Saturday, May 25, 2024

When the Emperor Sends You a Letter about Dreams


Manuel II Palaiologos was Byzantine emperor from 1391 to 1425. Perilous times. He hunted, campaigned and clashed with the paranoid Ottoman Sultan Bayazid, called The Thunderbolt, and was held ceremonial hostage by him. His capital, Constantinople, was besieged and blockaded by the Ottomans several times. Provinces were lost and won back and lost again; family members plotted to assassinate him or drive him into exile. He made a long journey west, to the crowned heads of Europe, all the way to France and England, seeking support against the Turks. He was received with great pomp at the court of Henry IV. He stood at the crossroads of a trembling world. His fourth son, the last Byzantine emperor, died on the city walls when Constantinople finaly fell to the Turks. 

A scholar by nature, who said that he loved to write, Manuel made time in the midst of war and intrigue to write discourses on many things, including marriage.The most intriguing of his productions may be the dream book that bears his name. Scholars dispute the authorship, some asserting that a highly literate emperor would not stoop to contribute to the lowly and "superstitious" genre of the dream dictionary.

Yet the few pages of this Byzantine dream book that survive suggest that the author was intimately familiar with life at the imperial palace, and the approach to dream meanings is reasoned and nuanced. Dream books of this era - tracing their descent from the Greek interpreter Artemidorus of Daldis, or from Persian, Indian and Arabic traditions, or all the above - were popular in elite circles as well as among the largely illiterate populace who would gather round a reader to hear a story or interpretation. The two surviving texts of the dream book have been assessed to be from the late fourteenth century, contemporary with the reign of Manuel II. Incidents are described involving high imperial officials. And we have an epistolary essay that was certainly written by Manuel that confirms his deep interest in dreaming and what it reveals about soul.

The Oneirokritikon kata Manouel Palaiologon, or Dream Book of Manuel Palaiologos, is not organized as a dream dictionary, with an alphabetical list of dream symbols, tagged with supposed meanings. It is arranged thematically,and it gives a rationale for interpretations. [1] The author had a taste for puns. and an ear for homophony. If you dream of mosaics, he says,  you may hope for a fair adjudication, because the Greek word for "mosaic pebble" (psephos) also means "judgement". The Greek word for “cheese” τυρί [tyri] sounds like a word for “disorder” or “turmoil” τύρβη  [tyrbi] so when things get "cheesy" you might prepare for more trouble than English slang would suggest.[2] 

The dream book describes the precognitive dream of a high official who saw the unexpected death of his son-in-law [3]. In the thirteen pages of printed text we have from the manuscript, seven dreams that proved truthful are reported. The commentary insists on factual reporting of possibly portentous dreams.

Dream symbols are discussed elsewhere in ways that recall Artemidorus. Thus: wells, cisterns and vessels that hold water relate to women. There is the  distinction that Artemidorus made between insignificant incidents in sleep  (enypnia) and meaningful dreams (oneirata). 

Let's turn to Manuel's letter on dreams.[4] It is not a letter as we think of them today. In her recent biography of Manuel II as  "author-emperor", Siren Çelik observes that Byzantine authors crafted letters as "beautifully ornate, polished compositions filled with literary features....Instead of offering concrete information, a letter aimed at providing literary delight to the recipient; sophisticated language, metaphors, allusions and quotations were highly desired and appreciated features in this context...Letters were meant to be circulated among a literary circle, and sometimes performed aloud in literary gatherings called theatra."[5] 

The emperor's epistle on dreams fits this mode. He is writing to one Andreas Asan, a provincial governor who may be his cousin. He takes his theme from a question Andreas has previously asked: Is it true that all dreams are prophetic, but become false or deceptive through the weakness of our interpretation? This sounds as if the questioner has read Synesius of Cyrene, who wrote that if dreams are read correctly then they all come through the Gate of Horn.

Manuel introduces a brief personal note by mentioning that he is writing (or more likely dictating) his missive in the spring, but a cold snap has caused him to draw close to the fire. This puts the reader inside the scene and also takes up at once - craftily and indircetly - the theme of veracity. It was commonly taught in the old Greek dream books that spring is the best time to look for veridical dreams because life is surging forth from  the earth. [6] 

On the question of whether all dreams are prophetic, Manuel delivers a short  philosophical homily, citing Hellenic and Christian authorities. He assigns dreams to three categories. There are dreams that are generated by the dreamer's “disposition”, daily habits, and the balance of the four humors. This first category includes the dreams you bring on yourself by eating too much or too fast. No prophecy here, though a doctor might find something to work with.

Next, there are dreams that are experiences of the soul. During sleep the soul “comes closer to its divine origins”, though it is still under the negative influence of the body. The emperor appears to acknowledge that the soul travels beyond the body in dreams. It may still fall into states of illusion, and the heavy influence of the body causes it to come back from its excursions blurry and confused.

Third, there are dreams that are true prophecies because they come from God. They are sent to the “pious and pure” who may also have waking visions. A prophetic dream is not only for the receiver but for the people. 

The emperor says that care must be taken to discern whether a prophetic dream is for real or a deception of the devil. Some dreams and omens, as well as some forms of divination, are used by the evil spirit in order to deceive. Thankfully, oneirokritike, dream interpretation, is not mentioned as a possible vehicle for the wiles of the Dark One. Back in the ninth century, the emperor Leo the Wise decided to give dreamwork a clean bill of health. Dream interpretation was formally removed from Byzantine lists of evil practices in the compilation of laws known as the Basilika, issued in 892.

The emperor writes that the devil does not have the gift of prescience: he can only speculate by calculations that either come true or not. The devil not only deceives; he may be deceived. [7] Whew

 Much of what Manuel puts in his epistle on dreams is borrowed from earlier writers, as he is happy to acknowledge. The theory of the influence of the four humors on dreams goes back to Galen and Hellenic medical writings. “Theoretical discussion and practice of divination was de rigeur in Byzantine learned circles in the fourteenth century.” [8]  Manuel weaves Platonist and Christian teachings on the soul into his discussion, but this emerges as the most original part of his epistle on dreams.   

His writing indicates he knew something of Neoplatonist philosophy and theurgy, as well as Orthodox mysticism and patristic literature. He recognizes that dreams may be experiences of the divine and imperishable soul, and that (contrary to Aquinas ) the soul may have greater access to divine wisdom than the angels.[9]  However, because of its long bondage to the body, the soul is heavy and distracted, drawn down towards darkness and its light dims. So the flight of the soul in dreams may follow the shifting border between truth and illusion, and the memories it brings the dreamer on its return will require interpretation. 

Did the emperor set himself up, as author, to play dream interpreter in the manner of Artemidorus or the anonymous author of the popular Oneirocriticon of Achmet? Byzantinist George Calofonos says, " I believe that still one cannot give a definite answer, although his letter and the dreambook show some similarities. Both texts are systematic, lengthy, and quite original. If Manuel was not the author it could be someone from his immediate circle."[10]

If we return to that dream book, we find one prognostication the emperor surely knew to be true: If you dream you become emperor, you will "face humility, dishonour, persecution, and accusations at the hands of many people" [11] 


1. The Greek text of the Manuel Palaiologos Dream Book (Oneirokritikon kata Manouel Palaiologon) is in Armand Dellate (ed.) Anecdota Atheniensia 1 (Paris: Vaillant-Carmanne 1927), 511-24. Translation in Steven M. Oberhelman, Dreambooks in Byzantium: Six Oneirocritica in Translation, with Commentary and Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2008)

2. Maria Mavroudi, "Byzantine and Islamic Dream Interpretation: A Comparative Approach to the Problem of ‘Reality’ vs ‘Literary Tradition’” in  Christne Angelidi and Gerge T. Calofonos (eds), Dreaming in Byzantium and Beyond (New York: Routledge, 2014)  169

3. ibid 166

4. The Greek text of Manuel's epistle On Dreams (περί ονειράτον) is in Jean François Boissonade, Anecdota Nova (Paris: Apud Dumont 1844) 239-246. For an extended paraphrase and discussion, see George T. Calofonos,  ‘Manuel II Palaiologos: Interpreter of Dreams?’ in Anthony Bryer, Manzikert to Lepanto: The Byzantine World and the Turks (1071–1517) Papers Given at the Nineteenth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, March 1985.  Byzantinische Forschungen 16 (1991) 447–55

5. Siren Çelik, Manuel II Palaiologos (1350–1425): A Byzantine Emperor in a Time of Tumult (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021) 6-7

6. Mavroudi, Maria V., A Byzantine Book on Dream Interpretation: The Oneirocriticon of Achmet and Its Arabic Sources (Leiden: Brill, 2002) 133-35

7. Based on text in Calofonos, op.cit.,450

8. Mavroudi, "Byzantine and Islamic Dream Interpretation"  173 

9. Manuel insists on the equality of the human soul with angels, contradicting Aquinas' statement in Summa Theologica 2:2, 172.2, on how the gift of prophecy comes to angels. “The angels hold a middle position between God and men, in that they have a greater share in the perfection of divine goodness than men have. Wherfore the divine enlightenments and revelations are carried to men by the angels.” 

10. Calofonos op.cit., 454

11. ibid 454-5 

Art: Manuel II Palaiologos depicted as a gift-bearing member of the Magi (Melchior) in Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. On his visit to France, Manuel feasted and exchanged gifts with the Duc du Berry, the uncle of the mad French King Charles VI

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