The Library of Dreams

An ancient encyclopedia of the subconscious

In 1899, Sigmund Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he argued that dreams encoded our subconscious (and usually, sexual) desires. In the century-plus since then, Freud has largely been left behind by psychologists, but no consensus view has emerged in its place. We still don’t know what dreams mean, or why we have them. Some argue that dreams are a way for the brain to integrate new information or process emotions. Others, that they are an ancient defense mechanism, designed to simulate threatening events. Some even argue that they are completely random, just electrical discharge ping-ponging through the cortex, for no reason but to keep us asleep.

The ancients were similarly divided about the origin of dreams. In Homer’s Greece, it was believed that dreams were messages from the gods. Aristotle thought they were a product of digestion, arising from the circulation of heat through the body during sleep. The physician Galen often diagnosed illnesses in his dreams, in which he also found cures. Plutarch argued dreams came from the Moon, stirred up by three daemons before coming down to Earth to enter the minds of men. The theologian Gregory of Nyssa dismissed dreams as fantastic nonsense. Tertullian, another theologian, said that they were where most people got their knowledge of God.

Most agreed that dreams had special meanings. They communicated messages from the gods, and they held information about the dreamer’s future, as well as that of his intimates. But how could this knowledge be accessed? Enter Artemidorus of Daldis, the world’s first true dream researcher. He was a citizen of Ephesus during the second century A.D. For him, the interpretation of dreams was a form of divination, one of the few legitimate ones: “the truth is spoken by sacrificers and bird-diviners and astrologers and observers of wonders and dream diviners and liver-examiners alone,” he wrote. Their work was under constant threat from the “false diviners,” whose numbers included “dice diviners, cheese-diviners, sieve-diviners, and necromancers.”

Artemidorus wanted to place dream interpretation in a firm rational basis. First, he consulted the works of his predecessors, most of which he found full of “error, relying as they did on superstition and conjecture.” To correct this, he did what any good researcher would do: he went out into the field, and gathered dreams. In the introduction to his book, Artemidorus explains that he traveled across modern-day Greece, Asia (Anatolia) and Italy, consorting “with the much-maligned diviners of the marketplace” and “listening patiently” to people of all social classes and professions as they told him “old dreams and their outcomes.” His interlocutors included orators, rhetors, tax collectors, convicts, perfumers, ship captains, soldiers, Roman Knights, Greek matrons, the rich, the poor, the sick and slaves. He interviewed athletes who hoped their dreams would tell them how they would fare in competitions, a philosopher whose dream foretold battles with a Cynic, and a wealthy woman who imagined that she was riding an elephant. Artemidorius made himself into an empiricist of fantasy, and he compiled his findings in a book called the Oneirocritica, or the Interpretation of Dreams.

The Oneirocritica is vast, and weird. Much of it consists of a list of various images that occur in dreams, and what each of these images meant for the life of the dreamer. Artemidorus worked backwards from the events that unfolded in the lives of his interviewees to figure out what a given dream, be it of figs, squids or inter-species sex, meant as a prediction for the future. Prophecy, in his telling isn’t guesswork, but fact. This makes the often-convoluted reasoning behind his interpretations stand out all the more, as when he writes that, “to imagine having the ears of an ass is good for philosophers alone, because the ass does not shift his ears quickly.”

Having two noses signifies discord. To imagine that one has teeth made of wax brings about immediate death. A chest that is shaggy and thick with hair is good and profitable for men, but for women it prophesies widowhood. Shaggy and luxuriant eyebrows are good for everyone, and most of all for women. These are all general cases, but Artemidorus also cites specific dreams and their outcomes, such as one by a certain man who imagined that he had bears’ paws for hands. Condemned to death, he fought wild beasts and, tied to a stake, was eaten by a bear.

Many of the dreams interpreted in the Oneirocritica seem fairly typical to a modern reader: dreams of flying, dreams about public nudity, about business transactions, children and fires (speaking before the Emperor, seeing hippogriffs or fighting in the arena, are more particular to his time). Sometimes, Artemidorus discusses situations that seem oddly specific, such as imagining dancing indoors alone while the rest of your family watches, juggling when you don’t know how (the former is good; the latter means you will benefit from trickeries and lies). At other times he says things that sound like blandly good advice, whether it be for the dream world or in waking life, as when he writes that “to be poor is beneficial to none, especially for orators and for all wordsmiths.”

Food appears frequently, as do animals. Artemidorus writes that to eat onions and garlic is harmful, but to possess them is good. Pumpkins signify “vain hopes.” Vegetables that emit an odor after being eaten, like radishes, “expose secrets and foster hatred towards one’s companions.” Flat cakes served plain are good, but served with cheese they signify “trickery and ambushes.” Soft fish are beneficial, but only to villainous men. Cats signify adulterers. Quail, for those who do not breed them, signify “unpleasant messages from across the sea.” Hemp is grievous for those who are afraid.

The dream world discovered by Artemidorus is a truly topsy-turvy domain, in which the most bizarre transgressions begin to seem normal. Cannibalism, coprophagy, and autophagy, all get their due — cannibalism is generally good, so long as it isn’t of one’s family; eating oneself is also good, but only for poor men. When it comes to dreams about sex, Artemidorus’s dreamers engage in what seems like every conceivable act of sexual congress. They have sex with gods, goddesses, heroes, emperors, animals, corpses, inanimate objects, celestial bodies and even vegetation sprouting from their own torsos (having sex with the Moon is good for sailors and others involved in nautical trades; for everyone else it indicates the onset of edema). Incest abounds. Dreams of sex with one’s mother are so common according to Artemidorus that “the sex itself is not enough to reveal what the dream signifies” and only the “combinations and positions of the bodies” can be relied on as an accurate key to their meaning.

In interviewing his subjects, Artemidorus tapped into a subterranean river of fantasy which he refused to censor. Thanks to that, his Oneirocritica is an encyclopedia of the subconscious of a bygone age. It is perhaps most precious in those moments when he intercedes the least, and presents whole dreams without commentary. Some are succinct tales of tragedy that recall the three-line novels of Félix Fénéon:

A certain man imagined that he skinned his own child and made a leather bottle out of him. On the following day, his child, falling into a river, drowned.

Others have all the grotesquerie and body-horror of a story by William Burroughs:

A certain man imagined that he had a mouth and teeth that were big and beautiful in his anus and that he spoke through it and ate through it and, whatever else one does with one’s mouth, it did all these things as well. Due to an indiscreet remark, being driven out he fled from his fatherland. I skip over stating the reasons, for the outcomes were fitting and rational.

Others still have a nightmare logic all their own. When coupled with their outcomes, they become like something out of Kafka, miniature parable of inexorable fate:

A certain person imagined that he lost his nose. And he happened to be a perfumer. He lost his store and ceased selling perfume due to his not having a nose. The same man, when he was no longer selling perfume, imagined that he did not have a nose. He was caught forging signatures and fled his own country. For anything that is absent from the face makes it dishonorable. The same man, while sick, imagined that he did not have a nose and, after a short while, he died. For the skulls of the dead have no nose.

In the Talmud, it is written that a dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read. Artemidorus believed this wholeheartedly. Dreams were only the raw materials of his craft. For him, the true art lay in the finding their meaning. He was always at pains to emphasize that this was a very difficult task, and approached it less like a diviner and more like a detective. The dream interpreter had to learn everything he could about his subject — their social status, daily habits, business dealings, personal relationships, sex life, as well as details of local customs and cults that might figure into the dream. He had to observe the orientation of rooms and precise arrangement of objects and clothes. The cavalryman who dreamt that a maiden brought a wreath to his house — did he climb stairs to receive her or descend them? Even so, there was no guarantee of success. Dreams are elusive. For Artemidorus, meaning depends as much on the dreamer as the dream. The same dream could occur to many people, and never mean the same thing twice. Artemidorus gives an example of this from his travels, which he includes as a warning to his son about the difficulty of their profession.

Seven pregnant women dreamt seven dreams. In each dream the woman gave birth to a snake. In real life, each woman gave birth to a son. One became an excellent orator. Another, a thief. Another, a slave. Another, a prophet. For, Artemidorus explains, the serpent has a forked tongue just like an orator. And the serpent is sacred to the god, like a priest. And the “serpent does not move in straight lines.” Like meaning, it “slips through the tightest holes, always attempting to escape those who are looking to seize hold of it.”

Few people now believe that dreams can directly foretell the future. A century of modern dream research has seen the construction of databases of tens of thousands of dreams. To these, researchers have applied sophisticated statistical tools and coding schemes. The results get published in journals with titles like Dreaming and Consciousness and Cognition. We now know that most dreams are mundane, and reflect the dreamer’s daily life. Dreams of trauma are very vivid at first, and then gradually get less specific. The more you care or worry about something, the more likely you are to dream about it. These results seem fairly meager — little more than common sense. There may be something to the prophetic approach to dreams yet. If Artemidorus teaches us anything, it’s to listen closely, and read dreams as carefully as we would a poem,paying as much attention to the speaker as to the words, and be willing to find logic where there seems to be none.


Jacob Mikanowski sleeps to dream.