Aristophanes (c.446-c.386 B.C.) has been called the father of comedy. He was a brilliant satirist, artfully skewering the greed and corruption of leading politicians, and seeking to use his wordpower to undercut the warmongering of demagogues in the era of the Peloponnesian War. Divination was a frequent theme in his plays, almost inevitably, since omens and oracles were of great importance throughout ancient society, and the effort to enlist or confirm the favor of the gods was a constant objective for even the most rational minds.
Aristophanes does not challenge the religious explanation of oracles - that gods speak through a special person and/or a special place, when asked nicely. However, he frequently mocks the crooks who traveled in the guise of a seer (mantis) or an oracle speaker (chresmologos), delivering mesages that wealthy clients or partisan audiences wished to hear. His particular targets are the false prophets who borrow partial texts from oracle books - collected sayings from various sites - and then rework them to suit their agendas, quoting the Pythia or the Sybil as if they are speaking through them, and with them the gods they channel.
In his comedy The Knights, Aristophanes depicts, with savage humor, a duel between two contenders for power. One, under thin disguise, is his arch enemy the demagogue Cleon, here given the barbarous name of Paphlagon and presented as the Boss of the slaves on an estate. His rival is a lowly Sausage-seller, recruited by slaves to challenge the Boss' authority. The winner must gain the approval of Demos, "The People", represented on stage by the actor playing a lone elderly citizen.
The contenders hurl supposed oracles at each other. These sometimes begin in the solemn hexameter of famous utterances, but crumple quickly into burlesque absurdity. Paphlagon isn't as skilled at invention as the Sausage-seller, so he suddenly shifts the substance of the debate from oracles to dreams.
Paphlagon: Wait! I had a dream! I had a dream! I dreamed that our goddess Athena was pouring health and wealth all over Demos’ head! With a giant ladle!
The Sausage-seller is not going to be trumped by what the audience can see is a fake dream invented for the occasion by a desperate mind. He produces a dream of his own.
Sausage-seller: Me, too! I dreamed a dream as well, Demos! Our goddess Athena appeared in person! She came out of the Acropolis with an owl on her shoulder. She poured an amphora of ambrosia on your head and a jug of pickle juice over the Boss!
Demos - that is, The People - laughs till his sides ache. He may or may not believe the dream, but he commends the teller; there is "none sharper". He appoints the sausage man his manager and chief adviser, the new Boss. "You will look after me in my old age and it is now your duty to teach me the new ways of the world."
Through the fun and the ancient politics, we can detect traces of what it means to live in a society where dreams are understood to be a field of interaction between gods and humans. What a deity says and does in a dream can make or break a king, if the dream is believed. So there will be an incentive to fabricate or "improve" dream reports for public consumption.
It is hard for us to imagine a top politician basing their appeal to the electorate on a dream from the night, though not hard to imagine them speaking of a dream as Dr Martin Luther King did. Aristophanes is careful never to impugn the possible veracity of dreams, and he never presents dream interpeters as charlatans. However, in the competition for The People's vote he tips us a wink that what wins the day is not a dream but creative improv: not the Sausage-seller's dodgy dream report but the art with which he crafted it.