William V. Harris
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    From the Iliad to Aristophanes, from the gospel of Matthew to Augustine, Greek and Latin texts are constellated with descriptive images of dreams. This cultural history of dreams in antiquity draws on both contemporary post-Freudian science and careful critiques of the ancient texts. Harris takes an elusive subject and writes about it with rigor and precision, reminding us of specificities, contexts, and changing attitudes through history.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-05397-7
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. Introduction: Then and Now
    (pp. 1-22)

    We can begin in fourth-century AD Egypt. Would you like to appear in someone else’s dream? What you have to do is this. Say to your bed-side lamp (strictly speaking, it should probably be an oil-lamp) the following words: ‘Cheiamopsei herpeboth.Let MM, the daughter of NN, see me in her dreams, now, now, quickly, quickly’. Add your own message. Repeat frequently. Those at least are the instructions offered by a fourth-century Greek magical papyrus,¹ obviously in deadly earnest—it was not a game. Reading such texts seems to take us into a world entirely alien, superficially at least, from...

  7. I From Epiphany to Episode: A Revolution in the Description of Dreams
    (pp. 23-90)

    A form of dream-description that was very common in classical antiquity is now, apparently, very rare indeed in the western world. Many dreams were described as what we can callepiphanies:an authority figure visited the sleeper and made a significant pronouncement, and that was the dream. In modern times, all or most dreams are described as what we can call episodes, sequences of events.¹ This chapter attempts to refine the above description of this remarkable change in the representation of dreams, and to answer the obvious questions—first, what changed—people’s dreams, the conventions used to describe them, or...

  8. II Greek and Roman Dreams That Were Really Dreamt
    (pp. 91-122)

    We asked whether people really dreamt epiphany dreams, but in answering that question we sidestepped another one—whether we can ever know what was really dreamt in antiquity.

    Here are three classical texts that claim to describe real dreams dreamt by real people:

    (1) Alexander of Macedon was campaigning in India, when Ptolemy, one of his officers, and some of the troops he commanded, were affected by the enemy’s poisoned weapons. They were dying. Alexander, however, dreamt of a snake which ‘carried a plant in its mouth, and showed him its nature and power, and the place where it grew’....

  9. III Greek and Roman Opinions about the Truthfulness of Dreams
    (pp. 123-228)

    Most humans need gods in order to endure a world full of war, sickness, death and uncertainty, and they have to be gods with whom they can communicate. If and when the gods are well-disposed, they will reveal things that people want to know, especially about the future. Now, neither Greeks nor Romans took it for granted by any means that the gods were always well-disposed,¹ though philosophers and the philosophically inclined often argued, or at least asserted, that they were benevolent: Aristotle in fact makes use of this assumption when he argues that they donotsend dreams.² But...

  10. IV Naturalistic Explanations
    (pp. 229-278)

    What do dreams mean? What should we do about them? Where do they come from? These, for most ancient populations, were sometimes pressing questions, both in life, especially religious life, and in literature. We have seen how Greek and Roman populations attempted to respond to them, both in the form of assumptions and in the form of more or less articulated answers. But there was also, as we have seen from time to time, a philosophical approach—the ancestor of the scientific approach invented, as far as dreams are concerned, in the nineteenth century¹—which sought to explain, on a...

  11. Conclusions
    (pp. 279-286)

    How did Greeks and Romans experience their dreams, and what did they make of their experience? By way of partial answers, what this book proposes can be summarized as follows.

    In the introduction we saw how contemporary specialists describe some of the principal aspects of the phenomenon of dreaming, in particular the characteristic bizarreness of dreams. The point here was not to assume that nothing has changed—on the contrary we must be alert for possible differences—but to establish as clearly as possible the contours of the phenomenon that ancient writers were attempting to describe or make use of....

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 287-322)
  13. Index
    (pp. 323-332)