BMCR 2003.02.01

Ancient Science and Dreams. Oneirology in Greco-Roman Antiquity

, Ancient science and dreams : oneirology in Greco-Roman antiquity. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2002. xxi, 187 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780761821571. $36.00 (pb).

In spite of a revived interest in dreams and dream interpretation over the last years and an increased number of publications treating the Greco-Roman Era, the topic is far from being covered in detail. For a fuller understanding it is still necessary that light be shed from different perspectives on ancient dream discourses.

M.A. Holowchak earns credit for having written a readable introduction to oneirology and oneirocriticism, though his book originally in meant to be concerned only with the question whether ancient oneirocriticism and oneirology were up to the standards of what was considered ‘science’ in the Greco-Roman era. This, of course, is the question, which was posed in the seminal article by Price with regard to Freud and Artemidorus1 — and answered in the negative.

Holowchak starts with a general and very instructive chapter (1-18) on Greco-Roman concepts of science, from its beginning with the Pre-Socratics to the principia of Aristotle, in comparison to modern definitions. But one crucial question is not answered, namely how and why the standards of science in this sense should be applied to ancient oneirocriticism and oneirology. I will come back to this critical point later.

According to his notion of science and dreams, Holowchak sketches three areas, where dreams from at least the fifth century B.C. were investigated or used in a quasi-scientific manner (p. XX): (1) “Philosophers and natural scientists gave accounts of the genesis and formation of dreams in keeping with prevailing views on natural science in antiquity”; (2) “…interpreters [sc. mainly Artemidorus, C.W.] of prophetic dreams developed rules and guidelines for distinguishing such dreams from non-prophetic dreams and for interpreting the former”; (3) “dreams played an important role in ancient medicine” and in incubation healing sanctuaries. Certainly oneirology cannot be separated from oneirocriticism because even dream interpreters rely on (sometimes not verbalized) conceptions of the origin and function of dreams. Consequently the book’s ten chapters are divided into three parts: Naturalistic Oneirology (ἰ, Oneirocriticism (II) and Oneirology and Ancient Medicine (III, supplemented by Appendices B and C, “Galen’s Diagnosis from Dreams” and “Secular Medicine and Religious Incubation”).

Holowchak’s study covers a span of nearly 900 years, from “Classical Greece in the fifth century B.C. to the Roman Republic2 in the fourth century A.D.” (p. XIII) in a non-encyclopedic but exemplary manner, leaving out some highlights (“Tertullian, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Macrobius”) in favour of (only presumably) neglected works of “Plato, the Hippocratics, Lucretius, Galen and Synesius” (p. XIIIs.).3 His alleged goal is “to fill some of the gaps in secondary literature” (p. XV). Though adding nothing new or original, the book is mostly descriptive in a good sense. It provides a quite detailed introduction to the more important dream texts, but the over-arching question of science (or non-science) seems forced or even lost in the course of the argumentation.

The critical problem is that Holowchak juxtaposes texts belonging to heterogeneous times, genres and intentions. He is well aware of the difficulties created by this juxtaposition, but all the same he reduces information on the socio-cultural background of his evidence to a minimum. Though this might have been sufficient for a more popular book, here it blurs the distinctions between the dream discourses. Are there really no differences between Greece and Rome? Cicero’s De Divinatione and Artemidorus’ Oneirocritica appear under the same rubric, the first being a (Roman) philosophical treatise on the possibilities and limitations of divination in general, the latter a textbook of Greek (secular) dream-interpretation: They don’t write about the same aspect of dreams and certainly not with the same intention. It is evident that Cicero did not want to give an outline of oneirocritical practice, so one need not look for this in De Divinatione.

Although Holowchak mainly treats prose texts, in the case of Lucretius’ De rerum natura it should be taken into consideration that this is not only versified Epicurean philosophy, but also a poetic text written in a specific Roman context. So too Homer as a primary source for Greek understanding of dreams is definitely overrated, e.g. in the diagram on p. 165 (“Appendix A: Key Figures/Works”) or on p. 152: Why should Homer be the ‘ancestor’ of incubation (healing) dreams? No such dream is mentioned in either Homeric epic.

In all the testimonies analyzed by Holowchak we are dealing with different types of an investigation into the nature and interpretability of dreams (= use of dreams). The author does not make it sufficiently clear why each of these facets has to be (can be) measured “by the ideals of Aristotelian philosophy of science or by conformity with ancient medical practice” (p. 17). The effect of his investigation is therefore a levelling of obviously important differences.

Another critical point is that, though Holowchak certainly seems to have very fixed ideas concerning the interpretability of dreams and the concept of a serious science of dreams, he seldom makes them explicit. Holowchak’s notion of modern dream-interpretation seems to be a very rarified, negative version of psychoanalytical dream interpretation. But, as in Classical Antiquity, so today discourses of dream and dream-interpretation in literature, biology, neuropsychology, medicine, psychoanalysis and every-day life are complementary and co-existing, and I would go so far as to postulate that even in our very rationalistic times the belief in the prophetic nature of dreams is still very much alive. This diversity of approaches certainly is typical of any investigation into dreams. The really interesting aspect of dreams is not the fragile dream-images themselves or their presumed formation but how and in which contexts cultures deal with the phenomenon. The insight that ancient dream discourses might have been exemplary and elucidating in this division of labour (without providing solutions for our own time) is only present in Holowchak’s study in the negative or in a very conscendending manner.4

It is evident that Holowchak’s philosophical and philological training would have allowed him to write an innovative book, providing us with a fresh look at the ancient dream discourses, if only he had overcome his personal neo-positivistic prejudices.

These prejudices finally become explicit in the chapter on Artemidorus (93-105), where Holowchak shows scepticism about any form of prophecy or divination. This is acceptable as a personal view but is an obstacle in attaining a deeper (professional) understanding of Greco-Roman culture, where the belief in mantic arts was wide-spread, even among the learned. That Holowchak identifies Greco-Roman practices of divination with those of modern “false prophets” (p. 71,72 n. 4) shows that no serious attempt is made to take a look from inside the cultural system of Greco-Roman antiquity. This rouses the suspicion that also the other chapters are determined by presuppositions favouring the ‘rationalistic’ dream discourses of philosophy and medicine. This suspicion is more than confirmed in the chapter on Synesius, whose treatise On dreams — a Neoplatonic speculation on the nature of the soul and the function of imagination — is one of the hallmarks in the history of ideas of the dream discourses. As Holowchak notes, Synesius is praised by modern psychologists for his deep understanding of human soul-/phantasy activity. But to Holowchak himself, Synesius is “simply doing shoddy science even by the standards of his own time” (118), because “there is little that is sophisticated or precise”, and “scant regard for grammatical soundness in its composition” (108).5 The bias of this argumentation — dismissing Synesius and modern psychology — is just too obvious to interest the reader any further.

But back to Artemidorus. After a not very thick description of Artemidorus’ life and method, Holowchak tries an evaluation, always referring to the criteria of science developed in the first chapters. Observing an overall “disregard for consistency”, he complains that in the Oneirocritica there are no rules to determine the “main component” of a dream-image. Of course Artemidorus states that the determination of the “main component” of a dream is mainly the result of combination, intuition and practice. This is not actually a weak point, but in fact a very deep insight into the incomprehensible nature of dream-images6 and a sensible judgement of any form of hermeneutics. In the “Conclusion” Holowchak partly takes back his negative judgement on Artemidorus’ dream interpretation, but (again) only against dream-interpretation in general (101ss.). He concedes (103) that the failure of Artemidorus, who was “faced with difficulties that were insuperable in his time”, is due “to the slipperiness of the phenomena that he was trying to explain”. But there is post-mortem consolation even for people like Artemidorus (103): “One might even say that our nonprophetic science of the interpretation of dreams today has not gone much further in its understanding of the meaning of dreams”. Here the anti-psychoanalytical impulse becomes manifest.7 What gets lost with it is that Artemidorus’ pre-structuralistic method of dream-interpretation (i.e. text-interpretation), which attends not only to ‘scientific’ ideas of origin and formation of dreams, but as well to the socio-cultural context of each individual, was adequate in terms of the research-object ‘dream’ and the possibilities provided in the context of his own time.

Looking back from the Artemidorus-chapter to the overall argumentation of Holowchak’s study, it becomes evident that the question whether Greco-Roman oneirocriticism and oneirology were up to the standards of ‘science’, however defined, is not an approach advancing the understanding of ancient dream discourses. Maybe it could, if it were combined with the master-question of all investigations into dreams: what are or could be the criteria for an adequate science/adequate sciences of dreams? How can this multi-faceted phenomenon be explained in all its aspects without reducing it to a merely bio-neurological factum? The interpretation of dreams is a special case of hermeneutics that could never be replaced by insights into the neurophysiological formation of dreams provided by the (natural) sciences. So we need both approaches. The various dream discourses of Greco-Roman antiquity certainly tried to answer this master-question in accordance with their own cultural systems.

I still wonder what kind of public Holowchak’s study is aimed at. Perhaps one answer concerning the presumed linguistic nature of his readers can be found in the preface. In the survey of important secondary literature (p. XIV) only English speaking scholars are quoted. The really puzzling thing about this book is that for the most part only English and some French secondary literature is quoted, and that also some very important articles and studies, English and non-English alike, are painfully missing. Exempli gratia I will only name Del Corno’s collection of the fragments of the Greek interpreters of dreams and his several essays on ancient dream-discourses, Schrijvers’ article on dream-classifications, Shulman-Stroumsa’s collection of essays on dreams in the history of religions, Guidorizzi’s collection Il sogno in Grecia, Graf’s insightful article on incubation sanctuaries, Michenaud-Dierkens’ study on Aelius Aristides, and Rotondaro’s very comprehensive study on Il sogno in Platone.8

Rebus sic stantibus Holowchak’s study stays far behind the results and insights reached long before his book was published.


1. S.R. F. Price, The Future of Dreams. From Freud to Artemidoros, in: Past and Present 113, 1986, 3-37.

2. Here (and passim, e.g. p. 108) “Roman Republic” should be replaced by “Roman Empire”.

3. For the question of secondary literature see below.

4. He states that the “Greco-Roman attitude towards dreams was surprisingly scientific” and that even modern dream interpretation has not succeeded in finding valid criteria for dream interpretation dreams (e.g. p. 87, 71; 108, 124).

5. For a short and elucidating evaluation of Synesius, cf. Patricia Cox Miller, Dreams in Late Antiquity. Princeton 1994, 70-73.

6. One has to keep in mind that Artemidorus considers only very few dreams to be interpretable and that his Oneirocritica should be seen in the wider context not only of the mainly lost oneirocritic tradition but also of his (also lost) own works on other dream types (e.g. nonprophetic dreams) and other kinds of divination. Consequently, a judgement of apparent inconsistencies or gaps should be made with more caution.

7. An indication of the anti-analytical impulse is the fact that H. names the neo-posivistic critic of psychoanalysis, Adolf Gruenbaum, in his acknowledgements (p. XVII). Of course, everybody is welcome to his opinion on psychoanalysis in general, but one should not leave one’s readers in the dark about personal predilections, especially when they have a certain influence on the over-all argument of one’s book. Though speaking about ancient dream discourses, Holowchak is actually aiming at bringing into discredit certain ways of ‘non-scientific’ ( sensu non-natural sciences) knowledge-acquisition.

8. D. Del Corno (ed.), Graecorum de re onirocritica scriptorum reliquiae, Milano 1969; D. Del Corno, C’è del metodo in questa follia: Artemidoro, in: Guidorizzi (see below), 147-160 and I sogne e la loro interpretazione nell’età dell’ impero, in: ANRW II 16.2, 1605-18; P.H. Schrijvers, La classification des rêves selon Hérophile, in: Mnemosyne 30, 1977, 13-28; D. Shulman/G.G. Stroumsa (edd.), Dream Cultures. Explorations in the Comparative History of Dreaming, 1999; G. Guidorizzi (ed.) Il sogno in Grecia, Bari 1988; F. Graf, Heiligtum und Ritual. Das Beispiel der griechisch-römischen Asklepieia, in: Le sanctuaire grec, Entretiens sur l’antiquité classique 37, Genève-Vandoeuvres 1990, 159-199; G. Michenaud/J. Dierkens, Les rêves dans les Discours sacrés d’Aelius Aristide IIe siècle ap. J.-C.: Essai d’analyse psychologique, Mons 1972; S. Rotondaro, Il sogno in Platone. Fisiologia di una metaphora, Napoli 1998 (with a very comprehensive bibliography on dreams in Plato). Of course H. could not use some German studies such as: C. Walde, Antike Traumdeutung und moderne Traumforschung, Düsseldorf 2001; or G. Weber, Kaiser, Träume und Visionen in Prinzipat und Spätantike, Stuttgart 2000 (with a comprehensive bibliography).