Sunday, January 29, 2023

Synesius on the Dream Oracle


You have direct access to sacred knowledge, in your dreams. Your dreams are a personal oracle that reveals the future and helps you prepare for it. Don’t let anyone tell you what your dreams mean; get rid of dream dictionaries. Pay attention to signs from the world around you; know that everything in the universe is interconnected and constantly interweaving. Use your imagination. What you grow there will be stamped on your world and on your soul – on the energy body in which you will travel to another life after death. [1] 

Amazingly, these insights come from a fifth-century bishop of the church. His name was Synesius of Cyrene, and his treatise On Dreams, composed around 405, is one of the wisest books ever written on dreams, coincidence and imagination. Synesius was a most unusual bishop. In his life and work we find – alas, only briefly – a confluence between the best of the ancient practice of philosophy and the new religion of the Roman empire.

Synesius was a Greco-Roman aristocrat who could trace his pedigree back to the founders of Sparta, seventeen hundred years before him. He lived on a great estate in Cyrene, part of modern Libya, enjoyed the pleasures of both the hunt and the study, and chuckled over the fact that rural folk in his area still thought “the king of the world” was Agamemnon. [2]

 He had the best education possible in his time, in Alexandria, in the school of Hypatia, the extraordinary woman scientist, mathematician, and Neoplatonist who strode the streets of the world-city in her philosopher’s cloak, surrounded by eager students. 

It was in Alexandria that Synesius experienced his first and deepest conversion, when he found “the eye of the soul” within him opening to reveal the sacred depth of the universe. His consciousness expanded to give him the clear vision of the One beyond the many. He saw the reality behind the forms of religion. In his quiet hours, he dedicated himself to “mysteries without rites” devoted to awakening the divinity within the human that corresponds and coincides with the divinity within and beyond the cosmos. [3] He was a convert to philosophy as it was understood in the Greco-Roman world: the love and practice of wisdom. 

It was in Alexandria, around 405 and recently married, with the Barbarians at the gates of Rome, that he wrote his treatise on dreams. 

He makes it clear that his discussion of dreams is grounded in personal experience. Dreams have guided him in the hunt, showing him how and where to find the game. Dreams have led him to “swarms of wild beasts that have fallen to our spears”.[4]

He was guided by dreams when his city sent him to Constantinople to plead for favors from the emperor. In a hothouse of political intrigue, his dreams helped him to tell friend from foe, and alerted him to hostile intrigues in which his enemies hired “ghost-raising sorcerers” to attack him by black magic.

The dream oracle “helped me in the management of public office in the best interest of the cities, and finally placed me on terms of intimacy with the Emperor.”

His dreams contributed to his success as a writer and orator. The dream source “frequently helped me to write books”, correcting his style, and helping him to prune archaic Attic expressions – products of his love of old books - from his essays and poems. 

Synesius explains that dreams are “personal oracles”. We want to claim authority over our own dreams and reject anything and anyone who tries to come between us and the dream source. “We ought to seek this branch of knowledge before all else; for it comes from us, is within us, and is the special possession of the soul of each one of us.

The dream oracle speaks to us wherever we go. “We can’t abandon this oracle even if we try. It is with us at home and abroad, on the field of battle, in the city and in the marketplace.”

Dreams are our common birthright. They belong to rich and poor, to kings and to slaves. The dream oracle turns no one down because of race or age, status or calling.

Even the worst tyrant is powerless to separate us from our dreams – which may hold the key to his overthrow – “unless he could banish sleep from his kingdom”.

“Dream divination is available to all, the good genius to everyone.”

It is no wonder that dreams show us the future, because dreams are experiences of soul and “the soul holds the forms of things that come into being”

 Synesius dismisses dream dictionaries – popular in his time, as in ours – with admirable vigor. “I laugh at all those books and think them of little use”. General definitions don’t work because each dreamer is a different mirror for dream images – some are funhouse mirrors, some are made of varied materials. Big dreams do not require interpretation; their meaning is in the experience of the dream itself. Dreams that are “more divine” are “quite clear and obvious, or nearly so”, but come only to those who live “according to virtue”.

Steeped in Homer, he can’t avoid mentioning the scene in the Odyssey where the Gates of Horn and Ivory are described. In his view, both Homer’s Penelope and legions of commentators and borrowers failed to understand that dreams, in themselves, are never false. Penelope assumes that there are true dreams and deceptive dreams “because she was not instructed in the matter.” Deception arises through false interpretations, not false dreams. If Penelope had understood the nature of dreaming better, “she would have made all dreams pass out through the Gate of Horn…We should not confuse the weakness of the interpreter with the nature of the visions themselves.”

 Synesius recommends setting an intention for the night. “We shall pray for a dream, even as Homer prayed. And if you are worthy, the god far away is present with you…He comes to your side when you sleep, and this is the whole system of the initiation.”

 Synesius also stresses the value of keeping a dream journal, and of writing and creating from dreams. “It is no mean achievement to pass on to another something of a strange nature that has stirred in one’s own soul”.

 Synesius urges us to keep a “day book” for our observations of signs and synchronicities as well as a “night book” for dreams.  “All things are signs appearing through all things…they are brothers in a single living creature, the cosmos…they are written in characters of every kind”. The deepest scholarship lies in reading the sign language of the world; the true sage is a person “who understands the relationship of the parts of the universe”.

 Five years after writing his essay On Dreams, Synesius was persuaded by Theophilus, the Patriarch of Alexandria, to accept the bishopric of Ptolemais. It seems that he was baptized at the same time, rather late in the day according to our common understanding of what is involved in becoming a bishop of the church.

Synesius’ entry into the episcopate was a political, rather than a spiritual, event. The influence of his wife – who he loved deeply – may have been important; she was presumably Christian, since Theophilus was at their wedding in 403. Winning an aristocratic philosopher to the church was a coup for the Patriarch; though Christianity had become the religion of the empire, the old houses were still keeping their distance. For Synesius, assuming the rank and responsibilities of a bishop was both a case of noblesse oblige and an accommodation to the movement of history. In 399, the Serapeum – the great temple complex of Serapis at Alexandria – had been destroyed, and the might of the Roman Empire was now being used to stamp out pagan practices. The new God was fast supplanting the old ones.

In theological language, Synesius joined the Christians through adhesion rather than through the transformative experience of a full conversion. [5] But we can trace some possible lines of convergence between his philosophy and the Christian message. He believed in One divinity, behind the many forms of the divine. He wrote of the “fall” of the soul from a state of knowledge and truth. He believed that in times of darkness, a saving power may be sent to rescue humanity from itself and its deceivers. His essay On Providence depicts a world dominated by dark forces whose purpose is to drag humans down and destroy them if they reach for the light. Behind the surface events of history is the struggle between the higher instincts of humanity and the darkness within and around it. The power of light in humanity runs down, and must be restored periodically, at the end of the great cycles of history. But sometimes, when humans are in extremis, divine intervention may take place before the end of a cycle, to keep the game in play. [6] 

If Synesius lived long enough to learn the end of his mentor, Hypatia, he would have been left in no doubt that the darkness was rising. Though Hypatia’s students included Christians, the fanatical Cyril, who became bishop of Alexandria in 412, saw her as magnet for pagans. His violent diatribes against her helped to inflame a mob, led by a church lector, that pulled Hypatia from her carriage at night. In their collective dementia, these frenzied fundamentalists dragged her into a church called the Caesarium, tore off her clothes, and flayed her alive with sharp-edged shells. Then they butchered her body and burned the pieces to ashes. [7] 

In such a world, Synesius offered the means of communicating with a higher realm, and bringing gifts from it into everyday life. He taught that the realm of imagination is “the hollow gulf of the universe” where the soul is at home. Imagination is “the halfway house between spirit and matter, which makes communication between the two possible”. [Bregman 148] The soul travels in this realm in dreams.

For Bishop Synesius, dreaming is everyday church. It is also a way of entry into the real world. According to Synesius, dreamer do not return to reality when they awaken; dreaming, they are already there. 



1. Jay Bregman, Synesius of Cyrene, Philosopher-Bishop. (BerkeleyUniversity of California Press, 1982) 148.

2.ibid 76

3. ibid 26, 32-3,citing Letter 137.

4. All quotes from De insomniis (On Dreams) unless otherwise noted are from  Augustine FitzGerald (ed) The Essays and Hymns of Synesius of Cyrene. 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930)

 5. See A.A. Nock, Conversion. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933).

6. Synesius, De providentia quoted in Bregman,op.cit., 66-72

7. Socrates Scholasticus, “The Murder of Hypatia” in Anne Fremantle (ed) A Treasury of Early Christianity. (New York: Viking, 1953) 380



Lion at the Templeof Apollo in Cyrene

"Eye in the Sky" Journal Drawing by Robert Moss



Saturday, January 28, 2023

Unfinished Portrait of the Higher Self & Other Dream Drawings


My favorite activity first thing in the morning is to make a drawing from a dream. This delights the small boy and the artist in me, who are pretty much the same. I don't worry about technical execution, and use whatever I pull from my boxes of colored pencils and markers and oil or gel crayons and Neocolors.

Here are three recent productions:

January 17, 2023

Hermetic Fridge
My mind is still working on Neoplatonist texts I was studying late. I open the fridge and see a screen filling the upper half. It displays texts that appear in Greek and English translation and various symbols. I am able to read quite a lot. Then the screen flickers and living scenes appear. A woman in a flowing garment dances with a radiant being that descends in a shaft of light. I picture myself entering a similar column of light and ascending within it.
On a shelf in the fridge door is a slim rectangular case, like a laptop. This belongs to observers who are monitoring the transmissions.
I walk outside on our street, rehearsing exercises and meditations I have derived from my studies. When I take up the texts again, there is a satisfactory click: I have found a portal that was used by an ancient lineage of theurgists to enter another universe. A Speaker confirms my discovery and shows me how that universe looks from the outside.
Feelings: excited, intrigued
Reality check: I have been reading books by and about the Neoplatonists late into the nights. The fridge and the street in the dream are our new fridge and the scene right outside our building. I'm happy to think that ancient knowledge is right here where I live.

January 18, 2023
The Ambassadors Get Me to Ride a Kangaroo
I'm at a reception hosted by a Spanish grandee, Muy caballero. Many ambassadors are present. Drinks and canapes are flowing freely. My host tells me his guests would like to see me ride a kangaroo. Is this a joke? No, they actually have one. With great misgivings, I get on the animal's back (riding bareback) and we are flying. If this started as a joke, it is becoming something else.
Feelings: amused
Reality: I am an expat Australian. Aussies really don't ride kangaroos but long ago I knew an Aboriginal spirit man whose animal ally was a kangaroo - Big Red - that gave him the power of fast walking. In movement, kangaroos are in the air 80 percent of the time.

January 20, 2023
She Finger-Knits Herself Under a Red Blanket
People have gathered because the blonde is putting on quite a show. She is finger knitting a chunky red blanket while sitting inside it. She goes on - and up - until the blanket all but covers her head. Excitement rises because she is being timed. In a minute or so she'll be stopped. Will she finish in time? She adds to the tension by slowing her hands. Now I can barely see her skin and hair below the red strands. A few last loops and pulls and she's Done!
Feelings. Entertained
Reality: I know nothing about knitting. I don't think I know the blonde. Her style is of an earlier generation. I think of the Mad Men era. What's going on feels like a contest or publicity stunt. The last thing I read before bed was a line about an intuitive seeing a woman entirely covered in red

Sometimes I combine this exercise with bibiomancy by opening an old journal at random and seeing what pops us. Here are three drawings I made recently from "old" dreams I recorded more than twenty years ago that still convey terrific energy.

[Date of drawing: January 26, 2023]

Banyan Family
I found this in a much longer inner communication I recorded on May 22, 1999:
"You recall your almost erotic interest in the banyan of Lahaina, that replants itself. The banyan is an excellent model for the relationship between different life experiences – for your personal soul family. "

[Date of drawing: January 28, 2023]

Unfinished Portrait of the Higher Self

Journal report dated May 2, 1999

I am leading a group up a mountain along a spiral path. We pass a statue of a recumbent lion. What might be a saddle on his back is a giant carnelian glowing with deep red fire.
There is a tower at the top of a mountain. Through open doors we see an artist working on a painting, apparently a self portrait. Above and around it is a second, much larger portrait. It is nested inside a still larger picture, suggested rather than executed. And so on, and so up. Looking up I see that the tower has no roof and the walls seem to go up into the sky. Picture within picture, self within higher self. I doubt that the artist's work can ever be done but his passionate engagement is fueling a life of creative exploration charged with that carnelian fire.

One more, from a night vision I recorded more than thirty years ago:

[Date of drawing: January 24, 2023]

Bees Fly Me to the Epopteia

Journal report dated January 25, 1992

“Had” to lie down at 9:30 p.m. Immediately, I had the sense of being drawn up out of my body, of my whole second body lifting up. I saw a glow around my second body. I felt strong vibrations and heard a humming sound. I realized that a swarm of bees had massed around me, especially around my arms and shoulders, lifting me, helping me to fly.

I flew inside the swarm of bees, over an ocean, towards a temple on a rocky height. Greek words were streaming through my mind. Kyriacos. Epopteia.

Later, I grabbed relevant books from my shelves. Kyriacos means Lord or Ruler. The epopteia is the “full vision” or “full revelation" of the highest stage of the Mysteries, when the initiate is brought face-to-face with the deity. Of course I found many pages about bees as the companions of the Goddess and recalled that "honey bee" (melissa) is an ancient title of the priestess.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Tales of the Double: Bilocation, Second Bodies, Parallel Selves


I was attending a conference in the Boston area when I was approached by a pleasant-looking couple who might have been in their early forties. The husband, David, introduced himself as a medical equipment salesman from Connecticut; his wife as a registered nurse. They seemed intelligent, articulate, and well-grounded; they had brought a cooler full of provisions they offered to share over lunch. The only oddity was that they seemed unusually deferential to someone who was simply another conference attendee.

“We want to thank you for that workshop we attended last fall,” David said. “You changed our lives.”

“Which workshop do you mean?”

“The weekend workshop in upstate New York.”

“What was I teaching?”

David looked puzzled as he told me how my workshop had brought shamanism and dreamwork together. “You showed us how to journey through the images from our sleep dreams.”

I was flabbergasted. I had been thinking about going public with the approach I now call Active Dreaming. I had dreamed on several nights of leading workshops in shamanic dreaming. But I had not yet held one in physical reality — at least, not in my physical reality.

I told David, “You must have confused me with someone else.”

David looked at his wife, who knitted her eyebrows.

“That’s impossible,” she protested. “Your voice, your white hair, your whole way of being — ”

“You’re a pretty hard guy to mistake for someone else.”

“And we spent the whole weekend with you,” his wife came back.

“I’ll never forget it.”

“That’s very interesting,” I told them. “I’ve dreamed of holding a workshop like the one you describe. But I haven’t done it yet, not in this reality.”

“You’re kidding.”

I shook my head. David looked at his wife, who made a face and tugged at his arm. As they walked away, she scowled back at me, obviously convinced that I was toying with them. Later in the day, when David passed me on the way to the cooler, he gave me a conspiratorial wink and said in a stage whisper, “Shamans are tricky characters.”

What was going on here? Did my dream reality somehow become waking reality for that earnest couple from Connecticut? Dreaming, could I have projected a double who seemed solid enough — un hombre de carne y hueso — to students at a holistic center? Were we caught up in some kind of time loop, so that in their reality the Connecticut couple went to a workshop that I gave two years later in my physical reality (in which they were not present — at least, not yet). Did they meet my parallel self on a different timeline that had now converged with my current trajectory? Or were the three of us somehow caught up in a collective, confusing hallucination?

If I had been quicker off the mark, I suppose I might have asked the Connecticut couple if they had a receipt for the workshop they attended. Maybe the center where it was held owes me money!


There are doubles and doubles. St. Augustine left us the intriguing story of a philosopher who urgently wanted to consult a colleague living several hundred miles away. To his great delight, his friend called on him that night, and they had a long conversation in which the philosopher was able to clarify his thinking in areas critical to his work. He wrote to his colleague afterward to thank him for his providential visit — and was astonished to receive a letter back in which his friend told him that he had never left his hometown, but remembered conversing with the philosopher in a dream.

The Capuchin monk Padre Pio rarely left his cloister but reportedly turned up on scores of occasions at other locations in a second body to preach sermons or counsel those in need. He attributed these feats to what he called “prolongation of the personality.”

St. Anthony of Padua was credited with similar gifts. As he lay on his deathbed, he appeared to a friend hundreds of miles away, in seemingly corporeal form, and informed him that he had left his “donkey” — his physical body — in Padua.

In her remarkable book, Dancing in the Shadows of the Moon, Machaelle Small Wright describes her experience of a “split molecular process” resulting in bilocation in two separate orders of reality. “My soul operates out of two separate, but related physical bodies.” One is her own; the other belongs to a servicewoman who was killed in World War II and now lives with a group headed by “Eisenhower” in an (astral?) locale called the Cottage. Machaelle says the Cottage is situated in the “England equivalent” of “a planet that exists in a sister dimension of reality…within a band of form identical to our own.” She travels there by picturing the locale and willing herself to go. She insists that this is something distinct from a dream or an “out-of-body” experience, because “real” time elapses, she eats “real” food, and she is subject to “real” pleasure and pain.

While the sight of one’s energy double, or doppelgänger, arouses fear in many cultures — especially the fear of impending death — the double may be something more. In Charles Williams' novel, Descent into Hell, Pauline goes in fear of her “double” all her life — so terrified she avoids walking alone — only to discover it is no horror, but her spiritual self, her “unfallen self” as originally conceived in heaven. When the two come together, she can begin to live her true destiny, which includes helping to release earthbound souls.

Text adapted from 
DREAMGATES: Exploring the Worlds of Soul, Imagination, and Life Beyond Death by Robert Moss. Published by New World Library


Illustration: "City Double" by RM with AI assistance


Sunday, January 22, 2023

A Dreamer's Notes: Dreaming Cree

She Sticks to Her Dreams

An amazing exchange between Cree novelist Jessica Johns, author of Bad Cree, and an interviewer on NPR.
Ayesha Rascoe: So I understand you started writing this story after an instructor told you that writers should not write about their dreams. Like, that wasn't a good thing to do. So why did that comment send you in the absolute opposite direction?
Jessica Johns: For Cree people, and the way I was raised, the knowledge that I have about dreams, is that they're incredibly important. They're a way of communicating with our ancestors. They're a way of knowledge production. My whole life I've been taught to listen to my dreams and interrogate them and to, you know, know that they're very valid forms of knowledge and forms of storytelling as well. So to have a prominent professor who has been, quote-unquote, "successful" in so many ways in the writing and publishing worlds, give this advice to a roomful of aspiring writers - and, you know, he was a white man - it really - it made me mad. I mean, I don't think in writing there should be any hard and fast rule anyways. But I was just like, you have no idea what you're talking about. Dreams are valid. In fact, I'm going to write a story about dreams that validate them in all their beauty and wonder and knowledge.

Naturally, this spurred me to purchase and start reading Jessica Johns right away. While gripped by Bad Cree (I'll return to that) I also went looking for previous sources on dreaming in this tradition. Fairly thin pickings from the literature I have accessed so far, but I plucked out some interesting passages from early anthropologists.

 Dream Naming among the Plains Cree, or Nehiyanak 

Alanson Skinner, who traveled with the Plains Cree in 1913, reported: 

"When a child is still young it is customary for the parents to call upon four old men to ask them to give it a name. This is done when the child is about one year old the parents gather a quantity of clothing and other presents and a lot of food. Then four old men whom the parents have selected because of their fame for powerful dreams and for their war exploits are invited by a runner who bears them tobacco and a pipe. Each tries to dream from then on, and when the appointed day arrives, the four men appear at the spot designated where the parents have prepared a feast and where the other guests are assembled.

"When all is in readiness a pipe is filled and given to the spokesman of the elders who rises and addresses the people. He tells them of whom or what he has been dreaming and gives the infant a name that has some reference to his visions or to one of his adventures in war. He then turns to his three assistants and afterward to the people in general asking each to repeat the name aloud and to call upon the namer’s dream guardian to bless the child. After this there is a feast…

"Sometimes a child was sickly and the doctor on investigation would dream that it was wrongly named and prescribe a change if the diagnosis was correct the child would recover in from a day to four days."

- Alanson Skinner, “Notes on the Plains Cree” in American Anthropologist New Series, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1914), pp. 68-69.

1899 photo of Native American Girl with bone breastplate in the Library of Congress

Your Great Self Hunts You in Dreams

According to Frank G. Speck, pioneer ethnographer of the Naskapi and eastern Cree, it was through individual dreams, not collective rituals or medicine plants, that contact with a greater soul-spirit is established, bringing life guidance and the means to master the spirits of animals in the lifelong quest for food. In the dialects of his informants the term “atca’k” meant soul or spirit. The human soul in its animate, active state was referred to by the proper name “Mista’ peo” or Great Man. Speck found the same concept in many Algonkian communities throughout the Northeast.
He concluded that virtually all religious activities were undertaken to cultivate and satisfy each individual's own soul- spirit: “The hunter's success in avoiding sickness, in feeding his family, in prolonging his life, in building a good reputation among his friends, depends upon his bodily conduct in harmony with the positive requirements or the negations of his Great Man.” And these are revealed, primarily, through dreams.
- Frank G. Speck, Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula (Norman University of Oklahoma Press, 1935).

Photo: Frank G. Speck in a dog sled on Lake St. John, Canada in 1930.

Dreaming the Hunt

“The East Cree believed that a hunter's success in securing any form of game was all ultimately dependent on the consent of the animals, who, in friendship to man, allowed themselves to be taken, and of the spirits believed to influence their behavior, distribution, and availability. Dreams were the vehicle for communication with these spirits. The dream visitation occurred under normal conditions of sleep when a spirit ‘comes towards the hunter” in his dream and appears as a person and talks to him This was his powatakan.

" The significance of dreams as a means of communication with the spirits was underscored by the emphasis placed on remembering the content of one's dreams in exact detail. The Cree said that if a man could no longer remember his dreams upon awakening, he could no longer hunt.”

The animals of earth, water and sky were al said to have their Caretaker. The Chief or Caretaker of all the "clawe3d ones" on earth was said to be MemekweSiw's, literally "Little Dog", the great Bear spirit. An old Cree man said "I can't hunt any more because though I dream I don't remember them when I get up in the morning/" However, he told in fine detail how Bear came as his powatakan (dream visitor) and showed him where a young bear would be waiting for him to take its life on his first solo hunt. He put on his best clothes, making his best appearance, killed the bear with respect and, with the help of his father, hosted an eat-all meal in which the bear was thanked and prepared to be reborn. 

- Regina Flannery and Mary Elizabeth Chambers , “Each Man Has His Own Friends: The Role of Dream Visitors in Traditional East Cree Belief and Practice” in Arctic Anthropology Vol.22, No. 1 (1985), p.3

Illustration: Bear Visitor by RM with AI assistance 

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Dream Archaeology: Sosipatra Dances with Her Divine Double

She moves across the mosaic floor in a slow ritual dance. Across the space a second figure matches her steps. I notice, without surprise, that they appear to be the same person. She is dancing with her double. Perhaps this is how she succeeds in the feats of clairvoyance and precognition for which she is famed in the city. Her name is Sosipatra. I know her story intimately.

But as I surface from the vision, in the early light, I have to look her up. It doesn't take long. Sosipatra was famed as a woman philosopher - and clairvoyant - in the 4th century, a generation before an even more famous woman philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria. Her ancient biographer says she was initiated into the Chaldean mysteries at a very early age. Unlike Hypatia, she married and had three children. She lived in Ephesus and (after her husband's death) in Pergamon.

I have been to the ancient sites at both locations, and led dream journeys with shamanic drumming in the incubation chambers of the Asklepieion at Pergamon, I don't recall hearing the name of Sosipatra at that time.

- This is my raw journal report from December 16, 2022. My vision of Sosipatra came in the liminal hypnagogic zone, between sleep and awake. 

 I love the research assignments my dreams give me. In the weeks since my dream, I have done some detective work with the leads it gave me, consulting contemporary scholars and ancient sources. Here are my preliminary findings. 

The main ancient source on Sosipatra is Eunapius’ Lives of the Philosophers and Sophists. He says she was mentored as a child by skin-clad “initiates of the Chaldean wisdom". They appeared at her father's estate when she was five. Though their wallets were "well-filled" they asked to work in the vineyards, producing such a bountiful harvest that Sosipatra's father invited them to a celebratory dinner. They were taken by the bright and beautiful little five-year-old and told her father that if he would leave her in in their care, they would produce even more miraculous results than they had generated in the vineyards. Hard to imagine a caring father agreeing to leave a little girl with strange men for years, but Sosipatra's father was awed by his visitors, deciding that they were more than human; they were daimones. He promptly left his estate. When he returned after five years, he found that his daughter, now ten, was already a philosopher in the sense that mattered to the ancients: a lover of wisdom (Sophia) who approaches the essential things - above all union with the divine - through direct experience.   

The way Sosipatra deals with the man she chose as her husband on the eve of their wedding is quite as startling as her childhood training in Chaldean mysteries. She chose the philosopher Eustathius, who also came from a wealthy family and was probably significantly older. She told him that they would have three sons, and that he would die within five years. She even told him where he was going after death. It may be a sign of a truly philosophic disposition that these pronouncements did not scare him off. Her prophecies were fulfilled. One of her three sons, Antoninus, founded his own school of philosophy at the Canopic mouth of the Nile and may have known Hypatia.

Eunapius describes Sosipatra's prowess as a clairvoyant. She sees her father’s four wheeled carriage overturn as he returns to his estate after his five years of absence. When she asks her student Maximus of Tyre to ward off the love magic being aimed at her by her cousin and  admirer Philometor and Maximus returns full of hubris, she puts him in his place by describing, step by step, all the ritual actions he performed. Maximus is so awed he throws himself a her feet.

Eunapius describes another incident of remote viewing, involving the same Philometor. Sosipatra was with her students at her home in Pergamon, where she held her classes. Someone proposed that they should discuss the nature of the soul.  This parked lively discussion. Sosipatra spoke about the journey of the soul after death "and about what is punished and what is immortal". 

We are made aware that this was no academic lecture. She spoke as one inspired, as a prophetess. However, "in the midst of her Corybantic frenzy and Bacchic inspiration, just as if she had altogether lost her speech she grew silent." After a pause, she cried out, "What is this? My relative Philometor rides a carriage, and the carriage has been overturned, and that man's legs are in peril. But, his servants have extricated him safe and sound , except for the wounds he has received to his elbows and knees, which in fact pose no danger. He groans away while borne on a litter." 

We are told, "She said these things and they turned out to be true. Everyone knew that Sosipatra was everywhere and that she was present at everything that happened, just as the philosophers claim about the gods." [1]

So what about the divine double? The projection of the subtle body or óchima psychikón ("soul vehicle") was central to theurgy and magic in late antiquity. Enlightened beings might appear in a soma augoeides  ("luminous body") as a higher intellect coming down, or an initiate going up.

I was thrilled to find confirmation of the importance of the double in Sosipatra's life and practice. When she selected Eustathius to be her husband, she told him things that his “phantom” – his daimon or double –was telling her, such as how long he would live and where he would go after death. He would go to the realm of the Moon; she would go higher. When she started to speak of her own double, her higher self would not allow her to reveal more. "My god forbids me! [2]

Calling up the daimon or divine double was very much a practice of the philosophers and theurgists of late antiquity. Charles M. Stang, professor of Early Christian Thought at Harvard Divinity School, observes that "Late antiquity seems exercised by the promise of a divine counterpart, a vertical double." [3] There is Porphyry’s story of the Egyptian magician who promised to make Plotinus’s double appear at a temple of Isis. When summoned, what appeared was a deity and the magician, in terror and confusion, strangled the birds he had brought for sacrificial rites in his shaking hands. There are accounts of raising the spirits of dead philosophers – and of the double of Plato appearing as a geometric form, presumably a hologram. 

There was a split among the Neoplatonists on how to account for the divine double. For Plotinus, it was an "undescended" self, as opposed to the embodied soul. When the soul comes into a physical body, Plotinus taught, it did not bring all of itself into the limits of corporeal life. A higher aspect of the self remained on a higher level - on the noetic plane - but nonetheless was not truly separate, no stranger, and could be contacted and communed with by a human who raised his consciousness to a higher level. In the section of the Enneads "On Beauty", Plotinus urges his readers, "Go back inside yourself and look." When you are able to see the divine double in its beauty with clarity, you may be able to merge with it "with nothing hindering you from becoming in this way one...wholly yourself, nothing but true light." [4]

For Iamblichus, the Syrian master of theurgy [5], the whole soul descends into the body but the higher aspect is neglected and forgotten as the ego becomes absorbed and distracted by the miasma of everyday existence. Ritual practices invoking higher powers may be required to reintroduce the alienated little self to a greater self, even though they are in the same vehicle. As I picture again the golden light in which the divine double moved in my dream of Sosipatra's dance, I reread lines from Iamblichus about the practice of photogogia, or “evoking the light.” He tells us that "this somehow illuminates the aether-like and luminous vehicle, surrounding the soul with divine light, from which vehicle the divine appearances, set in motion by the gods’ will, take possession of the imaginative power in us. [5]

I am delighted to report that there is now an elegant modern biography of Sosipatra by Heidi Marx. She deftly places the philosopher's life in its social and historical context, noting for example that while Christians of Late Antiquity did not allow women to teach men, it was not unusual for an educated “elite” women of a wealthy pagan  family to lead her own school or circle. Marx also explains that the fact that Sosipatra taught at home was typical of other philosophers including her friend and mentor Aedesius. 

Heidi Marx does a wonderful job of locating Sospiatra in the  Iamblichean lineage of "ritually engaged Platonism". In this tradition reason and revelation were not regarded as antithetical but as "complementary and interpenetrating". [6] Theurgy (literally "divine working") [7] is not a flight from reason but "the  culmination and transcendence of rationality". 

As Gregory Shaw puts it, in this time and place "the goal of philosophy is not conceptual knowledge but cosmogonic activity: to become divinely creative."  [8]

Heidi Marx's affection for her elusive subject is charming. She writes on her last page, "I have grown quite fond of Sosipatra in writing this account of her legendary life. She is of course a figment of Eunapius' imagination in many important respects, and so also now a figment of mine." [9] A story to dream on. 


1. Eunapius, Lives of the Philosophers 6.91-93. translation by Robert Nau in Appendix to Heidi Marx, Sosipatra of Pergamum: Philosopher and Oracle (Oxford University Press, 2021) p. 124

2. Eunapius, Lives 6.76-79. Marx, Sosipatra, p. 122

3. Charles M. Stang, Our Divine Double (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2016) p. 12

4. ibid, p.222, quoting Enneads and

5. Iamblichus, De mysteriis III.14.133 trans. Emma C. Clarke, John M. Dillon and Jackson P. Hershbell (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003) p. 155.

6. Marx, Sosipatra, p.91

7. In an essay especially important for its discussion of dream divination in this tradition, a Greek scholar offers the following description of theurgy: "Attempting a provisional definition based on Iamblichus' understanding of the term, I would describe theurgy as the often involuntary manifestation of an inner state of sanctity deriving from a combination of goodness and knowledge in which the former element prevails."  - Polymnia Athanassiadi , “Dreams, Theurgy and Freelance Divination: The Testimony of Iamblichus”  in The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 83 (1993), p.116

8. Gregory Shaw “Theurgy and the Platonists’ Luminous Body” in April D. DeConick, Gregory Shaw and John D.Turner (eds) Practicing Gnosis: Ritual, Magic, Theurgy and Liturgy (Boston: Brill 2013) p.539

9. Marx, Sosipatra, p.117.

Of related interest:

The Double on the Balcony: Conversations with a Witness Self


Journal drawing: "Sosipatra Dances with Her Divine Double" by Robert Moss

Photo of RM at temple of Asklepios in Pergamon, 2012

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Dreams and dynasty: Septimius Severus dreams his way to the purple

“I had written and published a memoir about the dreams and portents which led Severus to hope for the imperial power, and after he had read the copy I sent him he wrote me a handsome acknowledgement. Receiving the letter in the evening, I soon went to sleep, and as I slept the divine power commanded me to write history. Thus I came to compose the present account." 

- Cassius Dio, The Roman History]translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (Penguin Classics, 1987).

Septimius Severus made himself master of Rome in 193, after fighting and defeating several rivals in the power struggle that followed the murder of a previous emperor, Pertinax, by his own Praetorian Guard. Septimius came from the province of Africa. His father was Phoenician, his mother Italian. His first language was Punic, the language of Hannibal; under the tutelage of the great rhetorician Quintilian in Italy, he may have lost his "African" accent.
     He was a lawyer, a poet, a senator and a general, who valued dreams at all stages of his rise to the imperial purple. He used dreams as sources of tactical and strategic information as well as a useful language in public discourse and propaganda, in an era when dreams were widely believed to be a nightly field of interaction between gods and humans, and between the living and the dead.
     Newly installed as emperor, Septimius accepted homage from Lucas Cassius Dio, a young senator on the make, in the form of a little book describing dreams and portents. The dreams were attributed to Septimius himself, and were cited as evidence that the general was destined to become emperor. On the evening of the same summer day when he received the book, the emperor wrote Dio “many complimentary things” in a letter of appreciation.
    Dio’s book contains six dreams that must have come from Septimius himself, or members of his close entourage. In one of them, the emperor-to-be is suckled by a she-wolf, like Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. In another dream, Faustina, the wife of the revered philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius, prepares a wedding chamber for Septimius in the Temple of Venus, near the imperial palace.
    The dreams become more and more grandiose. Water streams from his hand, giving limitless refreshment to the people and nourishment to the earth. The whole Roman Empire salutes him. Someone takes him up on a high mountain. From the summit, he can see Rome and all the world. "As he gazed down on all the land and see, he lid his hands on them as one might on an instrument capable of playing all modes, and they all sang together." [Dio 74.3.1, 2.3]

    The dream that most specifically announces Septimius’ rise to power is one in which a horse throws Pertinax, his murdered predecessor, in the forum. Septimius mounts the riderless horse, which acknowledges its new master. Septimius ordered the creation of an equestrian statue of himself, and had this set up in the Forum Romanum at the spot where, in the dream, he mounted the horse that threw Pertinax.
    Some of these dreams may have been concocted or “improved” as propaganda in support of the new emperor. If that is the case, it speaks volumes about respect for dreams as sources of epiphany – revelation – prophecy, and divine favor. The contemporary historian Herodian, who claimed to have details from Septimius’ autobiography, said that “these things are believed to be honest and true when they turn out well.”
    However, we have evidence that as emperor Septimius valued dreams as sources of intelligence. Septimius reportedly dreamed that his very powerful Praetorian Prefect, Plautianus was plotting against him, and had Plautianus put to death. He required the Senate to discuss a dream report by the nurse of one of its own members, which was also held to contain evidence of treason.
    Septimius’ son Caracalla was a dedicated believer in the therapeutic power of dreams. He visited the great Temple of Asklepios at Pergamon in the winter of 214-215. Herodian reports that in the sanctuary of the god of dream healing, the emperor “had his fill of dreams” and made personal use of “the treatments of Asklepios.”
    The Severan dynasty, founded by Septimius, continued to take dreams very seriously.  As in other societies where dreams are valued highly, the Severans moved towards creating a  “dream police” in the effort to limit the circulation of dream reports that could be used by rebels and dissenters. Those who invent dreams and portents on the pretext that they are doing so “on the instructions of the gods” must “by no means go unpunished”, ruled imperial jurist Domitius Ulpian.
    Cassius Dio, who wrote up the dreams of Septimius, was instructed by his daimon in a dream of his own to write the history of "the wars and very great disturbances" that followed the death of Commodus and led to the emergence of the Severan dynasty.He eventually folded this into a vast history of Rome, in eighty books, written in Greek. Though much of this work has vanished, the surviving text contains a valuable account of the revolt led by the British warrior queen, Boudica. Dio's Roman History is full of dreams and portents, suggesting that these had great currency among the educated elite in his time, as well as in the centuries he covers.

Sources: The Loeb Classical Library has published a nine-volume bilingual (Greek-English) text of the surviving books of Dio's Roman History. Fergus Millar's A Study of Cassius Dio is a valiant attempt to penetrate the mind of this dream-oriented historian. The other almost-contemporaneous ancient sources are a colorful and unreliable history of the Roman Empire by Herodian of Antioch, writing in the 250s, and the no more reliable collection of imperial biographies known as the Historia Augusta, or Augustan History. The best biography of Septimius Severus is Anthony R. Birley, Septimius Severus: The African Emperor. William V. Harris provides useful leads in his full and skeptical study of Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity.

Graphics (top): Solid gold bust of Septimius Severus discovered in Plotinopolis, Greece. Exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Komotini, Greece.
(bottom) statue of Septimius found at Alexandria, now in the British Museum, which some think gives him an "African" look.