Home > Late Antiquity > St. Augustine and Dreams

St. Augustine and Dreams

Long-time readers of this blog know that I have an interest in dreams and their role in archaeology, although that interest might not be very evident lately.  So after spending the better part of two weeks pouring over survey data from the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, I took about an hour to follow up on a citation that I culled from Ann Marie Yasin’s recent book to St. Augustine’s De cura pro mortuis gerenda (On the Care of the Dead).  The text is a letter that St. Augustine wrote to St. Paulinus of Nola about whether there was any benefit to be buried near the body or memorial of a saint.  Augustine takes this opportunity to articulate a criticism of ad sanctus burials (burials near the graves of holy people, particularly martyrs) which he then expands to a general critique of claims that the dead influence the world of the living.

This is where dreams come in.  Augustine shows some concern for the stories in which dead people appear to the living particularly when their bodies are not buried properly.  Augustine, of course, knows that by challenging the authority of these kinds of visions, he runs the risk of criticizing widely held beliefs promulgated in the “writings of certain faithful men” (12).  Augustine makes clear later in the text that, among many possible episodes in Early Christian writing, he is referring here to St. Ambrose’s claim (Epist. 20.1-2) that visions (or dreams) prompted him to discover the bodies of Sts. Gervasius and Protasius in Milan (21).

The crux of St. Augustine’s argument is not whether saints or the dead appear to people, but whether they are aware that they are appearing to people or appear to people in their sleep voluntarily. He argues that the dead do not have any knowledge of this in the same way that the living are unaware when they appear in someone’s dream.  Augustine further proves his point by arguing that pious men sometimes appear in dreams and do bad things.  At the same time, pious people, like his own late mother, would certainly appear to the living when they were troubled or upset, if they could, indeed, influence the world of the living.

It seems that this text dates to the early 420s and continues a North African inclination against the authority of visions and dreams directing the faithful to the locations of buried saints.  As early as the Council of Carthage in 401 the church rejected the practice of inventio per somnia (discovery through sleep).

For more on this text, see:

A. M. Yasin, Saints and Church Spaces in the Late Antique Mediterranean. (Cambridge 2009), 212-222.
D. Trout, Paulinus of Nola. (Berkeley 1999), 244-247.
H. Kotila, Memoria Mortuorum: Commemoration of the Departed in Augustine. (Rome 1992).
Y. Duval, Auprès des saints corps et âme. L’inhumation « ad sanctos » dans la chrétienté d’Orient et d’Occident du IIIe siècle au VIIe siècle. (Paris 1988).

For more on Dream Archaeology without leaving the comfortable informality of the blog, see below:

Another, Better Attempt at Dream Archaeology
Dreams in Ravenna
Dream Archaeology in the Early Christian West
Blindness, Dreams, and Relics
More Dreams, Religion, and Archaeology
More Byzantine Dreams…
Dreams, Pausanias, and Archaeology
Dreams, Inventio, and Archaeology

Categories: Late Antiquity
  1. David Pettegrew
    December 6, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Fun post, Bill. Doesn’t Augustine distinguish in this essay the role of saints vs. the role of the ordinary Christian dead? (I may be misremembering).
    He discusses some very interesting cases involving dreams.

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