15 June, 2009Issue 9.8Literature

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A Citizen of Two Worlds

Claire Catenaccio

toibinWilliam V. Harris
Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity
Harvard University Press, 2009
332 Pages
ISBN 978-0674032972

Since its publication in 1951, E.R. Dodds’s essay on “Dream-Pattern and Culture-Pattern” in The Greeks and the Irrational has become the standard text on dreams in the Greco-Roman world. In his forthcoming book Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity, William V. Harris updates the account with contemporary scientific methods and anthropological evidence, without specifically challenging or developing Dodds’s paradigm. The book is intended for professional classicists, and will be of great use in its field; even for those with small Latin and less Greek, Harris lucidly explicates the successive interpretations which ancient minds placed on a particular and forceful type of human experience.

Dodds, writing 50 years after Freud, took the psychoanalytic paradigm as a given; another half-century along, there is no such simple ruling theory. Harris’s introduction tackles the Herculean labor of sorting through a tremendous quantity of neurological and psychological research into sleep and dreams. With access to such a wealth of clinical approaches, what emerges is both compelling and frustratingly devoid of closure. In the end, the review of science has rather little to offer for Harris’s argument. Experiments have allowed scientists greater insight into how the brain works during sleep, but leave unanswered the central questions about dreams that concerned the ancients, and still concern us today: why do we dream? what do dreams mean? how should we respond to our dreams?

The world of dreams operates by its own logic and within its own limitations, distinct from those of waking life. As Dodds wrote in the first sentence of his essay, “Man shares with a few others of the higher mammals the curious privilege of citizenship in two worlds.” Dodds hypothesized that these limitations were not constant across peoples or historical epochs—that is, the ancients did not dream as we do. By this he meant that the essential structure of a dream conforms to patterns of belief intimately bound up with the culture of the dreamer. Not only the specific symbols, but the nature of the dream itself, follows a traditional pattern.

Harris follows Dodds in asserting that not only ways of describing dreams, but the actual experience of dreaming, has changed substantially over the past 2,500 years. For the Greeks and Romans, the study of dreams hovered somewhere between the realms of science, medicine, religion, and literature. The evidence that Harris assembles is necessarily diverse, ranging from proto-philosophical texts to inscriptions and lyric poems, from Italy to Asia Minor, and from the 8th century BC to the death of Saint Augustine in AD 430. Organizing the mass of ancient evidence, Harris arrives at a new distinction between what he terms epiphany and episode dreams. He proposes that in the classical world a particular type of dream-description, now nearly extinct, was in fact very common: an authority figure, often a god or a ghost, visited the sleeper and made a significant pronouncement.

The literary prototype of the epiphanic dream occurs in the second book of the Iliad, where Zeus sends a dream to Agamemnon, commander of the Hellenic forces, in order to trick him into launching an attack that he is destined to lose. The dream takes on the form of Nestor, wisest and most respected of the Greek elders, and addresses the sleeping Agamemnon:

You sleep, son of battle-minded Atreus, tamer of horses.
A man that is a counselor must not sleep the whole night through,
One to whom an army has been entrusted, and on whom rest so many cares.
But now quickly heed me, for I am a messenger to you from Zeus,
Who, far away though he is, cares for you greatly and pities you.
He wants you to arm the long-haired Achaeans with all speed,
Since now you may take the broad-wayed city of the Trojans.

(Iliad 2.24-30)

In this passage, Homer treats what is seen as if it were objective fact: the dream (oneiros in Greek) exists independently in space and time. It departs from Olympus, travels down through the ether to the bedside of Agamemnon, and takes up its stand at his head. When it has delivered its message the dream departs, leaving Agamemnon to ponder its import. Throughout the scene Agamemnon remains completely passive—in fact, he knows that he is asleep, since the dream tells him so immediately upon arrival.

The epiphanic mode of describing dreams could be viewed as nothing more than a narrative topos, a useful device to impart knowledge or motivate action. Yet this literary phenomenon apparently coexisted with its counterpart in the popular imagination as well. Records from the temple of Asclepius at Epidauros report that hundreds of worshippers slept in the shrine and were visited in dreams by the healing god, who spoke to them and sometimes even cured their maladies. Nor was this type of dream-description exclusive to the pagan tradition: in the Acts of the Apostles, Saint Paul is said to have dreamed that a foreign man, whom he took to be a divine representative, told him to sail to Macedonia and preach to the people there.

Such clear and objective epiphanies bear little resemblance to our own dream experience. By contrast, most dreams in modern times are described as a sequence of events, what Harris calls an episode, an altogether more amorphous phenomenon. The gradual disappearance of the epiphany dream, Harris suggests, was part of the widespread secularization of European thought that occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. As anthropological evidence supporting his conclusion, he points out that in cultures not functioning on the European intellectual model—Haiti, Mayan Mexico, and Zululand—the epiphany dream lingers on. He convincingly demonstrates that outside the secular Western world men and women still occasionally dream that they are visited by the gods.

This is not to say that epiphanies are the only type of dream that we know of from antiquity. As Harris acknowledges, religious and secular explanations for the content of dreams existed side by side. The historian Herodotus commented that dreams often arise from the experiences of the previous day; and Plato noted that some dreams seem to articulate forbidden wishes. Or, to take another passage from the Iliad, Homer describes the final, climactic confrontation between the Trojan hero Hector and the Greek hero Achilles in terms that resonate with our own experience:

And as in a dream a man cannot grasp one who flees before him –
The one cannot flee, nor the other lay hands on him – so Achilles
Could not overtake Hector in his fleetness, nor Hector escape.

(Iliad 22.199-201)

Many more examples could be drawn from Harris’s work. Almost without exception, these examples demonstrate that Harris aims to be encyclopedic rather than discursive or deeply analytical. This is in some respects a pity. There are, of course, benefits to this degree of scholarly discipline, but there is a considerable price to be paid. For instance, the nature of his wide-ranging inquiry necessitates that some examples of dream, especially literary ones, are given shorter shrift than they deserve. A list of sources is invaluable, but we also need, from someone of Harris’s learning and intellect, some fresh stabs at larger conclusions.

Claire Catenaccio
is an MPhil student in Classics at Christ Church, Oxford.