Scholars' Association News
Issue 39
July 2016


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Dreams of the Greeks
by Prof. Dimitris I. Kyrtatas

The ancient Greeks set great store by their dreams. From the Archaic period to late antiquity, they regularly narrated them, evaluated them, attempted to interpret them and, if possible, depicted them on ceramic pots and in paintings. The content of dreams was frequently recorded in historical works, philosophical treatises and even in inscriptions. Of course, not everyone agreed about the right way to interpret them, nor about the precise origin of dreams. Often, dreams were divided into those which were full of meaning, and fraudulent dreams. For some, it was once believed that they were the mere vestiges of recent thoughts, or that concerns about day-to-day issues and trivial matters fed dreams. However, they were more frequently considered to have been divinely inspired or sent by the gods, although some still had reservations because they believed that divine ambitions also included misleading mankind.

Of course, the charm of dreams lay in their mystical and mysterious properties. They gave the impression of communicating with people who lived far away or even with the dead. They depicted unknown lands. They brought back to mind forgotten experiences. They gave hope to the desperate and courage to the frightened, but could also cause terror, anxiety or despair. Most Greeks believed that their dreams brought them into contact with a world which is not usually visible; a world of spirits or the gods themselves. So dreams were accorded a prognostic function, or more frequently an advisory or warning function.

The universality of the phenomenon caused great impression. It was not just the wise, the educated or the virtuous who saw dreams. It was everyone: the humble man, the sinner and the wronged; young and old alike; Greeks and barbarians; kings and commoners. The universality of the phenomenon served to emphasise its broad, all-encompassing value.

To determine the meaning of their dreams, many turned to acquaintances and friends with relevant experience. In quite a few cases, they sought advice from professional dream interpreters or dream books. Moreover, there were oracles scattered across Greece dedicated to unravelling the meaning of dreams.

The Greeks tried to utilise their dreams to improve or regain health. The most popular way was to visit an Asclepeion (a temple dedicated to healing god Asclepius) and stay there. After purification and sacrifices, visitors would spend the night in the temple and await divine counsel. Expertly-trained priests then undertook to interpret these night-time missives from the gods and to recommend courses of treatment.

Dreams also have a very strong presence in almost all Greek novels. They affect the plot and direct the action of the heroes. Clearly, they are fake dreams devised by the authors. Yet, to be persuasive they follow all the conventions of real dreams. With meticulous detail they offer a great introduction to how dreams of real, everyday life are perceived.

Some of the most comprehensive and instructive information about dreams comes from the early centuries of Christianity. The biblical texts, especially in the New Testament, frequently refer to the prophetic power of dreams. Dreams are also often found in the lives in hermits and saints. Physical exercise made the spirit receptive to dream-like experiences, while the desert was the best environment.

Two valuable collections have been preserved from the 2nd century AD: Artemidorus’ Oneirocritica (The Interpretation of Dreams) and Aelius Aristides’ Sacred Tales. These are amazing works that shed light on numerous aspects of the Greek culture. A professional interpreter of dreams, Artemidorus brought together a number of dream narratives, classifying and grouping them by type and recommending methods for interpreting them. A well-versed rhetorician, Aelius Aristides at some point began to record his own dreams, deeply convinced that they would bring him into contact with Asclepius who would give advice on how to restore his much troubled health.

However, it never crossed the Greeks’ mind that the dreams were related to the past, and certainly not the distant past. A conversation between them and Freud would have been difficult, perhaps even impossible. Their experience of dreams was as something future-oriented and that they were warning them or calling their attention to situations that had not yet occurred. In fact, they believed that in the best case scenario dreams brought them into contact with a world populated by demons, angels or gods. The suggestion that dreams could shed light on some traumatic childhood experience would have appeared incredible to them, and probably not at all desirable.

(Dimitris I. Kyrtatas is Professor of Late Antiquity at the University of Thessaly).

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