Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.06.02

Beat Näf, Traum und Traumdeutung im Altertum.   Darmstadt:  Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2004.  Pp. 244; ills. 37.  ISBN 3-534-17998-6.  €34.90.  



Reviewed by Marion Gindhart, University of Kiel (gindhart@germsem.uni-kiel.de)
Word count: 3080 words

Beat Näf's (hereafter N.) survey is the result of the author's intensive preoccupation with the history of dreams and dream-interpretation over a period of more than 10 years. In keeping with the publisher's programme, N. aims to reach interested non-scientific readers as well as students and scholars, and in this he is eminently successful. The title notwithstanding, he does not limit his study to (Greco-Roman) antiquity. His diachronic survey begins with the examination of Ancient Oriental sources and ends with an outline of the reception of ancient conceptions of dreams from the Middle Ages to the 21st century.

In the following, the intention of N.'s book will be outlined first. Then, a summary of its 16 chapters will illustrate the many aspects both of the subject and of the survey. Finally, several notes on form, structure and organization of the study, its relation to current scholarship, and its contents will be added.

As he emphasizes in the introduction (pp. 7-17), N. seeks to approach the phenomenon of dreams from a primarily historical point of view. On the basis of textual analyses which take into account remnants of oral tradition as well as the literal and rhetorical forming of texts, the many strategies for utilizing dreams within them, and the impact of various discourses in constructing perceptions and presentations of dreams, he aims to show the relevance of ancient texts on dreams for the science of history. Here, he focuses particularly on dream-interpreters, their methods of handling dreams, their influence and social status, and the continuities and discontinuities within the history of dream-interpretation. It is a field which has received less attention in previous research (which N. summarizes in a brief review) than for example the meaning and function of dreams, dream-classifications or the examination of dreams as literary artwork.

The first chapter "Altorientalische Zeugnisse der Traumdeutung und ihr Einfluss auf die antike Welt" (pp. 19-36) illustrates on the basis of both visual and textual sources the manifold aspects of dreams and their interpretation in ancient Oriental culture. As N. states, almost all of the approaches to dreams described at this point can also be found in Greco-Roman antiquity; a direct influence, however, cannot easily be demonstrated.

Chapter two on "Frühe griechische Traumdeutung" (pp. 37-42) focuses mainly on dreams and reflections on them in the "Odyssey", their literary function and historical value. N. also tries to document a preoccupation with dreams by early philosophers on the basis of fragments and book titles.

In the following chapter dedicated to "Traumdeutung in der Polisöffentlichkeit" (pp. 43-54), N. at first briefly addresses dreams in Attic tragedy. Next, he examines Herodotus' particular interest in dreams and analyzes how he handles them and their dramaturgical potential. Then he tries to reconstruct the history of dream-interpretation and incubation in Classical Athens with the help of different tesserae. He collects relevant data from historical sources, combines them with information found in other textual genres and visual media, uses fragments to construct the presumed contents of lost works on dreams and draws analogies from what we know of other forms of divination.

In the chapter "Die philosophische Reflexion der Phänomene Traum und Traumdeutung im 5. und 4. Jahrhundert v. Chr." (pp. 55-62), after having briefly rehearsed the Democritean and Epicurean theories of dreaming, N. focuses on two main topics. First, he describes the thinking of the Platonic Dialogues on the philosophical and physiological nature of dreams and the problem discerning Divine Truth within them. Secondly, he examines the primarily psycho-physiological approach to dreams in Aristotle's "De insomniis" and "De divinatione per somnum" and other works.

In "Neue Horizonte der Traumdeutung im Hellenismus" (pp. 63-79), N. describes the increasing publicity of dream-interpretation and its causes. Taking the example of Alexander the Great, he demonstrates the circulation of rulers' dreams, their propagation within textual and visual media, and their transmission and reception. He also illustrates the playful inventiveness of dreams and the different modes of using them in Hellenistic poetry but also shows that there was still an unbroken belief in oneiromantics, as reflected in various dedications and epigraphically fixed dream-tales. Finally, he describes the procedure of incubation practiced in Asclepieia and Serapea.

The chapter "Hellenistische Traumdeutung und ihre Adaption in Rom" (pp. 80-91) is dedicated to the reception of dreams in Roman literature and philosophy and its characteristics, for example the prominence of artificially written narratives about private dreams, the presence of dreams about the deceased, the specific interest in the dreams of politicians and potentates and the use of fictitious dreams for imparting political statements. N. illustrates, with reference to multifarious sources (testimonies of Early Roman literature and historiography, passages in the works of Cicero, Lucretius or Propertius, dream-narratives in Virgil's "Aeneid"), the wide spectrum of dreams, analyzes how dream-interpretation and incubation were practiced and evaluated, and how dreams could be instrumentalized.

Under the heading "Von den Träumen reden -- eine Mode im Prinzipat?" (pp. 92-102), N. tries to throw light on the different facets of dreams in art and literature as well as in public and private life in Imperial Rome. He examines how sleep and dreams were presented in the visual arts, touches on the role of dreams in Ovid and the Flavian epicists, and analyzes the ways of deriving political benefit from dreams, which were universals in Imperial historical writing. In addition, he gives a review of dreams in Tacitus, the Ps.-Senecean "Octavia", Lucan and the elder and younger Pliny. He elucidates their relevance as entertaining and encomiastic elements of Roman rhetoric (and cites some animadversions on using them in this way), explores the idea of dreams as divine revelations on the basis of inscriptions, and provides an insight into the methods recorded in magical papyri for conjuring up dreams and sending them to others.

The main objective of the "Traumdeutung in der griechischen Literatur und Kaiserzeit" (pp. 103-113) is, according to N., the characterization of persons and times from the perspective of dream-narratives. First, he deals with Plutarch, who is one of the most informative authors in this field. N. then goes on to outline Lucian's parodic-satirical struggle with established approaches to dreams and examines the function of dreams in Greek romances as well as in Cassius Dio.

The next chapter entitled "Träume und die Sorge für die Gesundheit. Kaiserzeitliche Medizin und Inkubation" (pp. 114-123) starts with a series of literary (Marcus Aurelius, Fronto) and medical sources (Galen) which document revelations of remedies and cures via dreams and thus bestow on them a mantic nature as a divine medium. Furthermore, N. discusses the practice of incubation in the Roman Empire, cites votive offerings and inscriptions as evidence for successful healings, and refers to the "Orationes sacrae" by Aelius Aristides, famous permanent resident of various Asclepieia, as a relevant source for the knowledge of how to interpret medical dreams.

The chapter "Professionalisierte wissenschaftliche Traumdeutung: Die Kunst Artemidors" (pp. 124-128) is dedicated to the ancient dream-interpreter best-known in (early) modern times (not so in antiquity!) and his work "Oneirokritika". N. explains the concept of Artemidorus' dream-interpretation as τέχνη using specific systematics and methods, and describes how to deduce the meaning of a dream from its individual elements. Collecting, comparing and analyzing are found to be the fundamentals of successful interpretation, always bearing in mind the dreamer and factors influencing him in order to separate the mantic content of dreams from personal wishes or 'tagesreste'.

The next chapter deals with "Traumdeutung bei Juden und frühen Christen im Imperium Romanum" (pp. 129-141). N. describes the reception and interpretation of the symbolic dreams narrated in the Old Testament by Philo and Flavius Josephus, who also gives an account of extra-biblical dreams and dreams of his own, considering himself to be predestined as a dream-interpreter because of his exceptionally close relationship to God. N. sketches the role of dreams in Judaism and introduces the Babylonian Talmud's dream-book. He characterizes the easy readability of the dreams recorded in the New Testament and describes the handling of dreams in other Christian texts like the "Passio Perpetuae et Felicitatis", which shows the woman martyr Perpetua as a successful interpreter of her and her brother's encrypted dreams.

In the short chapter "Spätrömische Innovationen: Die Frage nach dem Ende der alten Traumdeutung" (pp. 142-144) N. outlines how several emperors handled dreams in Late Antiquity and refers to several attempts at stemming traditional dream-interpretation and the (political) influence of dream-interpreters by law and religious restriction. These attempts proved less successful, as literary reflections and the ongoing operation of incubation-centres show.

In the following chapter, "Triumph der christlichen Umorientierung -- neue christliche Unsicherheiten" (pp. 145-156), N. elucidates how traditional pagan approaches to dreams were adapted by Christian writers and what kind of specifically Christian peculiarities existed, such as the revelation of relics or martyrs' graves via dreams or the initiation of conversions. N. examines a series of literary sources including Eusebius, Lactantius, Sulpicius Severus, Gregorius Magnus or Cassian, who writes about dreams signifying the actual degree of asceticism. He also cites such critics as Diadochus of Photice, who denies that God could be seen in dreams or visions, or Evagrius Ponticus, who warns against being seduced by demons in sleep.

In the chapter "Der Traum als Anstoss christlicher Erkenntnis" (pp. 157-166) N. assembles a multitude of passages containing dream-narratives and theoretical propositions on dreams taken from the works of Christian authors and the Fathers. In the process he dwells on the "De hominis opificio" of Gregor of Nyssa, which deals with the genesis and validity of dreams, containing many dreams of Gregor himself. N. also takes a closer look at the works of Augustine, and the famous 'dream' of Jerome, a fiction intended to caution against studying the wrong subjects and picking up the wrong books instead of reading the bible.

In the chapter "Traumdeutung bei Exponenten des Neuplatonismus" (pp. 167-172) N. examines several passages in Porphyry and Iamblichus which deal with dreams as important media for communicating and revealing the Divine, describes different methods of dream-classification in Chalcidius and Macrobius and summarizes the contents of Synesius' work "De somniis", in which the author, referring to his own experience, posits that dreams were generally meaningful and the use of oneiromantics beneficial.

In the last chapter, dedicated to the "Rezeption der antiken Traumdeutung" (pp. 173-192), N. dwells on the transmission of ancient ideas and texts on dreams, introduces the so-called medieval dream-keys, outlines the reception of Artemidorus and the evaluation of dreams in the Arabian world as well as the preoccupation with ancient texts and the production of dream-literature in the Byzantine Empire. He explains how various approaches to dreams and literal dream-motifs were adapted in late-mediaeval texts and outlines how the dreambooks of Synesius and Artemidorus were used and when they were printed and translated into Latin and the vernacular languages. N. also refers to the reception of medical literature on dreams and the numerous commentaries on the "Somnium Scipionis" in the early modern period. He illustrates the presence and authority of antiquity which is also reflected in critical approaches to ancient dream-interpretation. He considers how dreams and their interpretation were handled in encyclopaedias during the period of the Enlightenment, in 19th-century compilations and in classical and historical scholarship. In a second part N. highlights the relationship between 20th-century psychoanalysis and ancient dream-interpretation: the limited usability of ancient dream-narratives for Sigmund Freud and his critical preoccupation with traditional ways of explaining and interpreting them, the major role ancient knowledge of dreams played for C.G. Jung, whose dream-interpretation focuses on the understanding of traditional symbols, archetypes and myths, and finally the reception among Jungians like Ludwig Binswanger or Marie-Louise von Franz. N. rounds off the book by looking at modern research on sleep including their new, restrictive forms of dream-interpretation.

As this summary will have illustrated, N.'s book provides a very lucid structure consisting of a number of well-proportioned chapters with significant headings, which allow the reader to peruse the contents at a glance. The contents are also made accessible by an index at the end of the book. N. confirms his statements in detail with a multitude of quotations from ancient sources and secondary literature, which he cites in endnotes. Frequently, he combines literary sources with visual media, which do not only illustrate (there are 37 figures in the book) but also reinforce the information given in the texts. The highly readable text, which evidences a profound erudition, can be read through by the non-specialist without consulting the notes. However, the rich material collected in the notes allows an opportunity at any passage of the text to go further into the matter. Ancient authors and texts are cited with the usual abbreviations, which may hamper their identification by non-classicists. But members of this audience should surely be more interested in the key texts dealing with ancient dreams, which N. lists in a separate bibliography, including selected editions, translations and commentaries.

The main bibliography comprises the basic secondary literature on dreams. More specialized studies are listed in the appropriate footnotes, so the bibliography doesn't become too bulky and the user is able to gain a quick overview of the most relevant titles. In his introduction N. touches briefly on the most important and most recent books on dreams in antiquity, but abstains from criticizing them (with exception of Jean Bouquet's survey). He praises, for example, Peter-André Alt's "Schlaf der Vernunft" as a "breit angelegte Geschichte des literarischen Traums" (p. 13) despite its deficiencies in the chapters dealing with ancient texts on dreams. An essential research tool for literature on dreams and visions in antiquity which is missing from N.'s bibliographical notes is Gregor Weber's online-bibliography Dreams of Antiquity, which also lists relevant review articles.

All in all, N.'s book is accurately edited and there are relatively few errata. The legend of fig. 14, for example, does not refer to the reproduced coin of Seleucus I. but to an exemplar shown in P.R. Franke / M. Hirmer, Die griechische Münze, 2nd. ed. Munich 1972, n.741 (not P.M. Franke and n.74 as cited by N. in his list of illustrations). The latter presents a bee, the coin in N.'s volume a star on the verso, probably indicating the different places of coinage, Ephesos and Miletus.

As for the contents, N.'s adept handling of the heterogeneous source material, which offers manifold approaches to dreams, is particularly to be applauded. Many of these texts are already collected, annotated and commented in other works, which are cited in the corresponding footnotes. N. can also draw upon a number of relevant monographs placing emphasis on different focal points. By sampling their results and amplifying them with his own research, while concentrating on ancient dream-interpreters, N. succeeds in presenting a competently written, multi-faceted, diachronic treatise. In doing so, he manages to restrain the exuberant material and avoid getting lost in details, though he never forgets to consider the peculiarities of the sources.

Finally, a few notes may be added concerning some of N.'s interpretations:

On p. 39 N. examines Penelope's second dream (Od. 19.508-604) and postulates that, at the point where she tells her dream to Odysseus, she has not yet recognized him. It may, on the other hand, also be quite conceivable that Penelope is performing a fictitious dream-tale to put the 'beggar', whom she already suspects to be her husband, to the test. After all, she has been told by the seer Theoclymenus that Odysseus has returned to Ithaca (Od. 17.150-165); her wish, that he will come back, is followed by a single sneeze by Telemachus which is regarded as a propitious omen (Od. 17.539-547); his return is predicted by vulture-prodigia (Od. 2.146-176 and 15.160-181); and the 'beggar' himself assures Penelope, that Odysseus is nearby (Od. 19.305-307). The fact that she recalls the 'beggar' after already having said goodbye to tell him her dilemma and her dream, may also be a hint that Penelope entertains a certain suspicion. The 'beggar' on his part confirms the interpretation given already in the 'dream' itself that Odysseus (= vulture) will return to kill the suitors (= geese). After having received this signal, Peneleope cautiously declares the validity of the 'dream' to be doubtful and announces an archery-contest to find out her (future) husband. A direct request to Odysseus to show himself, which ultimately results in the slaughter of the suitors.

Turning to the subject of dreams in the "Aeneid" (pp. 87-90), N. does not single out one of the 13 dream-narratives but discusses the 6th book as a whole, which in his view presents the underworld bearing traces of a dreamworld. Turning to the much-discussed problem of the portae somni (Aen. 6.893-898), N. (citing Stat. Silv. 5.3.287-293) follows one of the traditional lines of interpretation, which postulates that Aeneas as a human being has to leave the underworld through the ivory gate because the gate made out of horn is reserved for dream-images. The mention of the gates of dreams, however, would seem to mean far more than this; it is a key for an interpretation of the entire 6th book. Passing through the ivory gate may, just like in the "Cupido cruciatus" of Ausonius (Cup. 99-103), be a symbol for the awakening from sleep. The adventures Aeneas faces in the underworld, his encounters with the deceased, and the prophecy of the heroes and the doctrine of metempsychosis may thus have been arranged by Virgil in the form of a dream and as dream-experiences of Aeneas in analogy to Cicero's "Somnium Scipionis".

Analyzing the reception of ancient texts by Sigmund Freud (pp. 182-187), N. points to their relative insignificance for the 'Father of Psychoanalysis', but does not exactly explain why -- for example by contrasting the ancients' and Freud's ideas on dream-interpretation. Ancient dream-interpretation, like that of Artemidorus, focussed mainly on gaining insight into the future. Physical conditions and psychological strains like wishes or anxieties affecting the dreams were culled as irrelevant sources of irritation. Freud, on the other hand, wanted to get information about the psychological procedures of the dreamer; he wanted to inspect the causes of dreams, 'tagesreste', traumata and especially the unconscious and immortal childhood-dreams with their appetitive energies causing mental disorders. For him, interpreting dreams was the ideal way to reach the subconscious. Hence, it is not surprising that Freud primarily reverted to his own dreams and cited ancient dream-exempla and their interpretations only if he happened to have had analogous dreams himself. Significantly, authors like Aristotle or Lucretius were of interest to him, as they examined dreams within their psychological dimension.

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