Temple of Apollo
History of Dreamwork in Greece
by Pandelis Perakakis
In prearchaic Greece dreams are associated with religious cults directly
connected with the worship of the Great Mother Goddess Earth (Gaia). In
these early communities dream experiences belong to the capacity of man
to communicate with the hyberbatic and the holy. Nocturnal life is not
distinguished from daily experience and dreams are considered a
transitional state to altered realities belonging to the kingdom of
Before the arrival of the Olympian deities, big cult centers as those of
Dodona and Delphi are related with the adoration of the Earth and dreams
play a central role in the functioning of religious proceedings. They
are used as a path for the revelation of mysteries and the communication
with the world of the dead. Incubation (ritual dreaming of healing
dreams) is commonly employed as a way to contact the primordial elements
of the Earth.
During the archaic and classical era, due to various social changes,
cults and religiosity loose part of their prearchaic mystical character.
The new Greek vision is distinguished by its persistent desire for
system and clarity. Apollo, god of light and sobriety, gains over dark
Gaia and wanton Dionysus. The two advancing trends of naturalism and
rationalism signify the birth of philosophy and impel the development of
a series of increasingly sophisticated theories to explain the natural
world. Following this intellectual transformation dream experience is
slowly marginalized and soon becomes an isolate and personal phenomenon.
According to the new theogony Oneiros (dream) is son of Night and
brother of Sleep and Death. He is a mediator of Apollo and of the
healing Gods for announcing advises and healing treatments. Incubation
is still practiced in certain religious sites, but is now a matter of
personal orientation and decision. It is the time for the great Greek
Plato was not systematically involved with dreaming although in many
cases it is evident that he attributed great significance to it. Since
there is not a detailed essay on dreams in his work, we have to abstract
his general theory by studying separate pieces of information scattered
around his literary work.
A section of Republic IX prefigures the Freudian concept of a dream as
"wish-fulfillment". In this passage (571b-572b, cf. 574d-e)
lethal and incestuous dreams are said to express desires harbored by
outwardly decent people without surfacing in their waking thoughts. In
other places Plato is referring to his ideal state as a "dream
city" suggesting that dream fantasies indulge wishes in
compensation for their non-fulfillment in waking life. Again in Republic
IX, Plato is describing varieties of dreams in terms of parts of the
soul operating independently of one another. Evil dreams are produced
when lower elements of the soul assume control while the rational
apparatus remains asleep. The opposite happens in the dreams of noble
men when these lower elements are quiescent enabling thus the rational
soul "to look for and reach toward the perception of what he does
not know, be it past, present or future" (572a2-3). It is evident
that Plato is influenced by the spiritual legacy of his ancestors that
considered the world of dreams as an alternative objective reality where
the rational soul attains a liberation to pursue the truth. This idea is
also obvious in the Timaeus and the Sophist where Plato attributes
dreams to divine agency.
In the Theaetetus Plato is raising another important question regarding
dreams that has also been a fundamental argument in many eastern
doctrines and traditions. The question is whether an acceptable decisive
factor actually exists to judge if we are awake or asleep at any given
moment. Dreaming and waking appearances are regarded as equally true for
their respective subjects. Therefore many thinkers after Plato have
referred to waking reality as nothing but another dream from which we
might one day be awakened.
Aristotle composed three essays on sleep and dreams that belong to the
collection of short treatises known as Parva Naturalia. The first essay
(De Somno et Vigilia) reflects Aristotle's philosophy regarding the
soul-body relationship. According to his view the soul and the body are
undividable aspects, the "form" and the "matter"
respectively, of a single living organism. Aristotle defines sleep as a
state of perceptual incapacitation. He makes a distinction between sleep
and other states of unconsciousness by reference to its physical cause.
The second essay (De Insomniis) takes a similar approach to dreams.
Dream is assumed to be a psychological phenomenon that has to be
understood by reference to its physical basis. In the beginning
Aristotle raises the question whether dreaming is the work of perception
or thought. His conclusion after systematic examination is that dreaming
is neither the work of judgment nor of straightforward perception.
Consequently dreaming "is the work of the perceptual part, but
belongs to this part in its imagining (phantastikon) capacity".
Judgment is impaired during sleep and therefore "what is like
something is judged to be that very thing". Aristotle's final
remark regarding dreams is as follows: "… it is an appearance (phantasma)
that arises from the movement of the sense-impressions, while one is in
the sleeping state…"
The third essay (De Divination per Somnum) presents Aristotle's inquiry
in relation to divination from dreams. According to his analysis the
dreams in question must be "either causes or signs of things that
happen, or else coincidences;" Dreams may be signs of what is
happening about the body so "… one should pay extremely close
attention to dreams. And that is a reasonable assumption even for those
who are not practitioners, but are pursuing a theoretical inquiry".
Dreams may also be causes because "… movements in the course of
sleep must frequently be origins of day-time actions, for the reason
that our intention to do these has had the way paved for it in the
appearances (phantasmata) at night". "Most of them, however,
would seem to be coincidences, especially all that are peculiar or
concern matters where no causal initiative lies in the dreamers
In the second chapter Aristotle argues that dreams are not
communications from God, or they would occur in the daytime and to more
appropriate recipients. He also states "That many dreams are not
fulfilled is in no way surprising… for if another movement should take
place, prevailing over the one from which (when it was going to happen)
the sign occurred, then the latter movement does not occur". Later
Aristotle presents a theory to explain precognitive dreams: "When
something has moved a portion of water or air, and this in turn has
moved another, then even when the initial impulse has ceased, it results
in a similar sort of movement continuing up to a certain point, although
the original mover is not present. In this way it is possible that some
sort of movement and perception reaches the souls of dreamers, coming
from the objects… and thus they (images and emanations) produce
perception in the body because of sleep, people asleep being more
sensitive to even slight internal movements that cause appearances (phantasmata)
from which people have previsions of what is going to happen…"
This theory also explains why precognition occurs more often to average
rather than intellectual people: "… on our account, one would
expect it to be random subjects who have prevision. For the mind of such
a person is not reflective, but is deserted, as it were, and completely
vacant. Thus, once set in motion, it is led on according to the
direction of its moving impulse".
Finally one last comment needs to be made in relation to Aristotle's
famous reference on the phenomenon now called lucid dreaming or in other
words the ability of the dreamer to perceive the dream as such while
still dreaming. In De Insomniis 462a5-7 he mentions "For often
something in the soul of a person asleep says that what is appearing is
a dream". This is probably the first written report of the
phenomenon of conscious dreaming. Noteworthy is the use of the word
"often" to portray the lucid state since modern research has
shown that volitional conscious dreaming is certainly not frequent, but
is rather considered a special trait.
Artemidorus' work on dreams was composed in the mid to late second
century A.D. and is divided into five books. For Artemidorus, dreams are
a royal road to the future, to paraphrase the famous quote from Freud.
In his work he draws a distinction between two types of dreams: Oneiroi
and Enhypnia. Between the two only oneiroi hold any significance as they
can be utilized to envisage the future, while enhypnia are indicative
merely of a present state of affairs. Oneiroi include visions and
oracular dreams and can be further distinguished into Theorematikoi,
that predict the future directly and Allegorikoi, which predict
allusively and require interpretation. Thus Artemidorus is principally
concerned about this last categorization of dreams and bases the bulk of
his work fundamentally in the discussion about their meaning and
interpretation. His main endeavor was committed to producing credible
principles for understanding allegorical dreams and his crucial argument
is that "the interpretation of dreams is nothing other than the
juxtaposition of similarities". These similarities lie between
dream imagery and the actual outcomes predicted by the dreams while a
web of metaphor connects dream reality with the real world.
Artemidorus also establishes certain practical strategies in order to
make his basic principles effective. One of them, to avoid plausible
errors and misinterpretations, is that only dreams that are remembered
fully should be interpreted. Furthermore, the interpreter should be well
informed about local customs for it is essential to place each dream in
the appropriate cultural background. In addition the interpreter must be
acquainted with the dreamer; who he is, what he does, his birth,
property, state of health and age. He also has to know about his state
of mind, his position in society, his mood and his habits. All this
information is crucial because, according to Artemidorus, dreams may
have a different meaning for different people. For example if a poor man
dreams of gold he will become rich, while if a rich man dreams of gold
he will be the victim of scheming. At this point it is important to note
that for Artemidorus, the characteristics mentioned above are not
considered as personality traits, but are rather viewed as isolated
elements and that nowhere in his work is implied a conception of
personality in the modern connotation.
In relation to the discussion about the origin of dreams, Artemidorus is
not giving a clear answer. According to the analysis of S.R.F. Price:
"Prophetic dreams have an ambiguous origin, in part arising from
the soul, but also somehow and obscurely impinging upon the soul from
outside. The psyche is a mirror on which the future is reflected".
Devereux, G. Dreams in Greek Tragedy
Dodds, E.R. The Greeks and the Irrational. Berkeley, 1959.
Gallop, D. (1991). Aristotle: On Sleep and Dreams. Broadview Press,
Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.
Manos, A. (2001). The Aristotelian Doctrine on Dreams. Archeology and
arts, 78, 41-46.
Oikonomidis, S. (2001). Prearchaic Greece and Dreams, Oneiric
Lethargy, Psychic Waking, Political Wakefulness. Archeology and arts,
Price, S.R.F. (2001). The future of Dreams: From Freud to Artemidorus.
Archeology and arts, 78, 8-22.