Dreams and Prophecy in Ancient Greece
Ancient Greeks writers tend to distinguish two categories of dreams, those that are insignificant, caused by hopes, fears, digestion, and other residues of the day, and those that are significant. The significant dreams came in three varieties. Some were literal visions of what will occur, some required symbolic interpretation, and others were visitations by gods, ghosts, or friends. Examples of such prophetic dreams come from a variety of ancient sources, including history texts, epic poetry, plays, and inscriptions at holy sites.
The Greek historian Herodotus of the 5 th century BC is credited as the father of history, though his stories sometimes cross into myth territory. In Book 1 of his Histories, the Lydian King Croesus dreams that his son will die from a wound caused by a spearhead. Croesus does everything in his power to keep his son away from weapons, but allows him to go on a hunt, where he is killed accidentally by the spear of the very man hired to be his bodyguard. Not only did Croesus’ dream correctly predict the future, but also set into motion a series of events that led to its fulfillment. The fact that a historian reported this event attests to the pervasive belief in dreams as visions of the future.
Also common in ancient literature are dreams with symbols that must be interpreted. For example, there is Penelope’s dream in Homer’s Odyssey. Penelope is waiting for her husband Odysseus to return home from war, and in the meantime has to endure fifty suitors living in her house and eating up her husband’s wealth. In her dream, fifty geese are killed by an eagle that reveals itself to be her husband Odysseus. The geese symbolize the suitors. This was not only prophetic, since Odysseus does kill the suitors, but also a symbolic wish-fulfillment dream.
In this same passage, Penelope distinguishes between significant and insignificant dreams. Dreams with no greater meaning come to the dreamer by passing through a gate made of ivory, she says, while significant dreams pass through a gate of horn.
Ancient literature often features parents dreaming of destruction caused by their offspring. Herodotus gives an example of this, when the Median King Astyages dreams of his daughter Mandane urinating until all of Asia is flooded. He then dreams that she births a vine that overshadows all of Asia. The Persian sorcerers known as the Magi interpret his dreams to mean that Mandane’s child will depose King Astyages. This indeed came to pass when Mandane’s son Cyrus the Great dethroned his grandfather and became king of the Persians in the 6 th century BC.
Astyages’ dream from a 15 th Century French manuscript . Image Source: Wikipedia
When Hecuba, the Queen of Troy, is pregnant with her son Paris, she dreams she gives birth to a burning torch. A seer tells Hecuba her son will cause the downfall of Troy, which indeed happens when Paris’ actions prompt the Trojan War. Similarly, the Spartan Queen Clytemnestra dreams that she births and breast-feeds a snake, shortly before she is killed by her son Orestes. This sort of symbolic dream became a common literary motif, but also reflects a reality where people believed in the prophetic properties of dreams.
Artemidorus of the 2 nd century AD left us a book on dream interpretation, where he explains the meaning of dreaming such symbols as snakes, crocodiles, hunting, farming, and war. He even explains what it means for a man to dream of having sex with his own mother. Such books were apparently popular in the ancient world.
The third type of prophetic dream involves a visitation from a friend, family member, or god, who speaks with the dreamer. This visitor is sometimes a dream-messenger in disguise, sent by a god. This dream-messenger can take any form, depending on what the god requires. In Homer’s Iliad, Zeus instructs a dream-figure to appear to King Agamemnon, disguised as the king’s friend Nestor. The image of Nestor tells Agamemnon to take his troops into battle against the Trojans. Zeus’ purpose was to sabotage the Greek army. In the Odyssey, Athena sends a dream-figure to Penelope, which appears as her sister. The phantom sister comforts Penelope that her son will return from his journey.
Nestor begins to talk, convincing Agamemnon and the rest of the army to fight. (Painting: Joseph Desire Court's Achilles Gives Nestor the Price of Wisdom, 1820) Image source.
Many centuries after these stories were written, the Roman poet Ovid continued the tradition of dream-figures in his depiction of Ceyx and Alcyone. In this poem, Alcyone does not know that her beloved husband Ceyx has died in war, so Juno sends Morpheus, who can change form at will, to visit her in her sleep. Morpheus disguises himself as Ceyx and tells Alcyone that her husband has died.
According to ancient literature, the visitor in the dream may also be a ghost. For instance, Achilles dreams of a visit by his dead companion Patroclus, who asks him to complete his burial rites so he can pass on to the underworld. When Achilles tries to grasp Patroclus, he touches only smoke.
Exclusive to the realm of myth are “apports,” objects which one obtains in a dream and possesses upon waking. In a poem by the Greek poet Pindar, the hero Perseus is said to have acquired a golden bridle in a dream.
Though these examples all come from myths, it seems people really dreamed about visitations from gods. Asclepius was a divinity with great healing powers. He was thought to visit his worshipers in dreams and give them medical advice, diagnoses, and even cures. Inscriptions at his sites of worship detail such dreams. Religious devotees hoping to have a significant dream would practice incubation, or ritual sleep in a sanctuary. Some sanctuaries had rooms just for this purpose. In this cult and others, certain objects might encourage the hoped for communication with a god, such as ritual bathing, animal sacrifice, or sleeping on animal skin.
“Dream with Asclepius” by Sebastiano Ricci (1710). Image Source: Art Renewal
Prophetic dreams appear frequently in Greek literature, from myth to history to ancient inscriptions. Greek religious culture allowed people to believe in the truth of these apparent dreams from the gods. Among religious Greeks, this belief was so strong that people bought dream books and practiced rituals to induce prophetic dreams.
Featured image: Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. Image source .
Artemidorus, The Interpretation of Dreams
Homer, Iliad; Odyssey
Macrobius, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio
Pausanias, Description of Greece
Pindar, Olympian Odes
E. R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (1951), 102-34