Artemidorus and the First Dream Dictionary

To Artemidorus of Daldis we owe one of the first and most famous books on dream interpretation – Oneirocritica – ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’. Artemidorus lived in Greece about 140 AD, and almost certainly drew on older works, such as Assurbanipal’s dream book, and also the mystery schools in Egypt. Clay tablets found at Nineveh, part of the library of the Assyrian king Assurbanipal – 669 and 626 BC – tell of the importance of dreams in the life of kings and commoners. The Assurbanipal dream book is itself only a link in a chain of tradition, as the library possibly held records starting about 5000 BC or earlier.

If this is correct, the Oneirocritica links the remote past with present day theories of dream interpretation. This is made clear by MacKenzie in Dreams and Dreaming. He points out that in the Assurbanipal tablets it says that if a man flies frequently in his dreams he will lose his possessions. In Zolar’s Encyclopaedia and Dictionary of Dreams printed in 1963 in USA it says ‘Flying at a low altitude: ruin is ahead for you.’ Other obvious similarities suggest that the most recent of popular dream books is largely a copy of the most ancient.

However, Artemidorus added many personal observations to what he had learned from the ancient books which preceded him. In fact he and his followers believed that dreams could be understood best, not from divine inspiration, but by observing the details of ordinary everyday life. One can see in his writings, which included methods of interpreting ones own dreams, signs of connecting popular association between object and dream image. Therefore Artemidorus was probably one of the first to see the connection between dream imagery and the way we associate particular feelings or ideas to objects. His observations led him to say that ‘dreams and visions are infused into men for their advantage and instruction’ and ‘the rules of dreaming are not general, and therefore cannot satisfy all persons, but often, according to times and persons, they admit of varied interpretations.’

This subtlety of thinking is obvious in what he says about the meaning of shaving in ones dreams – ‘To dream of having one’s whole head shaved, except in the case of priests of the Egyptian gods, and those who study how to raise a laugh, and those whose custom it is to shave, for whom it is good, is in general a bad dream, because it signifies the same thing that nudity does, and indeed foretells sudden and dire misfortune. To sailors it clearly portends shipwreck, and to the sick a most critical collapse, but not death. For the shipwrecked, and men preserved from a serious illness are shaved; the dead not at all. As to the former, it is a good dream because of their custom of shaving. To have one’s hair cut by a barber, however, presages good to everyone equally.’

As can be seen, there is no difference here between what Artemidorus advises and how we arrive at insight into our dreams today. The situation of the dreamer, and the common associations prevalent socially, are all a part of the insight. Artemidorus therefore advised dreamers to consider such points as whether what they dream is a lawful action, whether it is usual for the dreamer to do or be engaged in, what puns or association exist in the dream, and even what language the dreamer speaks – for each language has different puns, associations and idioms.

Although his main preoccupation was to present dreams as omens of the future, or of the outcome of present actions, Artemidorus also speculated upon many other aspects of dreaming. He considered the importance of recurring dreams. He was interested in the question of why some dreams produced such intense emotions. He wondered how and why a dream might show clear signs of physical illness long before it became evident externally. In attempting to understand these various phenomena of dreams, he classified them into two types – the Somnium, and the Insomnium. Dreams of the Insomnium type Artemidorus related to the feelings and concerns evoked by everyday life – ‘The lover occupies himself with his sweetheart, the fearful man sees what he fears, the hungry man eats, the thirsty one drinks.’ Dreams of the Somnium type he saw as presenting a wider awareness of the dreamer’s life, perhaps forecasting their future, divining outcomes of actions. MacKenzie sees these as similar to Jung’s ‘great dreams’ which are rich in symbols and full of powerful deeper associations.

Some examples taken from the Oneirocriticus are as follows –

Bathing. In clean, clear water, a dream of great good fortune; in muddy water, the reverse.

Blossoming Tree. An invariable dream of gladness and of prosperity.

Bridge. To see one, successful undertakings, probably a change; a broken bridge, fear and trouble and a warning to take no steps on the unknown road: to fall from a bridge denotes brain trouble.

Candle. To see one being lighted forecasts a birth; to exhibit a lighted candle augurs contentment and prosperity; a dimly burning candle shows sickness, sadness and delay.

Cupid. A dream of love and happiness.

Geese. The cackling of geese means good luck and speedy success in business. Some interpretations correspond to those of animal behaviour.

Porpoise. A dream of joy and happiness.

Rice. To dream of eating rice denotes abundance of instruction.

See: Aesculapius; Greece (ancient) dream beliefs; interpretation of dreams; Babylonian dream beliefs; Mesopotamiam dream beliefs.

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