Monday 28 January 2019

Dream on

by Ruth Downie

“And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, [the wise men] went back to their country by another route.” According to the gospel of Matthew, it was only a dream that kept the baby Jesus out of the clutches of a murderer.

These days we tend to think of dreams in terms of psychology – Freud’s “royal road to the unconscious” - but people in the ancient world believed that dreams foretold the future. Then, as now, it was possible to forge an entire career on making sense of them.

Roman-style bed/couch
Before Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams” there was another collection of books with the same title, written in the second century by a man called Artemidorus.

Book Four tells a story of which Freud was particularly fond. Apparently while Alexander the Great was besieging the city of Tyre, he began to have doubts about his strategy. He dreamed that a satyr was dancing on his shield - which, if the satyr looked anything like the one below, must have been fairly disturbing. An interpreter spotted that the word “Satyros” can be divided into “Sa” and “Tyros” – “Tyre is yours”. Thus encouraged, Alexander launched an attack and took the city. 

Statue of satyr
A satyr, mercifully slightly out of focus.
 Not all interpretations were as timely as Alexander's. Another of Artemidorus’s stories concerns a man who was on the verge of marriage when he dreamed that he was riding a ram and fell off in front of it. Heeding his interpreter's warning that his future wife would be unfaithful to him, he broke off the engagement. His friends finally persuaded him to marry after all, but the man was taking no chances, and kept his wife under close surveillance. Unfortunately she only lived for a year. Thinking he was now safe, the man remarried. In a twist more satisfying for us than for him, his new wife took up a career as a prostitute.

Of course, not every dream meant something. Then as now, it was hardly surprising if a robber dreamed about robbing people. But if something unusual were to happen in a dream…

A man who dreamed that he couldn’t shake lots of large bed bugs out of his clothing found out the next day that his wife was unfaithful to him, but some complication meant he was unable to shake her off by getting a divorce.

Often the meaning of a dream depended on the situation of the dreamer, so that a teacher might be pleased to dream of ants running into his ears. They would represent all the young men coming to hear his lectures. For anyone else, their arrival would foretell death (because ants live down in the earth, in case you were wondering).

Dreaming of playing the harp boded well for the harmony of a forthcoming marriage. But for a dreamer who had other plans, all that tension in the strings was a warning of serious disagreements ahead.

To see a swan was a sign that secrets would be revealed, and to dream of a dolphin in the sea (not on the land!) was cheering, because it meant a favourable wind was on the way. 

Mosaic of two dolphins

Seeing a neighbour’s dog fawning could presage betrayal by wicked men and women. If the dream dogs bit or barked, the dreamer should be on the look-out for a physical attack. White dogs meant an attack out in the open, black an attack in a concealed place, and russet meant a combination of the two. As for spotted dogs – well, “they will be much more terrible,” because anything speckled was  dangerous and deceitful.

Singing was propitious if you found yourself doing it on the road, but it was bad to sing in the bath house. 
Bath house wall painted with fish and goddess statue in niche
Strictly no singing in here!
 Dreaming of cabbage was bad for everyone, and so was dreaming of goats. Sheep, on the other hand, were always good news - especially the white ones.

Dreaming of cow-dung could also mean good luck – but only if you were a farmer.

Dreaming of being insane “would be especially propitious for potential demagogues, for those who wish to rule the masses, and for those who ingratiate themselves with the crowd." Better perhaps to dream of drinking cold water, a harmless pastime that signaled good fortune to everyone.

What about dreams where people spoke? Artemidorus recommended that his clients trust the words of gods, kings and rulers, parents, teachers and children. Actors were not to be believed by anyone. Others whose deceitful utterances should be ignored included magicians and prophets who claimed to find meanings in dice, sieves, palms, dishes or cheese. (Yes, I did just type "cheese".)  Only properly-trained professionals should be trusted: sacrificers, people who interpreted the flights of birds, astrologers, people who observed strange phenomena, dream interpreters and soothsayers who examined the livers of sacrificed animals.

As a non-psychologist what I find really interesting about Artemidorus’s work (apart from the bizarreness) is the insight into the concerns of ordinary people. It’s hardly surprising to find universal worries about business, health, children or marriages – and given the technology of the times, sea travel would have been fraught with risks that would have travelers praying for dreams of dolphins. But the many warnings of “secrets being revealed” were unexpected, and the frequency of warnings about attacks from enemies were a reminder that physical violence was an ever-present reality in the Roman empire. 

The author holding a white lamb

Back in the relative safety of the twenty-first century, may your dreams be full of white sheep and cold water, and may you never encounter goats and cow-dung. Unless, of course, you are a farmer.

This piece is based on Robert J White’s 1975 translation and commentary of “The Interpretation of Dreams” by Artemidorus – published by Noyes Press and reprinted by Banton Press, Isle of Arran ISBN 1 85652 046 3 

Ruth Downie is the author of the MEDICUS series of murder mysteries featuring Roman army medic Ruso and his British partner, Tilla.


Karen Maitland said...

Really fascinating piece, Ruth, not only about the symbolism, but what, as you say, it reveals about the mindset of the time. And I love the idea of there being people who read omens in cheese. I must examine my cheese sandwich more carefully!

Ruth Downie said...

Thank you Karen. I have to say I've never come across cheese-readers before either, but I'll be on the lookout from now on!