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Byzantine and Roman Dream Literature

Byzantine dream-key manuals give us a sense of the ‘social aspirations and anxieties’ — to echo MacAlister’s phrase in reference to the Dreambook of Artemidorus (1992:140) — of ordinary men, and significantly less often, of women. The western Roman church allowed for the appearance of the divine in dreams, and the communication of divine revelations. The use of dreams and visions as illustrative material for the lives of saints in Gregory’s Dialogues stands in contrast to the demise of eastern dreambooks from the sixth century, as the Byzantine church came down increasingly hard upon dreams and the interpretation of dreams, or divination, which was considered a species of magic. The pagan tradition of dream interpretation was arguably the final frontier of personal identity to be conquered by first-millennium Christianity.


The continuity between Greco-Roman dreambooks, such as the second-century Greek writer Artemidorus’ Oneirocritica, newly edited by Harris-McCoy (2012), and Byzantine dreambooks and dream-key manuals, edited by Oberhelman (2008), is obvious from even a cursory glance at the contents. Walde (1999) reminds us that in the age of Artemidorus, the second century, dreams fulfilled a much greater cultural role than they do today. They were used to diagnose illness, to predict the future (so-called ‘mantic’ dreams), and to determine one’s place and destiny in a universe governed by capricious gods. A stricter attitude towards dreams with sexual content is evident in monastic writers such as Evagrius of Pontus, with suggestions of demonic inspiration as the cause of such dreams (Brakke 1996). The violent role played by demons in the ascetic life of Christians increased from the fourth century onwards (Bitton-Ashkelony 2003), and we find that evil spirits played an important role in frightening visions, as in Gregory’s account of a five-year-old boy who was seen being dragged to Hell by evil spirits because he repeatedly committed the sin of blasphemy (Dial. 4.19). This contrasts with the evidence for a gentler western church attitude towards dreams in monastic contexts, as witnessed by various ascetic rules.


The evidence for church attitudes towards the vagaries of laypeople’s dream life is scanty, however, and must be retrieved from sources other than dreambooks, such as canon law, Byzantine chronicles and church histories (see Howard-Johnston 2010). ‘Real’ dreams are most often recounted in saints’ lives or hagiography, although the hagiographic aim of enhancing the subject’s spiritual authority must be taken into account. Medical texts on the practice of incubation, whereby the sick sought healing from divine entities in dreams, are also important, and lay greater claim to objectivity. Hagiographic texts also deal with this practice, as for example Sophronius of Jerusalem’s Miracles of Saints Cyrus and John (Marcos 1975; Neil 2006). Oberhelman (2013) has edited a collection of essays tracing the medicinal role of dreaming from antiquity, through the Byzantine period, to modern Greece. The contrast between the theoretical dreams of dream-key manuals and the ‘real’ dreams related in such literature will provide a valuable insight into the difference between what people were meant to dream about and what they actually dreamed about.


An important theme in ancient dream literature was the legitimation of violence for religious ends. A good example is an unnamed hermit’s vision of Pope John throwing Theodoric into Hell, as retribution for the Gothic king’s unjust imprisonment of the pope, which had led to his death (Dial. 4.31). Precedents for divine retribution in dreams may be found in biblical and post-biblical literature (see Niehoff 1992). However, the absence of such violence against sinners in late-antique dream literature, up until the Dialogues of Gregory, is a puzzle that needs to be explained. It is here that the modern relevance of this topic emerges. Iain Edgar has made a recent study of Jihadists from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Turkey, who were inspired to join the Taliban by dreams, either their own or those of their families, or drew their spiritual authority as Taliban leaders from dreams. Edgar (2006) reports that so-called “true dreams” (sanctioned by the Koran) are a very real part of the mental life of the contemporary Muslims he interviewed, and carried enormous religious significance.


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