By Helen King (Monthly contributor)
Have you ever tried writing down your dreams? I had a phase of doing this in my teens. The first thing I did on waking was to see how much I could recall, and I wrote it down immediately – dreams fade very quickly. Why was I doing it? I’m not really sure, but I must have got the idea from reading something. I think it was to do with identifying themes and trying to work out why they were so dominant; was my subconscious trying to tell me something? In the process, I learned the useful technique of how to wake myself up if the dream was going in a very bad direction; I can still do that.
Many people in the ancient world and beyond have thought dreams were powerful, but there is also a strong thread of scepticism. In the second book of Cicero’s On Divination (De divinatione), a debate with his brother Quintus, Cicero tells us that the followers of Pythagoras forbade beans before bedtime, for those who wanted to have more reliable dreams. He correctly observed that “there is hardly ever a night when we don’t dream” so, on the ‘monkeys typing Shakespeare‘ principle, it’s not surprising that sometimes dreams come true.
What do dreams mean?
Cicero also refers to professional dream interpreters. One of the most extraordinary survivals from the ancient world may well be a late second-century CE text, Artemidorus’ Differentiations of Dreams (Oneirocritica), the only example of a dream interpretation book to survive from antiquity. Unlike some modern examples of the genre (and I think I once owned one of these…) which list a symbol and then decode it, Artemidorus thought it was very important to know who was doing the dreaming because a similar dream image could have a very different meaning depending on whether the dreamer was slave or free, rich or poor, in power or not.
Dreaming of a cure
What about the power of dreams to reveal your illness? I once had a series of vivid, terrifying dreams of rivers of blood. I was sufficiently disturbed to go to my general practitioner, who listened carefully and concluded that this could indicate a recurrence of endometriosis. He was right. The Hippocratic treatise Regimen IV suggests that dream interpreters are better at some types of dream than others. They aren’t so good at particular types of dream in which the condition of the body is revealed. For example, the author of this treatise says, in dreams involving a struggle of some sort, the best response when you wake up is to take an emetic and increase your amount of exercise gradually.
However, some people in ancient Greece and Rome went further, believing that the dream could reveal a specific cure. In the sanctuaries of Asklepios across the Greek and Roman world, women and men came pursuing a healing process that included time to dream; the god could heal you during this dream or give you a remedy to apply when you woke up. The most famous patient in the ancient world, Aelius Aristides, spent an unusually long time in the sanctuary dreaming and seeking a cure; he came to see his many illnesses as evidence that Asklepios was particularly close to him.
Artemidorus agreed that the gods can send dreams which cure the dreamer or which tell the dreamer what to do to recover. The example he gives in book 5, where he collects actual dreams, is the man with a stomach problem who prays to the god Asklepios to give him a remedy, and then dreams that the god offers him his fingers to eat. The man then eats five dates and is cured; dates are called daktyloi, ‘fingers’. Here, then, the role of the dream interpreter is to find the pun in the dream’s contents.
Dreaming with Minerva
When I was reading Cicero’s challenge to his brother Quintus’ belief in the power of dreams, I was interested to find this section:
What would be the sense in the sick seeking relief from an interpreter of dreams rather than from a physician? Or do you think that Aesculapius and Serapis have the power to prescribe a cure for our bodily ills through the medium of a dream and that Neptune cannot aid pilots through the same means? Or think you that though Minerva will prescribe physic in a dream without the aid of a physician, yet that the Muses will not employ dreams to impart a knowledge of reading, writing, and of other arts? If knowledge of a remedy for disease were conveyed by means of dreams, knowledge of the arts just mentioned would also be given by dreams. But since knowledge of these arts is not so conveyed neither is the knowledge of medicine. The theory that the medical art was imparted by means of dreams having been disproved, the basis of a belief in dreams is utterly destroyed.
“Minerva will prescribe physic in a dream without the aid of a physician”… What’s this about? Minerva (sort of the Roman version of Athena, although the parallels between Roman and Greek deities can miss out some interesting differences) was one of many goddesses with a healing role. On just one inscription, from Italy, she is ‘Minerva Medica’, Dr Minerva. From the same site, one woman dedicates to her for the restoration of her hair, another after being freed of a serious illness “by the grace of her medicines”. Perhaps in these inscriptions we have an insight into the realities of people dreaming under the influence of a goddess.
Rather than avoiding beans before bedtime, Artemidorus suggests that what mattered most was to invoke the power of the god or goddess before you went to sleep. Others – like Cicero here – may be suggesting that, even if your initial hint that something’s wrong comes in a dream, your first port of call should be the physician.
To find out more:
Steven M. Oberhelman (ed.), Dreams, Healing, and Medicine in Greece: From Antiquity to the Present (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013).