Where do our dream attitudes come from? I recently presented at the Toronto IASD regional conference on the roots of our dream attitudes and received a few requests to share it here. I apologize in advance for its length but this isn’t a short story! To make it a little more readable, I’ve put quoted authors in brackets, but if I’ve missed any critical notes, please contact me. Okay, for the historically curious among you, let’s take a look at which seeds blew into our Western Field of Dreams.
We know that current attitudes towards dreams in our society are a mixed bag of the following:
- Science, asking the question “how do we dream” (while not necessarily delving into the “why” of dreaming, agreeing on it’s function, let alone valuing dream work),
- Classic psychotherapy, using dreams to uncover neuroses (with often archaic symbolic codes yet with varying levels of commitment to the message of the dream itself)
- And cross-disciplinary studies, that examine everything from the shifting views of consciousness and transpersonal uses of dreams for personal growth and peak experiences, to psychology and the humanities that look at the cultural role of dreaming, to holistic and naturopathic use of dreams in diagnosing health.
- Dreaming is turning out to be the biggest head-trip of all. Jeff Warren tells us in his book The Head Trip, that, “… a new generation of Buddhist monks are having their EEGs scrutinized for signs of unusual activity. So waking consciousness is hot—but what of sleeping consciousness?” The answer it turns out, is somewhat complicated, yet, even as we move steadily and further into the 21st century, dreamers are still subjected to eye rolls and the infamously dismissive phrase “It’s only a dream”!
As we being to explore the origins of Western Field of Dreams we will find it is a journey through Biblical thought, history and traditions as it meets up with ancient Greece, and the Christian church.
Kelly Bulkeley (researcher, dream scholar and former president of IASD) confirms the strong connection between our ideas now, with the ancient world then. He writes, “Once we take into account the writings of the philosophers, poets, and historians of Greece and Rome, we have to acknowledge a strong kinship between their dream theories and the theories of modern Western scientists. For the Greeks and Romans, a few dreams were accepted as genuine conduits of divine energy and religious experience, but most dream experiences had their origins in the natural processes of the sleeping mind.” This points to the difficulties in identifying our roots.
In The Beginning…
In our culture, many tend to think of the Greeks as the ancient well from which we drink in all most of our “civilized” attitudes. In many ways, it is true that some of our communal organizational structures and ideas about democracy, philosophy, theatre, history, architecture and even the Olympics were derived from the culture and history of ancient Greece. However, that only describes one source of our culture. The Bible- Old and New Testaments, and the Christian establishment that followed, is another. It is useful to mention some dates for the periods under discussion so that we can see where the Greeks and the Jews were in their evolution in relation to each other.
When the Patriarchs, followed by Moses were beginning a new religion, in the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1600 BCE), the Greeks were in the Mycenaean Age, (end of the bronze age 1600-1100 BCE) moving into the Dark Ages (1200 BCE). If we accept the earliest date of when the 5 books of Moses was first written, we see it was long before the Greeks started writing their own traditional myths down. If we look at the later date which some scholars hold by, of the 5th to 2nd centuries, BCE, as the composition of the larger collection of the Bible, we see that this overlapped with the beginnings of the Hellenistic Period for Greece. By the time we get to the compilation of the Talmud, which is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism, 5th century CE, the impact of the Hellenistic culture had already left its mark on the entire Mediterranean region. In a nutshell, we have the development of Judaism, Homer and classic Greece, and the dream healing temples of Asklepios followed by early Christianity. We will see what that means in understanding where our attitudes towards dreams came from.
In the Ancient Near East, ancients believed that dreams were a communication between themselves and the gods, originating outside the dreamer. We see this attitude is reflected, as well, in the Bible. Most of the dreams in the Bible are found in Genesis as well as in Judges (7:13-15), 1 Kings (3:5-15), and in Daniel 2 and 4. We’ll get to New Testament dreams shortly.
In the Bible, there are “prophetic dreams” and “symbolic dreams”. In the first type (prophetic), we find the word of God as an announcement or warning to communicate to the dreamer. It is clear and immediately understood. In his book, A Letter That Has Not Been Read, Shaul Bar states, “Its centerpiece is the appearance of the deity. God or an angel comes to a person in a nocturnal dream, stands nearby, and speaks to him or her. The message presented is chiefly verbal; the visual element is quite limited.” Rather than a description of God’s appearance, what is important in the prophetic dream is the words that are spoken. The message is communicated in straightforward language, without symbols. It’s themes are “fixed and recurrent and can be divided into two groups: dreams of encouragement and dreams of admonition.” The main difference between prophetic dreams and symbolic dreams is that God or angels appears in the former.
The symbolic dream differs in that we find the visual element is of key importance as in Joseph’s first dreams (Gen.37: 5-7) or Jacob’s dream of the ladder (Gen.28:12-19). In this type, the dreamer has a vision that functions as a symbol with hidden meanings. Symbolic dreams appear in a typical way and serve as a “vehicle for the display of the piety and the sagacity of their god-inspired interpreter.” The typical formulation of the symbolic dream is unpacked as follows: God sends a symbolic dream to a gentile ruler, and its only successful interpreter is God’s servant (Joseph or Daniel), who interprets the dreams that the local magicians or astrologers cannot. For the most part, during prophetic dreams, the dreamer is passive, and waits to hear what God has to say.
It’s Greek To Me
Now we segue over to Greece to take a peak into their dream development.
It was in ancient Greece in where the convergence of cult, magic and medicine created a practice and belief that lasted for more than one thousand years. Dreams were used in Magic- most commonly incantations and spells that somehow gave people a sense of control in a world in which they had very little control. Dreams were used diagnostically in Medicine with Hippocrates and the esteemed physicians Rufus and Galen and in healing in the cult or religious temples of Asklepios. The rituals of dream incubation originated there and spread throughout the Pan-Hellenic world in more than 320 healing temples throughout the region. Supplicants would travel to the Asklepian temples where one would go to sleep, praying for a healing dream. This ritual, practiced in over three hundred healing sanctuaries from Asia Minor to Rome lasted from approximately the fifth century B.C.E. to the fifth century C.E.[E.Tick] (The association between healing and dreams is with us still in the form of Asklepios’ snake, seen today in the caduceus, the symbol we now associate with the healing arts.) Therefore, in ancient Greece we find a long association between dreams and healing that was the ground in which the importance of dreams grew in the life of the people. But what were the beliefs for the average Greek in the street? Much the same as we find in the Bible and throughout all the Mediterranean countries, dreams were thought to be external experiences (The Greeks would say, “I saw a dream rather than I had a dream”.) and messages from the gods.
Ancient Dream Books
One way to get a peek into what was going on in the agora is to look at the work of Artemidorus, who wrote a 5 volume opus on how to interpret dreams. Called, Oneirocritica: The Interpretation of Dreams, and was the only dream book to survive intact from antiquity. Exploring this comprehensive work gives us a good sampling of second century Greek attitudes toward dreams at a time that was alive with dream activity. Artemidorus was a professional dream interpreter from Asia Minor. Born in Ephesus, a city in the Roman province in what is now western Turkey, he wrote, “Apollo has encouraged me in the past…he clearly presides over my work and has all but commanded me to compose this work. It is no wonder, then, that Apollo of Daldis, who is called Mystes according to our local tradition, urged me to this undertaking…” Although he doesn’t mention the nature of the communication with Apollo, one can only imagine it took the form of a dream or vision.
He goes on to inform us that he “gathered his material by traveling in Greece, Italy, Asia Minor, and the islands that surround them.” Well travelled, educated and well read, Artemidorus showed evidence of familiarity with the classic writers of his time: Homer, Hesiod, Euripides, Xenophon and more. He mentions the work of many other dream writers, some well known and others less so, but throughout his work, we see a mostly rational, practical and systematic approach to dream interpretation that reflects an empirical bent. The Empiricist medical school of the second century focused on the importance of experience. Traditional views were not accepted without its conformity with experience and Artemidorus considered this to be fundamental to his work. He wrote,
“I have never courted public favour or concerned myself with
methods that are pleasing to phrase-mongers. Rather, I have
always called upon experience as the witness and guiding
principle of my statements. Everything has been the result of
personal experience, since I have not done anything else, and
have always devoted myself, day and night, to the study
of dream interpretation.”
Other Attitudes Towards Dreams
Early in his books, Artemidorus wrote, “In a way [the dream] cries out to each of us, ‘Look at this and be attentive, for you must learn from me as best you can.’”Almost two thousand years has passed and most people are still not paying attention to their dreams. Most people do not take their messages seriously. [ As an aside, we can’t talk about Artemidorus without noting that Freud had read Oneirocritica and was influenced by what he learned there. Perhaps this the reason the study of psychiatry and psychology does include dreams. These dreams, however, are studied and used mostly diagnostically, with varying levels a commitment to the message of the dream itself. In classic psychotherapy, dreams are more commonly used as a way to access the unconscious, but not usually considered as having a message to communicate to the dreamer; certainly not an external message from a god!] To Artemidorus though, dreams weren’t used for self-knowledge. Everyone was capable of bringing forth a dream message to foretell one’s future.
It’s interesting to consider whether Aristotle has had some influence on our attitudes towards dreams. I believe he has. On the belief in the predictive nature of dreams, he flatly denied that dreams are God-sent, as was commonly held to be the case. In his work On Prophesying by Dreams he wrote “For, in addition to its further unreasonableness, it is absurd to combine the idea that the sender of such [divinatory] dreams should be God with the fact that those to whom he sends them are not the best and the wisest, but merely commonplace persons.” According to Aristotle then, if dreams were God-sent, then only the King or the brightest citizens would be the recipients for these dreams. Yet in ancient Greece, good philosophers notwithstanding, physicians regularly used dreams as a tool for diagnosis.
Both Hippocrates in the fourth century B.C.E. and later Rufus and Galen, contemporaries of Artemidorus, valued dreams as a way to access their patient’s health problems. It was at this time that “myth was pushed out of medicine at the same time that it was pushed out of philosophy…and the Hellenic period …witnessed the rationalization of mystical science. ” [Tick] In the Hippocratic work On Regimen, the forth book opens with “Anyone who has a correct understanding of the signs that occur in sleep, will discover that they have great significance for everything.” It was believed that dreams are of great importance as ‘signs’ (semeia) or ‘indications’ (tekmeria), not only of the physical constitution of the dreamer and of imminent diseases or mental disturbances befalling him/her, but also of divine intentions, of things that may happen in the future, things hidden to normal human understanding.” [Van Der Eijk ] Hippocrates rejected divine causation as the source of disease and dreams, respected as natural phenomenon, were taken out of the realm of spirit and religion.
And Honourable Mention Goes To…
Looking back historically we see that as long as there have been dreams and dreamers with an ability to articulate their inner visions, the subject of dreams has long captured the imagination of humankind. Dreams have been found in inscriptions, documents, letters, dream books and in the literature of most ancient cultures, with the oldest written evidence of dream interpretation coming from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. A few of those cultures have produced dream books that have survived in fragments to modern times and most assigned fixed or limited meanings to the images and symbols in dreams. Perhaps the oldest known dream book, called the Chester Beatty papyrus, dates from circa 1350 B.C.E. and contains symbols and images with fixed interpretations based on contraries or opposites.
Ancient dream books were the equivalent, and perhaps the forerunners, of today’s dream dictionaries, many of which still reflect the fixed definitions found in Oneirocritica but without the subtleties and understanding that Artemidorus displayed.
It is interesting that in the second century C.E., the time in which Artemidorus wrote, he expressed an opinion that parallels the Jungians. He believed that considerable knowledge on the part of the dream interpreter was essential if dreams were to be seen against the background of local customs. Artemidorus did not limit himself to interpreting individual dream images out of context of the dream or the dreamer’s life, as with a typical dream dictionary. In fact he may have been the “first to encourage, however slightly, a cooperative effort between dreamer and interpreter.”[Delaney]
What Happened Next?
After such a positive beginning for both for Greek civilization and for the people of the Bible, we might think that the favourable esteem in which dreams were held would continue. We would be wrong.
On the positive side, in the book of Numbers we read,
“Hear these my words: When a prophet of the Lord arises among you I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream.” (Num. 12:6)
Yet, there are no dreams experienced by the prophets and for the most part, the prophets talk about dreams as something to avoid. For example, Zechariah warns,
“For the teraphim spoke delusion, the augurs predicted falsely; and the dreamers speak lies and console with illusions”. (Zech. 10:2)
Similarly, in Jeremiah we read,
“As for you, give no heed to your prophets, augurs, dreamers, diviners, and sorcerers, who say to you, ‘Do not serve the king of Babylon.’ For they prophesy falsely to you….” (Jer. 27:9-10)
So although God has made clear his agency in creating dreams, for the prophets, dreams had become a source for false prophecy. As readers of the prophets’ words, we might wonder, as scholars in the field do, “Is it the legitimacy of dream interpretation or is it the quality of the interpreter that is contested?” [J.Husser] This still indicates, however, that for the prophets, dreams were considered a communication with God, even if there were those who would falsify that communication.
In the Bible, then, we see a positive belief around dreams, similar to their surrounding neighbours, yet unique. Dreams are considered to be communications with God as in most of the Near East, but the types of dreams, and the uses of these dreams is much more limited in the Bible where we don’t see the professional dream interpreter mentioned. While scholars in the field generally agree that dreams were either prophetic or symbolic, some view dreams in the Bible as literary devices that move the story along, and bring forward the view of the Biblical redactors. Robert Gnuse, in his book “The Dream Theophany of Samuel” we find a proponent of this point of view. Gnuse writes,
“Epic literature uses the dream report as a theological and literary device to foreshadow the unfolding plan of history for God’s people. Likewise historical texts, which also contain created dream accounts, have a theological purpose for using this form. Prophetic texts, however, are critical of dreams because dreams infringe upon the exclusiveness of prophetic reception of the divine word.”
Against this backdrop of positive Biblical attitudes and (mostly) negative attitudes of the prophets, we now come to the Talmud. Here we find an enormous change that is a mixture of quite positive attitudes contrasted with deeply negative assessments of dreams and dream interpreters. The oft-quoted adage of Rabbi Hisda, “A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read”, launches the Talmudic discussion on dreams.
In the end, it was probably the influence of Hellenism on Jewish dreams that was responsible for the turn-around of previous attitudes that made the discussions on dreams in the Talmud possible, but in subsequent, post-Talmudic traditional literature there was no comment at all on the dream interpretations and discourse in the Talmud. Their silence on the subject of dreams further illustrates the ambivalence on the topic of dreams.
In an interesting historical side note, we might wonder if the Jews of the Bible ever met the Greek god of healing? There is a strong likelihood that they did. In addition so some archeological evidence, we can speculate that individual Jews probably went to some of the Asklepia for dream healing based on this fragment…
“…The treatment prescribed was to keep sated with pork…but rising up from the dream and leaning on his elbow on the couch, he looked at the statue of Asclepius (for he happened to be sleeping in the vestibule of the shrine) and challenged him, saying, “My lord, what would your have prescribed to a Jew suffering this same illness, for certainly you would not bid him to take his fill of pork.” [Edelstein]
From this we can claim that the dreamer, Plutarch the Athenian (Greek philosopher and Neo-Platonists ca. 400 CE), either knew of Jews and Judaism and the question was strictly hypothetical or that he actually knew Jews that came to the healing temples. In any case, it hints that there was some influence and knowledge of each other and a cross-pollination of ideas and beliefs was likely, in some cases absorbed, in other cases, rejected outright.
To sum up, what’s the verdict so far?
Biblical and post-Biblical: Positive Ambivalence
Greek attitudes: Positive.
The Roman Empire was Christianized during the reign of Constantine between 306-337 CE. Constantine’s mother Helena was a Christian and Constantine was tolerant of the new faith. During a battle outside Rome to become sole emperor, he reportedly has a “vision” of a flaming cross. He ordered his soldiers to paint crosses on their shields and he believed the Christian God was fighting on his side. From this point on, Constantine worked to integrate Christianity into Roman life. Part of that increasing support turned Constantine against the Greek god of healing, Asklepios along with other pagan gods. This massive shift turned Asklepios from “healer, saviour and soul of the universe” to a “deceiver of souls and a demon” [Tick] as his healing temples were destroyed, attacked by Constantine’s soldiers and individual Christians alike.
As with Judaism, Christianity reflects the cross currents of the times and region but along with the positive esteem that some held dreams, there were also voices of caution, doubt and out-right condemnation. Even so, dreams played an important role in the beginning of Christianity with Joseph (named after the great dreamer Joseph in the Torah) receiving four heaven-sent dreams that instructed him on Jesus’ origins and how to care and protect him. The story of Jesus’ life and career are marked by powerful religious experiences, yet none were described as dreams. While all peoples of the ancient near east shared a vocabulary in dreaming, eventually Christianity sought to distance itself from pagan enthusiasm for dreaming. In spite of this, there were still Christian individuals and martyrs who described the importance of dreams as part of their transformation or conversion but the church fathers had some issues with dreams. It came down to this: The early church had trouble with the natural experiences of the body in sleep, equating nocturnal emissions and dreams of a sexual nature with demons, temptation and sin. [Bulkeley] As Hamlet would say, “There’s the rub!”
This early church bias and negative estimation of dreams was further cemented by important theologians of the early church, in particular Jerome (347-419 CE), and Augustine (354-430 CE). Jerome, in spite of his own powerful dreams, deliberately mistranslated the Bible’s admonition in Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 18 as “You shall not practice augury nor observe dreams” where the original Hebrew did not mention dreams at all, thus lumping dreams with other pagan divinatory practices. For Augustine, dreams were a source of ambivalence as he struggled between his faith and his Roman education. While his mother was a powerful dreamer and faithful Christian, and he acknowledged his mother’s gifts and true dreams, he still emphasized the “spiritual dangers of sleep and dreaming.” [Bulkeley]
There were a few positive estimations of dreams and the dreaming experience but over time church authorities discouraged this attitude. The theologian Tertullian (155- 230 CE), a younger contemporary of Galen’s, who had written positively about dreams was eventually branded a heretic. Origen, a theologian from Alexandria, was also unable to shift the anti-dream majority in the church. Synesius (373-423 CE), the neo-Platonic and well-educated bishop of what is now Libya (Ptolemais) wrote on the topic of dreams as well, writing that they should be cultivated, not despised, that dreams are “personal oracles” and that we should “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.” Sadly, he too, was eventually found in conflict with the church. In the opinion of many scholars, an individual’s direct access to spirit was seen as a threat to religious authority.
While the church fathers debated and worked at solidifying church doctrine, and by the time the Roman Empire began to disintegrate in the 4th and 5th centuries, the church had already systematically destroyed many of the Asklepian temples and “pagan” statuary of the gods. The love the people had for the god of healing, in time was transferred to this “new god” Jesus. It is interesting to note that Jesus and Asklepios were often described in similar ways, as “savior and healer”. He was said to walk the land, in simple sandals and staff in hand, creating miracles and healing the people.
By the time we get to the middle ages, the church is firmly anti-dream and great philosophers like Descartes, Spinoza and others, begin to grapple with dreams, reality, consciousness, the dualism of mind and body and more, but always in the shadow of the church and the long history of attitudes towards dreams that preceded it.
Tracing our dream origins is a useful exercise so that we know where we came from and how we got here. But in the global village in which we now live, together with world knowledge that is available with the click of a mouse, I think it’s important to be open to incorporating the wisdom of the world’s dreaming traditions to get insight into our own dream mysteries. Perhaps this is your goal too.
For example, in ancient Greece there was a god you might have heard of- Hermes, the “Divine Messenger, who was called “The friendliest of gods to men.” He was the herald and interpreter for the more remote Olympians, speeding back and forth between the surface world and the spirit worlds in his winged sandals. He presided over chance encounters and happy coincidences… You will often encounter him in border areas, places of transition and the border zone between sleep and waking.” [Moss]. So it was that in the Greek city of Pharai that stood a statue of Hermes where the following practice unfolded:
You bring a question to Hermes, anything from, “Will I recover?” to “Should I do business with Antony?” But first you would bring oil for the lamps, incense or other offerings to show respect to the god. When you are ready, and keeping your question only between you and Hermes, you whisper your question into the right ear of Hermes’ statue. You then cover your ears to block out noise as you move into the market place. As soon as you arrive, you uncover your ears and the first human speech you overhear will give you the answer to your question. So this ancient practice, put people and every-day conversation in position of doing the gods’ work, delivering messages to seekers or dreamers, without even knowing it. Is it superstition? Synchronicity? Fast forward more than 2000 years.
A dreamer in one of my dream groups shared the following dream:
I am being laid off from my job. I knew I had done my best. I was doing an excellent job and I was happy. I demanded to know the reason. It turned out that someone had submitted changes to my contract and that I could be terminated on the spot without reason. I saw a piece of lined paper with the changes to the contract. I knew I was supposed to learn and realize something from this. The word BLEEDEN appeared on the paper I knew it was him [the one who had changed the contract] and woke up feeling ok.
The dreamer had no clue as to the name of this man, Bleeden, and had absolutely no associations that came to her from either the word [bleed] or the dream character who was changing the terms of her contract nor was it anyone she had ever met in waking life. We worked on the dream from many angles and no projections from the group resonated for her and trying to find a message from the dream produced no “aha” of connection or insight. But I knew.
Bleeden was my maiden name, a name that I never used, as I went by my stepfather’s last name. The dreamer had no way of knowing the name I was born with, and I had never discussed my childhood with her. We were not social friends and she didn’t know anything about my relationship with my father.
In the dream she said, “I knew I had done my best.” The back-story that she didn’t know was that my father had died suddenly leaving me with a lot of unfinished business and questions when I discovered that he had cut me out of his will. I believe that her dream was a message to me to help me finally lay him to rest. It told me that on a soul level, whatever “Sacred Contract” we originally had, he had changed the terms of the contract and it had nothing to do with me or the kind of daughter I was. As the dreamer stated, “I had done an excellent job”.
When we have dreams that make absolutely no sense to us, a dream in which we have no associations to at all, we have to ask the question, “Whose dream message is this?” We may not actually be the one for whom the dream message is intended. And these dreams- all dreams- need to be shared so the message can be delivered!
We are social beings and we need to tell our dream narratives to others who are both respectful and empathetic. Each and every dream carries many layers of meaning, mostly for the dreamer, but also for others in our lives, and for our communities and our world. In the same way that we might ask ourselves if our dream has any precognitive information for us before assuming that the dream is about our psychological issues, we need to ask, “who is this dream message for?” Or “whose dream is this?”
After pouring over more than 3000 years of written history, I have come to know this: our roots teach us that we need to share our dreams. Find or start a dream group (you don’t need to find a statue of Hermes), find friends to share dreams over cups of coffee and don’t keep those messages, wisdom and insight to yourself! You never know who needs to hear its wisdom.