The Use of Dreams in Greco-Roman Medicine

When it comes to the topic of dreams, most of us will readily agree that they can be manifestations of things that we’ve seen in our waking life. The subject of controversy revolves around whether dreams symbolize our physical and/or mental wellbeing. M. Andrew Holowchak, a professor of philosophy at Wilkes University, analyzed “On Dreams,” the fourth book of a Hippocratic diagnostic manual. Holowchak observes that “On Dreams” offers three things: one, a rationale for the importance of dreams; two, a distinction in the types of dreams and their origins; and three, examples of how to interpret dreams in a physician’s practice.

According to Holowchak, there is a medical rationale for interpreting dreams because dreams show the nature of the soul and body which help physicians create a better diagnosis of their patients’ conditions. In discussions of diagnostic dreams, one critical question has been if physicians knew when to regard dreams appropriately as medical tools. Holowchak simply states that they didn’t. Instead they relied on intuition and analogical reasoning. Ancient Greek scholars and physicians analogized natural phenomena to Hippocratic accounts of good health through the balance of the four humors.

Holowchak emphasizes that dreams can be interpreted in two methods: secularly and religiously. Hippocratic physicians practiced a strictly naturalistic, secular view. To reiterate, they used dreams to create a fuller picture of the patient’s diagnosis and treatment. Case studies include dreams of stars hidden by rain, which translates to excess phlegm, with the suggested cure of purgation through skin. On the other hand, second-century dream interpreter Artemidorus and his followers — the Oneirocritics — evaluate dreams with a religious and prophetic lens, that is less focused on medicine. So too does Galen emphasize the use of a secular interpretation over a religious one to help patients. He includes a report of a man who dreamed of his leg turning into stone. Galen stated that many Oneirocritics alluded the stone leg to the man’s slaves. Instead, the dream actually foreshadowed paralysis in that man’s leg.

Diagnostic dreams are crucial in terms of understanding the nature of Greek and Roman medicine. Holowchak’s essay is a well-researched exposition of the way physicians used dreams as medical tools in comparison to the prophetical, supernatural approaches. This essay actually addresses the larger matter of how secular and supernatural approaches flourished in parallel. To take a case in point — there is evidence of secular doctors referring a particularly troublesome patient to an incubation chamber, in the attempt of saving their personal reputations. This article illuminates the advanced nature of Greek medicine; specifically, how ancient physicians treated the non-visible inner workings of their patients.

Holowchak, M. (2001). Interpreting dreams for corrective regimen: Diagnostic dreams in Greco-Roman medicine. Journal of the history of medicine and allied sciences, 56(4), 382–399.

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