily the best choice for many common soul ailments that metastasize as cancer, depression and other forms of chronic pain.

here’s more to Hermes than cash money. He’s always got tricks up his sleeves.

As others have noted before me, the commercialization of medicine and the rise of the pharmaceutical industry is a further parallel to Hermes-centric medicine. In this sense, medicine has flourished in the 20th century, although the healing process remains an enigma.

Still, there’s more to Hermes than cash money. He’s always got tricks up his sleeves.

In medieval alchemy, the caduceus is a symbol of radical transformation

We must not forget that within Hermes’ legacy is the alchemical tradition, which gave rise to the scientific side of medicine through chemistry and the scientific method. Hermetical traditions are esoteric – they are hidden from view by their very nature. It is in this context that we come back to the caduceus, which with its two intertwining snakes was seen as a symbol of divine balance and the refinement of base energies.

Andrew Weil writes that the caduceus “embodies an esoteric truth that must be grasped to gain practical control over the shifting forces that determine health and illness.”2

Finding Balance in the 21st century

Interestingly, the balance of life and death is also a myth that comes with early myths of Aesclepius. In some tales, he carried two vials of Medusa’s blood: one that healed, and another that killed. Psychotherapist Edward Tick suggests that the ambivalence of Medusa’s blood highlights how important a secure container is for any exploration into healing.3

“That which heals can also kill.”  This is central ethical statement of the Hippocratic Oath, because knowledge of healing carries tremendous power. When I think about the millions of people needlessly addicted to prescription drugs, and the millions of others who have given up all hope for a meaningful life because diagnosis = destiny, I wonder how we have allowed the healing profession to become so unbalanced.

[pullquote]We need both the Aesclepian and the Hermetic side for the healing arts to survive.[/pullquote]

Yet there has also been much positive growth in recent years, as more hospitals and wellness centers are incorporating holistic practices into treatment plans, and patients are given more psychological tools than ever before for directing visualizations and dreams, controlling anxiety, designing a healthy diet, and connecting with nature. All these skills are Aesclepian in nature, a return to the roots of Western medicine.

We need both the Aesclepian and the Hermetic side for the healing arts to make it in the 21st century, not just so we can beat back sickness, but so we can thrive.

What hangs in the balance is not the absence of sickness, but vitality. For Hermes, true healing comes with the transformation of poison into medicine, the rigor of chemistry and the material sciences, and the potential of radical transformation that comes when we court wildness, mystery, and bold exchange with the unknown.

For Aesclepius, the gifts include the holistic sanctuary, the ability for the patient to direct their own healing, as well as the ritual aspects that may allow for contact with the divine powers.

Seems to me, the tremendous growth of complementary and integrative medicine is the fruit of this union, which has just begin to ripen. In that light, I don’t care which symbol of medicine is currently in vogue… as long as healing is allowed to make its way.


1 Emerson, William K (1996). Encyclopedia of United States Army Insignia and Uniforms. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 181–182.

2 Weil, Andrew (2004). Health and Healing: The Philosophy of Integrative Medicine. Houghton Mifflin. p. 45–46.

3 Tick, Edward (2001). The Practice of Dream Healing. Quest Books. p. 25.

About the Author:

Ryan's recent dream research focuses on lucid dreaming, sacred sites, the anthropology of dreaming, and sleep paralysis. DreamStudies.org