Thursday, July 15, 2010

Dream believers: ancient actions, modern echoes, a guest post by Vicki Leon

Ancient cultures, from Egyptian through late Roman times, paid as much attention to their nights in the arms of Morpheus as they did to their waking moments. They felt curiosity, awe, and sometimes terror at their dreams, at the strange symbolic language of the sleeper.

And they sought help. How do we know this? Ancient literature is littered with speculations and advice about dreams, along with insights about their medical use as diagnostic tools. Furthermore, a handful of millennia-old dream manuals have survived—to be gleefully recycled by cut-and-paste oneiromancy entrepreneurs today.

The earliest dream translators

In Egypt 4000 years ago, interpreters made dream symbol lists, indicating ‘good’ and ‘bad’ outcomes. In these laconic tables, we learn fascinating minutiae of long-ago life. For example, to dream of drinking warm beer: bad—suffering ahead. To dream of copulating with a jerboa, a small, jumping rodent: also bad. On the other hand, to dream of eating excrement was labeled good.

Then as now, the topics of keenest concern: digestion, copulation, and elimination. The Babylonian and Assyrian dream crowd had urine issues. If the dreamer dribbled urine on his foot, his eldest son would die. If, however, the dreamer sprinkled himself with his urine, his sheepfold would expand—prosperity ahead. Another hot topic in Mesopotamia? The dream significance of meat consumption, including human body parts and one’s own entrails.

Greek dream treatments

In pre-Classical times, Homer wrote, “Dreams come from Zeus.” Because medicine was in its infancy, by circa 500 BC the wellbeing franchise was taken over by the healing god Asclepius. Although few would recognize him and his single-snake staff in a lineup today, Asclepius set up shop in Epidaurus, the first of what would be a chain of Mediterranean-wide healing centers that resembled today’s luxurious spas in natural settings.

In 293 BC, Asclepius gained further prominence. Summoned from Epidaurus to combat the plague in Rome, he appeared as a sacred snake aboard ship on the Tiber River. Slithering ashore, Asclepius took up residence on Tiber Island, where his temple was built; the plague obediently stopped.

Although he never made the Olympian twelve, the divine Asclepius stayed busy, also looking in on dreamers who weren’t at his healing centers. For example, his circa-300 BC dream visit to Anyte, a talented Arcadian poet. Asclepius ordered the young woman to drop her sonnets and head north to Naupactos to hand-deliver a message. Anyte awoke to find wax writing tablets in her hands. After an arduous land and sea journey, she presented the tablets to a vision-impaired gent, urging him to read it. Amid protests that he couldn’t see, he obeyed—and presto, eyesight restored to 20/20. The tablet message also directed him to reward Anyte with 2000 gold staters. Poetic windfall! As a thanks offering, the new visionary built an Asclepian outlet in Naupactos. Five hundred years later, it was still going strong when author-historian Pausanias stopped by.

Oracles and other competition for Asclepius

Besides the incubation overnight chambers where patients sought Asclepian intervention to dream their cures, the facilities emphasized holistic healing, from diet and exercise to drama and the power of music. Aristocratic writers like Aristides, a career hypochondriac, heartily endorsed the Asclepieia, having spent lengthy periods of time at facilities in Pergamum, Epidaurus and elsewhere.

More eloquent are the stone testimonials to the god’s healing powers, left by grateful patients in huge numbers. A typical inscription: “Gorgias of Kerakleia..his lung pierced by an arrow in battle, he suppurated so profusely for 18 months that he filled 67 basins with pus. Then he slept here and saw a vision: he dreamed the god removed the arrow point from his lung. When daylight came, he emerged healthy, holding the point in his hand.”

The Asclepieia weren’t the only option for desperate patients and mystery afflictions. Healing oracles throughout the Greek-speaking world offered similar services: spending a night at a god’s sanctuary, just as pilgrims to Lourdes and other sites still do. Some oracles, like that of Amphiaros, had complex purification rites. Others, such as the cult established by the first Ptolemy for the god Serapis near Memphis, Egypt, maintained quarters for longterm residents. Studies made of a delightful cache of papyri from the Serapeion sanctuary have revealed that men, women, and even children lived there “in divine custody”—busily recording their dreams for a surely undreamed-of posterity to read.

Roman dream stories with a moral

Famous dreams from antiquity were much-told tales, a case in point being Roman Emperor Nero, last of the Julio-Claudians. As a pimply teen, his path to the top had been cleared by convenient deaths, engineered by his mother Agrippina. Compared to other megalomaniacs, fearful Nero did not slaughter an excessive number of people. It’s who he killed, and how he carried out his nasty business that’s made him one of history’s monsters.

In 59 AD, it was his mother Agrippina (whom he had disemboweled on her own couch); in 65 AD, his pregnant wife Poppaea (whom he kicked to death for excessive nagging after he came home late from the chariot races). But his most heinous act (for posterity, anyway) was to scapegoat an unknown number of early Christians as the arsonists of the Great Fire of 64 AD, turning them into human torches for Nero’s garden party.

According to ancient sources, for the first five years of his reign, Nero slept like a baby, suffering no qualms about his homicidal activities. After the murder of his mother, however, she began to haunt Nero, whereupon he brought in a Persian exorcist to call off her vengeful ghost.

But rest was no longer to be found. As Lives of the Twelve Caesars author Suetonius noted, Emperor Nero began to have extravagant nightmares. In one, Nero was buried under a mass of winged ants. In another dream, he was terrorized by the sight of his favorite Spanish horse, with only its head still in equine form—the rest having turned into a hairy ape. (The first “Godfather” film took this nightmare idea and ran with it, to staggering effect.)

Dream secrets for dummies: Guinness record breaker?

Divination expert Artemidoros of Ephesus wrote a dream handbook that stayed in print 19 centuries, a fate writers can only dream about. A well-researched book, the author cited 16 now-lost sources, and interviewed dream interpreters from one side of the Med to the other. In his overview, Artemidoros broke dreams into five types: enigmatic, oracular, prophetic, apparition, and nightmare. (The Latin word for nightmare is “insomnium,” with which most modern sufferers would agree.)

Then as now, sex sold. The most riveting section of Artemidoros’ book may be the smorgasbord of interpretations that apply when dreaming about having it off with one’s mother, alive or dead.

Other types of sexual activities that might not have occurred to you were also examined by this thorough investigator; dreaming of sex with the moon, for instance. As Artemidoros put it, “Having intercourse with the moon is altogether auspicious for skippers, pilots, merchants, stargazers, tourists, and tramps, but for other men it signifies an attack of dropsy; for the moon is helpful to the first group through her movement…but, because she is wet, is harmful to the others.”

Dream beliefs, a shadow of their former selves

Dream classes remain popular today, most being gentle forms of DIY psychoanalysis, often Jungian, where individuals work to gain insight into their shadow selves. On a day-to-day basis, however, individuals in our western cultures tend to use dreams in a utilitarian fashion, most often to find objects or to decipher dreams that forecast a warning or a future event. Unlike the believers of millennia past, we no longer live in a framework of dream healing possibilities.

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Vicki Leon’s latest book, How to Mellify a Corpse, discusses divination, dreams, and ghosts as well as ancient science, including the technical secrets of the theatre at Epidaurus, the most famous dream healing center in the ancient world.

1 comment:

Lindsay Powell said...

For my own book on Drusus the Elder ( I had to research dreaming and came across the phenomenon of sleep paralysis, which helps explain why many sleepers believe they wake up terrified and have seen ghosts.
There's an English translation of Artemidorus' book on interpreting dreams at