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More Byzantine Dreams…

I’ve been working on a paper entitled, “Dream Archaeology”, that I will deliver at North Dakota State University in November.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve plowed my way through S. M. Oberhelman’s 1981 dissertation at the University of Minnesota: The oneirocritic literature of the late Roman and Byzantine eras of Greece : manuscript studies, translations and commentaries to the dream-books of Greece during the first millennium A.D., with Greek and English catalogues of the dream-symbols and with a discussion of Greek oneiromancyfrom Homer to Manuel the Palaeologian.  This dissertation includes translations and commentaries of the seven preserved dream-books of the Late Roman and Byzantine period.

My research focuses on excavations that were prompted by dreams.  In particular, I am looking at the phenomenon of inventio, or the discover of lost religious objects through a dream.  By Late Antiquity, this kind of dream is generally considered to be a horama or vision.  The kinds of dream that featured in the dream-books studied by Obherlman is called simply an oneiros.  To understand an oneiros, the dreamer needs some kind of aid, either an interpreter or a dream-book, which sets out the metaphorical meaning of the images in a dream.  The most significant work of the interpretation of oneiroi in the ancient world is Artemidoros’ Oneirokritika. This tradition of dream interpretation comes later to influence, at least in part, Freudian methods of dream interpretation.

Horama or visions, however, have received less attention, in part because they are relatively straightforward to understand.  In general, a religious figure in a dream instructs the dreamer to dig in a certain place in order to find a particular sacred relic, icon or even a lost building.  Such dream narratives appear occasionally in Late Roman and Byzantine hagiography, but have roots in the Roman tradition (see, for example, Pausanias 8.37.3).

What is particularly interesting is that the analysis of oneiroi presented in the Late Roman and Byzantine dream-books do not seem to overlap at all with the kinds of inventio dreams found in other sources. In fact, when church buildings, for example, appear in dream-books they are often interpreted as a play on words.  For example, in the dream book of Astrampsychos, Nikephoros, and Germanos, they offer this punning interpretation: dreams of standing in a church, results in an accusation (the Greek word for church (ekklesia) and accusation (enklesis) are similar).  Dreams of icons or the appearance of saints are interpreted (rather simply to my mind) as signs of good fortune or joyous times.

While it is redundant to observe that different kinds of dreams are understood in different ways in the Late Roman and Byzantine worlds, it is interesting to note that most scholarly work has emphasized the oneiroi.  Orama, particularly those that tie the conscious, waking world to buried fragments of their past, have received less attention (but not none at all see for example the work of C. Stewart) but may offer insight into the place of history at the intersection of the conscious ad unconscious mind. 

Categories: Byzantium, Late Antiquity
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