Oreimo’Oneiro ☆ Yume ga aru

Ambrosius Theodosius Macrobius, Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis, Book 1, chapter 3

After these prefatory remarks, there remains another matter to be considered before taking up the text of Scipio’s Dream. We must first describe the many varieties of dreams recorded by the ancients, who have classified and defined the various types that have appeared to men in their sleep, wherever they might be. Then we shall be able to decide to which type the dream we are discussing belongs.

All dreams may be classified under five main types : there is the enigmatic dream, in Greek oneiros, in Latin somnium; second, there is the prophetic vision, in Greek horama, in Latin visio ; third, there is the oracular dream, in Greek chrematismos, in Latin oraculum ; fourth, there is the nightmare, in Greek enypnion, in Latin insomnium ; and last, the apparition, in Greek phantasma, which Cicero, when he has occasion to use the sword, calls visum.

The last two, the nightmare and the apparition, are not worth interpreting since they have no prophetic significance. Nightmares may be caused by mental or physical distress, or anxiety about the future : the patient experiences in dreams vexations similar to those that disturb him during the day. As examples of the mental variety, we might mention the lover who dreams of possessing his sweetheart or a losing her, or the man who fears the plots or might of an enemy and is confronted with him in his dream or seems to be fleeing him. The physical variety might be illustrated by one who has overindulged in eating or drinking and dreams that he is either choking with food or unburdening himself, or by one who has been suffering from hunger or thirst and dreams that he is craving and searching for food or drink or has found it. Anxiety about the future would cause a man to dream that he is gaining a prominent position or office as he hoped or that he is being deprived of it as he feared.

Since these dreams and others like them arise from some condition or circumstance that irritates a man during the day and consequently disturbs him when he falls asleep, they flee when he awakes and vanish into thin air. Thus the name insomnium was given, not because such dreams occur “in sleep” – in this respect nightmares are like other types – but because they are noteworthy only during their course and afterwards have no importance or meaning.

Virgil, too, considers nightmares deceitful : “False are the dreams sent by departed spirits to their sky.” he used the word “sky” with references to our mortal realm because the earth bears the same relation to the regions of the dead as the heavens bear to the earth. Again, in describing the passion of love, whose concerns are always accompanied by nightmares, he says : “oft to her heart rushes back the chief’s valour, oft his glorious stock; his looks and words cling fast within her bosom, and the pang withholds calm rest from her limbs.” And a moment later : “Anna, my sister, what dreams thrill me with fears ?”

The apparition (phantasma or visum) comes upon one in the moment between wakefulness and slumber, in the so-called “first cloud of sleep”. In this drowsy condition he thinks he is still fully awake and imagines he sees specters rushing at him or wandering vaguely about, differing from natural creatures in size and shape, and hosts of diverse things, either delightful or disturbing. To this class belongs the incubus, which, according to popular belief, rushes upon people in sleep and presses them with a weight which they can feel.

The two types just described are of no assistance in foretelling the future ; but by means of other three we are gifted with the powers of divination.

We call a dream oracular in which a parent, or a pious or revered man, or a priest, or even a god clearly reveals what will or will not transpire, and what action to take or to avoid. We call a dream a prophetic vision if it actually comes true. For example, a man dreams of the return of a friend who has been staying in a foreign land, thoughts of whom never enter his mind. He goes out and presently meets his friends and embraces him. Or in his dream he agrees to accept a deposit, and early the next day a man runs anxiously to him, charging him with the safekeeping of his money and committing secrets to his trust. By an enigmatic dream we mean one that conceals with strange shapes and veils with ambiguity the true meaning of the information being offered, and requires and interpretation for its understanding. We need not explain further the nature of this dream since everyone knows from experience what it is. It is called personal when one dreams that he himself is doing or experiencing something; alien, when he dreams this about someone else; social, when his dream involves others and himself; public, when he dreams that some misfortune or benefit has befalen the city, forum, theater, public walls, or other public enterprise; universal, when he dreams that some change has taken place in the sun, moon, planets, sky, or regions of the earth.

The dream which Scipio reports that he saw embraces the three reliable types mentioned above, and also has to do with all five varieties of the enigmatic dream. It is oracular since the two men who appeared before him and revealed his future…were both pious and revered men, and both were affiliated with the priesthood. It is a prophetic vision since Scipio saw the regions of his abode after death and his future condition. It is an enigmatic dream because the truths revealed to him were couched in words that hid their profound meaning and could not be comprehended without skillfull interpretation.

Its also embraces the five varieties of the last type. It is personal since Scipio himself was conducted to the regions above and learned of his future. It is alien sience he observed the estates to which the souls of others were destined. It is social since he learned that for men with merits similar to his the same places were being prepared as for himself. Its is public since he foresaw the victory of Rome and the destruction of Carthage, his triumph on the Capitoline, and the coming civil strife. And it is universal since by gazing up and down he was initiated into the wonders of heavens, the great celestial circles, and the harmony of the revolving spheres, things strange and unknown to mortals before this; in addiction he witnessed the movements of the stars and planets and was able to survey the whole earth…

Because, in citing Virgil above as an authority for the unreliability of nightmares, we excerpted a verse from his description of the twin portals of dreams, someone may take the occasion to inquire why false dreams are allotted to the gate of ivory and trustworthy ones to the gate of horn. He should avail himself of the help of Porphyry, who in his Commentaries makes the following remarks on a passage in Homer presenting the same distinction between gates : “All truth is concealed. Nevertheless, the soul, when it is partially disengaged from bodily functions during sleep, at times gazes and a times peers intently at the truth, but does not apprehend it; and when it gazes it does not see with clear and direct vision, but rather wit a dark obstructing veil interposed.”…If, during sleep, this veil permits the vision of the attentive soul to perceive the truth, it is thought to be made of horn, the nature of which is such that, when thinned, it becomes transparent. When the veil dulls the vision and prevents its reaching the truth, it is thought to be made of ivory, the composition of which is so dense that no matter how thin a layer of it may be, it remains opaque.

Naphtali Lewis, The Interpretation of Dreams & Portents in Antiquity, 1976, p.20

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