Thursday, March 12, 2009
Gates of Horn and Ivory
Alas, the New York Times, it seems, is not a dream paper, at least when it comes to the coverage of dreams in its "Science" section. In a recent article ("What Do Dreams Mean? Whatever Your Bias Says", March 10) John Tierney pronounces that "for thousands of years, dreamers have little more to go on than the two-gate hypothesis proposed in the Odyssey", thus ignoring a vast and rich history of dreamwork and dream interpretation, which have been of high importance to most human cultures prior to the modern era.
Even in summarizing Homer's "two-gate hypothesis", he manages to distort ancient texts. Homer did not dismiss dreams that come through the Gate of Ivory as "fatuous", as Tierney states.
In the Odyssey, we learn, with Penelope, that dreams that come through the Gate of Ivory are “dangerous” and may not be manifested; dreams that come through the Gate of Horn are clearer, and may be embodied in events. The difference seems to be a matter of clarity rather than deception. Carved ivory is totally opaque; polished horn is translucent.
The gates reappear in the Aeneid but Virgil changes the characterization in his account of Aeneas' descent to the underworld to visit his dead father Anchises. Now dreams that come through the Gate of Ivory are designated “false”, while those that come through the Gate of Horn are "true". This becomes a standard distinction for centuries in the minds of Westerners raised on the classics.
But there is a mind-trap in Virgil's story. Anchises sends his son back from the Underworld through the Gate of Ivory. Is the poet hinting that our ordinary experience of reality is the false dream?
Synesius of Cyrene, an early bishop of the church who wrote a wonderful treatise "On Dreams" around 405, believed there was no question of truth or falsity involved. All dreams are true (though of varying degrees of importance or value); truth or falsity come in through what we make of them, and through our cloudy or confused recollection. I think he was right. The "gates" refer to the quality of our memory of the dreams - blurred or relatively clear.
Our dreams often shake our waking assumptions, serving as a vital corrective to our ego agendas. They hold up a magic mirror to our waking attitudes and behaviors, showing us the possible consequences of what we are doing or not doing. This is one reason why so many human societies have valued dreaming, as the voice of conscience and a means of restoring our inner compass. It may be comforting for those of us who are stuck in our ways to agree with Mr Tierney that dreams mean only what our "bias" says, but dreamers everywhere know better. Even the deeply flawed sociological study that is Tierney's source concedes that "laypeople" (i.e., everyone except paid researchers) "around the world appear to believe that dreams serve an important function and have meaning, revealing hidden truths," whatever researchers say.
Graphic: The illustration is from a medieval manuscript depicting Aeneas preparing to return to the daylight world from his visit to his father in the Underworld via the Gate of Ivory.