Books Religion

The Interpretation of Dreams

Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true. Or is it something worse?

If you are ill or have a big operation, just hope you don’t dream of the god Serapis:

‘A man who was sick prayed to Serapis, asking the god to wave his right hand at him in a dream if he was going to recover, and his left hand if not. And indeed he did dream that he entered the temple of Serapis, and Cerberus waved his right paw at him. He dies on the following day, and that made sense: by raising his right paw Cerberus, considered to be the embodiment of death, was indicating his readiness to welcome the man.’

While another ‘man who was due to have surgery on his scrotum prayed to Serapis about the operation and dreamt that the god told him, ‘Go ahead and have the operation, the surgery will cure you’. He died like a man cured, he was to have no more pain.’

For a modern reader, these little anecdotes seem quite apt. If you try to make sense of something as surreal as a dream, then be prepared to bend meaning. The predictions are perhaps true in one sense, but obviously that would have been bitter comfort to the families left behind.

In these two stories, we immediately glimpse a world in which health care was not advanced and pain prevention largely ineffective for many people, but a world otherwise very close to us. We still worry about health and mortality and still face so much uncertainty and risk, that we can instinctively understand the longing to seek comfort from prognostication and prayer. 

Predicting the future through dreams was an important part of ancient cultures. We have little snippets of information about the rules and practice from different sources, including the Iliad and the Bible as well as papyrus fragments and cuneiform tablets. 

The only surviving complete text from the ancient world is The Interpretation of Dreams which has just been translated from ancient Greek by Martin Hammond alongside a new scholarly monograph by Peter Thoemann. Five books are collected under the title of Oneirocritica.

Its author, Artemidorus, hailed from the eastern side of the Roman Empire. His father was a citizen of Ephesus and his mother’s people came from Daldis, a minor city further inland. Both places are in modern day Turkey. He was a dual citizen of both cities, which was relatively rare.

An educated member of the elite, Artemidorus wrote for other professional dream interpreters. He appears to have read technical works, as well as the classics of the day. His language is free of the more florid style of other Greek writers of the time. His literary quotes are also of the standard kind. He largely references earlier dream interpreters, updating some where required and refuting others when he felt able. 

This was as much to establish his position. We get the impression this was a tight market, undercut on the one hand by cheaper competitors and on the other by more prestigious and powerful organisations.

It is for this reason perhaps, that Artemidrous reports so many negative dreams about Serapis in his work. The god was associated with healing. At his sanctuary in Alexandria, patients would sleep in special incubation centres and pray to the god to reveal in their dreams the cure for their ailments. It was a popular centre and the priests became wealthy and respected dream interpreters. They could easily draw customers away from rivals in places as far as Ephesus.

I, on the other hand, have not only been at great pains to acquire every book there is on dream-interpretation, but over many years I have also spent time with the much-maligned diviners of the marketplace, paying no attention to the disparagement of those po-faced eyebrow-knitters who call them beggars, frauds, and parasites.

At the centre of Artemidorus’ approach to dream interpretation, was the theory that dreaming of something in agreement to nature was auspicious and vice versa

This is immediately complicated by several other factors, not least the class identity of the dreamer. The same dream could mean something different for a slave or for a king. For most people to dream of decapitation was inauspicious, except for people on trial for their life and slaves. You cannot get the same sentence twice, while for slaves the head symbolised the master of the house.

Artemidorus also had a sophisticated dictionary of symbols related to the body and directions. The front side was good and the back bad, the right hand side related to men and the left hand side to women, the head meant the head of a family and the feet related to slaves. Knees were related to freedmen. The left hand to daughters. 

It is ingenious, especially when combined, for example:

‘The thighs generally have the same significance as the genitals, except that thighs grown fat have been seen to have unpleasant consequences for the rich, signifying for the most part heavy expenditure on sex’.

It is notable how little space Artemidorus gives to the theme of sexual intercourse in dreams. Where he does, it immediately reveals the unspoken rules and social taboos of a rigid society. 

Artemidorus brings his general approach to bear on this topic in interesting ways. Dreaming about sexual intercourse with a mother was bad news, regardless of the positions used, and Artemidorus lists several of them. Unless you are a skilled labourer, as a trade was commonly called someone’s mother, and therefore the dream was ‘auspicious’. Artemidorus also used a little wordplay in his dream reading. 

Yet what is most interesting is how homosexual sex is described. It is not inherently negative. The French scholar, Michel Foucault, closely read this section of the book and argued that Greek and Roman scholars did not differentiate between homosexuality and heterosexuality but between the roles adopted during sex. 

This is an important argument and I cannot do justice to it in the space of this review. It perhaps  reads too much into what Artemidorus is doing. Yet power relations are key to how the sex is interpreted: ‘To have sex with one’s own slave, female or male, is auspicious, because his slaves are the possessions of the owner’.

As Thonemann points out, the dreamers of the sex dreams all appear to be ‘male’. It would be frowned upon for a female slave owner to have sex with her slave, especially if she was married. 

One wonders how Artemidorus would have reacted if he asked to interpret a woman’s dream, perhaps of sleeping with her husband. He writes ‘To dream of having sex one’s wife, if she is willing, submissive, and not resistant to intercoursem is auspicious for all alike’. A lot, as they say, is going on in that sentence. 

Yet it appears he did interpret dreams of women.

Sexual scene from a wall painting at the Lupanar (Public Domain)

Even Artemidorus agreed that it was complicated to interpret dreams. He wrote:

‘there is nothing so difficult and troublesome as reviewing the combination and mixture of things seen in a dream and coming to a single definitive interpretation from all elements which seem to have no relation to each other’

We see this perhaps most clearly in the single dream several women reported of giving birth to a snake.

‘The son ‘born’ to her became an outstanding and widely famed orator. A snake has a forked tongue, and so does an orator: and the women was wealthy and wealth is the passport to education’

Two similarly well connected women also had the same dream, and one son became a hierophant and another prophet due to the religious importance of snakes.

‘And another woman had the same dream, and the son born to her turned out to be a compulsive sexual predator, who slept with many of the married women in the city. Snakes can slither through the narrowest of holes when they want to hide from those waiting to catch them: and the woman herself was something of a tart and behaved like a whore’.

The derogatory terms used to describe the woman are clear value judgments of female sexuality. This contrasts with the dream meaning of prostitutes, which Atermidorus wrote was auspicious.

Other non-elite women who had this dream had a son who was executed or who became a runaway slave. Artemidorus also describes someone with cerebral palsy in connection with this dream. 

It is hard not to conclude that at the heart of Artemidorus reading of dream is an intuitive interpretation of his own society and the limitations. 

Although Artemidorus was an elite male, it feels like he is writing this from within the society he is describing. It is a world away from the literary classics of the ancient world or even artistic portrayals. Here is seemingly laid bare the hopes, worries and bigotries of real people.

Modern copies of this book will probably end up like the school dictionary and open up automatically on the ‘dirty’ bits, but as interesting as these sections are, there is more to Artemidorus than this.

He seems to cover almost everything that an ancient person could dream about. This makes his book a mirror of the society of dreamers in which he lived. Although when we look in that mirror, it is not them we see but ourselves however distorted. 

A totally fascinating book, a great translation and introduction and well worth purchasing.

The Interpretation of Dreams by Artemidorus, Peter Thonemann (Editor) Martin Hammond (Translator) is available from

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics