Wednesday, August 25, 2021

When Dreams Speak in Riddles: Learning from an Ancient Dream Diviner

Artemidorus was the most famous dream interpreter in the Greco-Roman world. Operating in the second centuty, he was originally known as Artemidorus Daldianus, from his mother's city of Daldis in Lydia, but mostly practiced in the great temple city of Ephesus. He wrote many books, but only one survives: his five-volume Oneirocritica, "The Interprettion of Dreams",from which Freud borrowed the title but not the approach. 

Artemidorus states his general objective at the start of this book. He wants to make a rational and effective case for divination, based on his personal experience and the case studies he has collected.  Second, he wants to offer a practical and original guidebook that any intelligent reader can use. 

He gives his credentials in his opening pages: “I have not only taken special pains to procure every book on the interpretation of dreams, but have consorted for many years with the much-despised diviners of the marketplace…In the different cities of Greece and at the great religious gatherings of that country, in Asia, in Italy and in the largest and most populous of the islands, I have patiently listened to old dreams and their consequences.” [On 1: preface. White pp 21-22] His authority is based on experience: “Everything has been the result of personal experience, since I have always devoted myself, day and night, to the study of dream interpretation.” [On 2.70; White p.158]

Artemidorus proceeds to distinguish different types of dreams. A fundamental difference is between oneiros, which he defines as a dream that “indicates a future state of affairs” and enhypnion – stuff “in sleep” – that “indicates a present state of affairs”, ranging from the state of your digestion to your desire to be with your lover or the haunting images of things that you fear. People who lead “an upright life” try to discipline themselves to avoid being “muddled” by the fears and desires reflected in such sleep experiences, which are the stuff of much modern dream analysis [On 1.14]. In the Oneirocritica, Aretmidorus is interested only in dreams that reveal the future, and only in those that do this through allegory rather than by literal depiction of possible scenes and events. Allegorical dreams are “those which signify one thing by means of another.”

 “The mind predicts everything that will happen in the future.” [On 1.2, White p.24] Artemidorus gives several examples of precognitive dreams that presented future events in an entirely literal way. A man dreams of a shipwreck and then his boat is wrecked and he narrowly avoids drowning, as in the dream. Another dreams he is wounded in the shoulder by a friend in a hunting accident, and again the dream is played out exactly.

If it is possible to dream the future with this kind of clarity, why do we need allegories? Artemidorus gives two reasons. The first is that we may lack the experience to understand a future event perceived in a dream – for example, because we have not yet encountered a person or situation that features in the dream. By setting us a puzzle to figure out, the “allegorical” dream gives us a rational way to access what the larger mind knows about things to come. Second, the kind of dream dramas Artemidorus describes can bring an emotional charge that leads to action; “it is the nature of the oneiros to awaken and excite the soul by inducing active undertakings.” [On 1.2, White p. 23]  

 Artemidorus also notes that while the gods do not lie, they like to speak in riddles. This is because “they are wiser than we and do not wish us to accept anything without a thorough examination”. He gives the example of a man who dreamed the god Pan told him that his wife would poison him via his best friend. It was the relationship that was poisoned, when the wife proceeded to have an affair with the friend. [On 4.71, White p.224]

Thus Artemidorus sets very clear boundaries around the field of dreams he explores in the Oneirocritica. He is going to show us how to decode allegorical dreams in order to discern the future. He is well aware that other kinds of dreams require other kinds of dream work, and he wrote about other types of dreams in books that have not survived, as well as a book of augury – divination by bird-watching. [Price p.29] This approach is completely different from that of Freud, who postulated the equal status of all dreams, all formed by the same mechanisms.

Artemidorus recognized that every dream may be unique. The snake in your dream is not the same as the snake in mine. To read the meaning of a dream symbol correctly, you must know the dreamer’s identity, position in life, habits and medical condition. “You must examine closely the habits of men before the dream….you must inquire carefully into them.” [On 4.59, White pp 217-8 ] Suppose you dream you are made of silver or gold. If you are a slave, this means you’ll be sold; if you are poor, you’ll become rich; if you’re already rich, you’ll be the victim of plots because everyone will be out to get your money.. [On 1.50 White p.57] You must also question the dreamer’s feelings about a dream.

Artemidorus observes that we dream the future for others as well as ourselves. Sometimes we receive a dream message for someone else. “Many dreams come true for those whose characters are similar to the dreamer’s and for his relatives and namesakes.” Artemidorus gives the example of a woman who dreamed she was married to a man who was not her husband. He observed that work with this dream could proceed in several directions, including exploring the possibility that it warned of death; “marriage and death signify each other because the circumstances surrounding a marriage and a funeral are similar.” [On 4.30, White p.204] This association, it turned out, was on the right track, but it was the dreamer’s sister, not the dreamer herself, who “married death” after the dream.   

Artemidorus kept in touch with his clients after consultations, and apparently believed that divination through dreams is for the benefit of the whole community. This carries a burden: “If a man dreams that he has become a prophet and has been celebrated for his predictions, he…will take upon himself, in addition to his own anxieties, those of others.” [On 3.21, White p. 164]

 He wanted to raise dream divination to the level of an applied science. In the view of one modern scholar, Christine Walde, he succeeded. “The more complex aspects of divination – which is the attempt to investigate the connections underlying fate and the cosmos through natural and artificial means – constituted both an ancient mode for mastering life and a way of gaining knowledge or insight that, in the context of its time, can in no way be dismissed as irrational; at most, it might be considered extrarational.” Artemidorus devised a “demystified” approach to divination that “provides the standardized conditions that scientific distance requires” and “an imposing reservoir of knowledge about things in the world and their interdependence.” [Walde 126, 128] 


Artemidorus, Oneirocritica: The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. Robert J. White. Torrance CA: Original Books, 1990, pp. 82-85. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Artemidorus are from this translation.

Price, S.R.F., “The Future of Dreams: From Freud to Artemidorus,” in Past and Present no.113 (November 1986).

Walde, Christine, “Dream Interpretation in a Prosperous Age? Artemidorus, the Greek Interpreter of Dreams” in David Shulman and Guy G. Stroumsa (eds) Dream Cultures: Explorations in the Comparative History of Dreaming. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Text adapted from The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss.Published by New World Library.


 Photo of cat at Ephesus by RM

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