A Nocturnal Visit

A nocturnal visit

I sometimes feel we all have the same dreams. I mean, clearly life circumstances are reflected in dreams, and the settings of people’s dreams vary depending on where they live. But the same patters are constantly being repeated. Since we are all affected by the Freudian theory, a different attitude is both refreshing and intriguing.

The masterful scholar E. R. Dodds (1893-1979) dedicated his scientific work to ancient Greece. Unlike some classical scholars, who aim at a precise and detailed reconstruction of ancient texts, it is the state of mind of ancient Greeks that he wishes to revive. His extensive knowledge serves to resurrect a complex of thoughts, beliefs, hidden desires and fears, religious beliefs and superstitions, from the eighth. to the fourth centuries B.C. In his fascinating book The Greeks and the Irrational, an exemplary cultural history study, he provides a vivid description of the world of men and women in ancient Greece. The question of how we differ from them is constantly raised, making the book a vehicle not only for a study of antiquity but also for a better understanding of contemporary culture.

It begins with the most archaic layer of the Greek mind, the Iliad, and ends with Plato and Aristotle. Dodds challenges a common belief that ancient Greece was a culture of rationality, which left almost no room for the irrational. Alongside what is considered ‘the triumph of rationalism’, primitive and superstitious elements thrived. The fourth chapter, ‘Dream-Pattern and Cultural Pattern’, concerns itself “not with the dream experience of Greeks, but with Greek attitudes to dream experience.”

Dreams, argues Dodds, are affected by one’s culture. People of different cultures may have different types of dreams. “Anxiety dreams and wish-fulfillment dreams are common to humanity”, but the people of ancient Greece had another type of dream: a visit dream. A certain image would appear whilst the dreamer slept, either a divine figure or a family member, and convey a message to the dreamer. The visit, it must be stressed, was not perceived as metaphorical; it was commonly believed to have indeed taken place. The Greeks never said they ‘had’ a dream, but that they ‘saw’ one. The dreamer was completely passive, and never took part in the events unfolding in his sleep. The visitor “stood over” him, illustrating that it was he who controlled the visit. Dodds provides ample examples that such dreams were common among Greeks; their descriptions illustrate that they were not a literary device, but part of the everyday experience of men and women.

The visitor would use one of three methods: “One is the symbolic dream, which ‘dresses up in metaphor, like a sort of riddle, a meaning that cannot be understood without interpretation.’ A second is the haroma, or “vision”, which is a straight-forward pre-enactment of a future event. The third is called chermatismos or “oracle”, and it is to be recognized ‘when in sleep the dreamer’s parent, or some other respected or impressive personage, perhaps a priest or even a god, reveals without symbolism what will or will not happen, should or should not be done.”

People want to know the future; it is a universal human inclination. Thus, ancient Greeks began to develop techniques to induce such dreams, to invite visitors while asleep: isolation, fasting, self-mutilation, sleeping on a skin of a scarified animal etc. Yet even if a dream was ‘invited’, so to speak, it had the same validity as a waking experience. It was perceived as objective reality, and the message revealed by visitors was simply the truth.

By the early fifth century B.C. a handful of Greek intellectuals began to adopt a more critical approach to the dream experience. The first one to do so was Heraclitus, in his observation that “in sleep each one of us retreats to a world of his own”, ruling out a common ground for the understanding of dreams. Later, Plato suggests a rather strange explanation for mantic dreams: they originate from our rational aspect, but are perceived by the irrational part, and therefore need interpretation.

Only Aristotle, in two essays on sleep, provides a comprehensive rational approach to dreams, “…in his [Aristotle’s] recognition of a common origin for dreams, the hallucinations of the sick and the illusions of the sane. He denies that any dreams are god-sent: if the gods wished to communicate knowledge to men, they would do so in daytime, and they would choose recipients more carefully”. Dreams can predict the future only in two ways: either they indicate the state of health of the dreamer, or they bring about self-fulfillment, since they suggest a course of action to the dreamer.

The Greeks and the Irrational is a brilliant work, well worth reading. But strangely this chapter made me further appreciate the irrational ancient Greek approach to dreams. Wouldn’t it be fascinating and enriching, perhaps even fruitful, if we thought of images in our sleep as visitors?


  • Emanuela Rubinstein says:

    Thank you!

  • John Singer says:

    Superbly stimulating questions you raise and answers you provide; suggestions for understanding such early European beginnings of philosophical thought. Greece, the proto-Western center of intellectual thought, with a culture promoting dreams and the acceptance of such dreams as truth. Just fascinating. Thank you for sharing your intelligence in a world consumed with destruction!

Leave a Comment