Martin Hammond looks at a fascinating book from the ancient world…

Artemidorus (late second century – early third century AD, exact dates unknown), a native of the small town of Daldis in western Asia Minor, but resident in the provincial capital Ephesus, was a professional dream-interpreter who set out to write a comprehensive theoretical and practical guide to his speciality. His Oneirocritica (‘The Interpretation of Dreams’), in five Books composed at intervals, probably between about AD 180 and 210, is a treatise and manual on dreams, their classification within the broad categories of significant and non-significant, and the various analytical tools which should be applied to their interpretation.  Dream-books and treatises on interpretation had a long history from at least the late fifth century BC, and Artemidorus was well versed in the tradition, but his Oneirocritica has unique importance and interest as the only such book to have survived complete from Graeco-Roman antiquity, and its direct or indirect influence on thought about dreams and dreaming in the succeeding centuries, up to and including Freud, has been immense.  Freud admired Artemidorus, describing the Oneirocritica as ‘the most complete and painstaking study of dream-interpretation as practised in the Graeco-Roman world’, and insisting on affinities between that work and his own.

Dream-interpreters were in business, and dream-books a popular genre, because in the ancient world it was widely believed that some dreams had allegorical or riddling significance which, if properly interpreted, gave insight into the future.  Enquiry into the meaning of dreams was therefore one of the many forms of divination, like augury or haruspicy, in public or private use, with the attraction to ordinary people of being readily available (Artemidorus expresses solidarity with ‘the much-maligned diviners of the marketplace’), and by definition specific to the individual.  Not all dreams have significance.  Artemidorus makes a basic distinction between dreams which are non-predictive (enhypnia) and dreams which are, or can be, predictive (oneiroi), and therefore need interpretation.  Non-predictive dreams, of no interest to Artemidorus, are typically those which are simply the recycling of the day’s residue, or the result of pre-existing physiological or emotional states – to anyone bringing him such a dream he would say ‘You ate too much’, or ‘You were thinking of your girlfriend’.  Dealing with predictive dreams needed skill, experience, and a well-developed set of interpretative tools, tried and tested.

Artemidorus, with some justification, is proud of his professional approach – wide historical research, extensive travel, clear classification and arrangement of material (for the most part), and fine-grained distinctions.  He had sought out and studied copies of most of the books written by his early predecessors, and gives qualified approval to the ‘old authorities’, while understandably withholding it from his contemporaries and rivals – though at one point (2.59.3), after relating one of his own dreams, he reveals a more collegiate spirit, continuing with ‘When a group of us were once swapping stories of that sort….’.  He travelled widely through Asia Minor, the Aegean islands, Greece, and Italy to collect people’s dreams and record their outcomes, in the process casting invaluable light on religious beliefs and social mores in the early Roman empire.  Most of these visits outside Asia Minor were evidently to the venues of the major religious and athletic festivals, where dream-interpreters would set up their stalls or otherwise announce their availability:  athletes, or their anxious fathers, are a frequent category of dreamer in the Oneirocritica.  Artemidorus insists throughout on the primacy of direct experience, laboriously gathered, over text-book learning and the uncritical application of historical methods:  he sees himself as an innovator.  On the source of dreams, a much disputed topic, he hedges his bets, allowing that some dreams, most notably the ‘solicited dreams’ experienced after incubation in a temple, may be god-sent, but otherwise he is firm in his view that ‘dreams are products of the mind, and do not come from any external source’ (4.59.3), and that the mind itself is by nature prophetic (4.2.12, 4.27.1). Some of the interpretative tools employed by Artemidorus seem far-fetched to us (but not necessarily to his clients), for example numerology, a reliance on puns and wordplay, and a very flexible use of analogy (almost anything can stand in an analogous relation to almost anything else), but alongside this bizarre stuff are some surprisingly modern elements of analysis.  As well as his recognition that many dreams are simply explained as the products of the day’s experience or preoccupations, with no further significance, he insists that a dream offered for interpretation should be as completely recollected as possible, since apparently minor details can have major significance; and he emphasizes the need for the dream-interpreter to have full information about the dreamer’s background, status, and present circumstances, including his or her medical and psychological condition.  The same dream can have different significance and a different outcome, depending on whether the dreamer is man or woman, slave or free, rich or poor, healthy or sick.

In the course of the five Books of his Oneirocritica Artemidorus discusses or attributes significance and predicted or actual outcomes to some 1400 dreams or dream-elements.  The range is wide enough to include all of the initial talking-points proposed by the Walrus to the Carpenter, ‘of shoes and ships and sealing-wax, of cabbages and kings’ – of cabbages Artemidorus roundly declares (1.67.3) that ‘cabbages have no good function in dreams’, being generally malign.  This last illustrates, if rather trivially, that Artemidorus concentrates more on the significance, favourable or unfavourable, of individual elements present in dreams (things, people, single actions or events) than on what we would recognize as the whole often confused and phantasmagoric ‘narrative’ of a dream.  There are a few extended ‘narrative’ dreams discussed in the Oneirocritica, but for the most part Artemidorus is concerned to explore and explain the allegorical significance of ‘everyday’ elements in dreams and their actual or predicted outcomes.  He surveys dreams of almost everything from birth to death, with detailed examination of dreams involving any part of the body (especially suffering change or detriment), all forms of food and drink, all animals tame or wild, birds, fish, flying insects (in 2.14 there is an astonishing list of no fewer than sixty varieties of fish and shellfish, reflecting the importance of Ephesus as a centre of maritime activity), trees and shrubs, sports and pastimes, weather and meteorological phenomena, relations with family and slaves, even household effects and utensils, and much more.  Of particular interest are his chapters on dreams of seeing, meeting, or interacting with the gods (each god receiving individual treatment), and his long and unflinching discussion (1.78–80) of every variety of sex-dream, which is without parallel in Classical literature and the subject of a classic analysis by Michel Foucault in his History of Sexuality (Volume 3:  The Care of the Self, pp. 3–36).

Artemidorus intended Books 1 and 2 of the Oneirocritica as a complete and self-contained treatise on the theory and practice of dream-interpretation, and dedicated them to Cassius Maximus, almost certainly Maximus of Tyre, a well-known public intellectual of the time.  Somewhat later he added the much shorter Book 3, also addressed to Maximus, as a miscellaneous collection of addenda, in rather huffy response to criticisms of incomplete coverage or explanation (in a competitive profession Artemidorus was not short of amour propre).  Later still he composed Books 4 and 5 as a sort of beginner’s manual addressed to his son, also called Artemidorus, who was making his way as a trainee dream-interpreter.  Book 4 is a handy recapitulation, with further examples, of the basic classification of dreams and the main principles of interpretation, to which Artemidorus adds fatherly advice on some of the tricks of the trade.  In Book 5 he compiles for his son a fascinating anthology of 95 indicative practical examples of dreams and their outcomes.  ‘You will find’, he writes, ‘that each dream is given only with a bare statement of the outcome as it actually happened, recorded without scenery or drama.  My only intention was to compile from my experience material that you can trust and also find helpful.’  These examples, and the many other dreams recorded and analysed earlier in the Oneirocritica, often quite alien to what we know of modern dream experience and content, illustrate that such experience and content, and probably dream symbolism also, is to a large extent culturally determined.  The ancients had their anxiety-dreams and wish-fulfilment dreams like all of us, but it is clear, not only from Artemidorus, that the nature, structure, and content of their dreams were often quite different from ours.  So of course was the significance attributed to dreams and sought by means of professional help.  In the post-Freudian age we once again see dreams as potentially significant, but now as revelations of the psyche rather than the future.

As befits a technical treatise intended for practical use, the Oneirocritica is written in plain unadorned Greek, free of the embellishment and rhetorical gloss which might have been added by a more self-consciously ‘literary’ writer of that period.  And the style suits the subject.  Although evidently a member of the civic elite in both Daldis and the provincial capital Ephesus, Artemidorus’ main interest, and we presume his main professional practice, was concerned with the realities of life, with the real hopes and anxieties of real people, mainly, though not exclusively, those lower down the social order in a very status-conscious society.  Prominent in the categories of dreamers whose dreams are discussed, and for whom outcomes are predicted, are the poor (whose dreams are more often auspicious than those of the rich), the sick, slaves, farmers, self-employed artisans, tradesmen, aspiring athletes, prostitutes, ‘honest citizens’.  Samuel Johnson thought that ‘the full tide of human existence is at Charing Cross’:  Artemidorus could have said the same of Ephesus.

Herein lies another signal importance of this remarkable work.  The Oneirocritica has exceptional added interest as social history, presenting a kaleidoscopic picture of the Graeco-Roman mind, religious beliefs, social and moral values, sexual norms, and the hopes and fears of ordinary people in a busy Greek city in the eastern Roman empire around AD 200 – marriage, children, sex, travel, business, debt, unemployment, slavery, sickness, death.  There is rich material here.

Martin Hammond’s translation of Artemidorus: The Interpretation of Dreams, with introduction and notes by Peter Thonemann, was published in the Oxford World’s Classics series in January 2020, simultaneously with Peter Thonemann’s companion volume, An Ancient Dream Manual.


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