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Artemidorus : On the Interpretation of Dreams (Oneirocritica)


Artemidorus of Ephesus, also called Daldianus, lived in the 2nd century A.D. and wrote the most comprehensive guide to the interpretation of dreams that has survived from antiquity. It is an extensive work, consisting of five books, and some short excerpts from it are shown here. The full Greek text of Artemidorus, edited by R.A.Pack, is available in the Bibliotheca Augustana.

Translated by Robert J. White (1975), except for three sections - Preface, 1.1 and 1.78 - that were translated by Naphtali Lewis (1976).


Book 1

[Preface] . . . My recent predecessors, in their eagerness for literary fame, thought they would assure their renown if they left behind writings on the interpretation of dreams. But practically all they did was to make copies of one another or take a few of the apt remarks of the earlier writers and interpret them badly or add a lot of nonsense. They wrote not from experience but offhand, each as the spirit moved him. Some perused all the older literature; others did not, missing some works that, because of their antiquity, were rare or corrupted. I, in contrast - in the first place, there is no book on the interpretation of dreams that I did not procure (that took enormous persistence); and in the second place, although public diviners have been much maligned by the sober-faced and the eyebrow-raisers (who stigmatize them as beggars and sorcerers and buffoons), I disdained the slander and spent many years with them, attending them in the cities and festivals in Greece and Asia and Italy and in the biggest and most populous of the islands, to hear about old dreams and their outcomes. There really was no other way to obtain this training. The result is that out of an abundance of information I am able to discourse on each point truly, and without nonsense, and to give simple, manifest proofs, easy for all to comprehend, of the instances I cite . . .

Artemidorus distinguishes between dreams and visions:

[1.1] The distinction between a vision and a dream is no small one, and I have written about it in other works. But this account would seem disorganised if it did not begin at the beginning, so it will be well to start with these same points. A dream differs from a vision in that the one is indicative of what is to come, the other of what is. This may be understood more clearly as follows.

It is in the nature of experiences to return during sleep and re-present themselves to the soul, thus creating dream manifestations: thus, perforce, the lover in his dream imagines that he is with his darling boys and the fearful person sees what he fears; or again the hungry man dreams of eating, the thirsty man of drinking, the man sated with food of vomiting or choking. From these examples we can see that such underlying experiences have no quality prophetic of what is to come, but are recalls of what is. That being so, it is apparent that some experiences are specific to the body alone and some to the soul, while some are common to both body and soul, as for example the lover imagining that he is with his darling boys or he invalid that he is seeing physicians and being cured. But vomiting and sleeping, or again drinking and eating, must be reckoned specific to the body, and in like fashion feeling joy and grief specific to the soul. From these examples it is clear that body-related dreams arise from lack or excess, soul-related from fear or hope.

So much, then for the vision. The term itself is revealing, not in that all see it when sleeping - for a dream too is the product of sleepers - but in that it operates as long as sleep endures and when sleep ceases it disappears. But a dream operates as a vision calling attention to the prediction of what is to come, and after sleep it naturally tends to rouse and impel the soul to active undertakings . . .

He discusses his method of interpreting dreams:

[1.2] Some dreams, moreover, are theorematic (direct), while others are allegorical. Theorematic dreams are those which correspond exactly to their own dream-vision. For example, a man who was at sea dreamt that he suffered shipwreck, and it actually came true in the way that it had been presented in sleep. For when sleep left him, the ship sank and was lost, and the man, along with a few others, narrowly escaped drowning . . . Allegorical dreams, on the other hand, are those which signify one thing by means of another; that is, through them, the soul is conveying something obscurely by physical means . . .

First then, I will give a king of general definition of dream . . . A dream is a movement or variform configuration of the soul, indicative of good or bad things to come. That being so, the soul foretells through its peculiar concrete images (also called elements) all that will come to pass after a greater of lesser interval, expecting that in the interval we can be instructed by reasoning to learn what is to come . . .

[1.8] Next, common customs differ greatly from individual ones. If anyone has not learned this, he will be deceived by them [in trying to interpret dreams]. These, then, are common customs. To venerate and honour the gods. (For there is no nation without gods, just as there is none without rulers. For different people reverence different gods, but the worship of all is directed towards the same power.) To nurture children, to yield to women and to sexual intercourse with them, to be awake during the day, to sleep at night, to take food, to rest when tired, to live indoors and not in the open air. These, then, are common customs. The others we call individual or ethnic. For example, among the Thracians, the well-born children are tattooed, whereas among the Getae, it is their slaves . . . And the Mossynes in the territory of Pontus have sexual intercourse in public and mingle with their wives just as dogs do, whereas in the eyes of other men, this behaviour is considered to be shameful.

[1.9] It is profitable - indeed, not only profitable but necessary - for the dreamer as well as the person who is interpreting that the dream interpreter know the dreamer's identity, occupation, birth, financial status, state of health, and age. Also, the nature of the dream itself must be examined accurately, for the following section will make clear that the outcome is altered by the least addition or omission, so that if anyone fails to abide by this, he must blame himself rather than us if he goes wrong.

Artemidorus goes on to provide interpretations of specific dreams, and of particular symbols within dreams:

[1.45] The penis corresponds to one's parents, on the one hand, because it has a relationship with the seed. It resembles children, on the other hand, in that it itself is the cause of children. It signifies a wife or a mistress, since it is made for sexual intercourse. It indicates brothers and all blood relatives since the interrelationship of the entire house depends upon the penis. It is a symbol of strength and physical vigour, since it is itself the cause of these qualities. That is why some people call the penis 'one's manhood.' It corresponds to speech and education because the penis [like speech] is very fertile . . . Furthermore, the penis is also a sign of wealth and possessions because it alternately expands and contracts and because it is able to produce and to eliminate. It signifies secret plans in that the word medea is used to designate both plans and a penis. It indicates poverty, servitude, and bonds, because it is also called 'the essential thing' and is a symbol of necessity.

He describes the various categories of dreams about sexual intercourse:

[1.78] In this section on sexual intercourse, the best arrangement will be to treat first of intercourse that is in keeping with nature, law and custom, next that which is contrary to law, and third that which is contrary to nature.

First, then, as to legal intercourse. Intercourse (in a dream) with one's own wife who joins willingly, acceptingly and without reluctance is good for all alike . . . But if the wife is reluctant or does not offer herself, it signifies the opposite. You may follow the same reasoning in the case of a mistress. But intercourse with prostitutes working in brothels signifies a bit of scandal and a small expenditure for the men who frequent these women, yet they are good for every undertaking, since they are "hustlers" (as they are called by some) and they give themselves with never a refusal. To enter a brother and be able to leave is good, since being unable to leave would be a bad sign. I know of a man who dreamt that he went into a brothel and could not get out; he died a few days later, the logical outcome of his dream, for a brothel, like a cemetery, is a place called "common to all," and the destruction of many human seeds takes place there. Not unreasonably, then, does this place resemble death, but the women have nothing in common with the place; for they signify good things to come, whereas the place is not good. Whence prostitutes seated at their stalls or selling something or receiving their fee or visibly coupling are a favourable sign, but streetwalking prostitutes seen in a dream are even more advantageous.

If a man dreams he is having intercourse with a woman he does not know, if she is pretty and graceful, is attired in soft and expensive clothes and gold necklaces, and gives herself willingly, it bodes good for the dreamer and points to considerable success, but if she is an ugly, shapeless, shabbily dressed old woman dragging out a life of pain, and she does not give herself willingly, it signifies the opposite; for we must interpret unknown women as symbols of happenings that will befall the dreamer, so that what happens to the dreamer will correspond to the nature and disposition of the woman . . .

Having intercourse with a woman with whom one is well acquainted, if the dreamer is sexually attracted to and desirous of her, presages nothing, being merely an intensification of his desire, but if he does not desire the woman, then the dream is good for him, provided the woman is well-to-do; at all events, the man will derive some material gain from the woman in the dream or through her agency, for a woman who freely gives her body to someone would very likely also give him her investments. Often a dream of this kind has helped the dreamer when coping with the mystery of woman, since the woman in such a dream also allows him to touch her secret parts. In view of the law, it is not good to couple with a legally married woman, for that dream points to the same punishments to which the law subjects a man caught in adultery . . .

He discusses the symbolism of a dream in which a man sleeps with his own mother:

[1.79] The case of one's mother is both complex and manifold and admits of many different interpretations - a thing not all dream interpreters have realized. The fact is that the mere act of intercourse by itself is not enough to show what is portended. Rather, the manner of the embraces and the various positions of the bodies indicate different outcomes.

First, then, we will discuss face-to-face intercourse between a dreamer and his living mother, since a mother who is alive does not have the same meaning as a mother who is dead. Therefore, if anyone possesses his mother through face-to-face intercourse, which some also call the 'natural' method, if she is still alive and his father is in good health, it means that he and his father will become enemies because of the jealousy that generally arises between rivals [which would be greater in their case]. But if his father is sick, he will die, since the dreamer will take care of his mother both as a son and as a husband. But it is lucky for every craftsman and labourer. For we ordinarily call a person's trade his 'mother.' And what else would having intercourse with her mean if not to be occupied with and earn one's living from one's art? It is also lucky for every demagogue and public figure. For a mother signifies one's native country. And just as a man who follows the precepts of Aphrodite when he makes love completely governs the body of his obedient and willing partner, the dreamer will control all the affairs of the city.

And if the dreamer is estranged from his mother, they will become friends again because of the sexual intercourse. For sexual intercourse is also called 'friendship.' But frequently this dream has indicated that people who live apart will be brought together into the same place and will live together. It also, signifies, therefore, that a son will return from a foreign country to his own land, if his mother lives there. If she does not, the dream signifies that he will journey to wherever she lives. If the dreamer is a poor man who is lacking the necessities of life but one whose mother is rich, he will receive from her whatever he wishes or she will die shortly afterwards and leave him as her heir and, in this way, he will take pleasure in his mother. On the other hand, many sons have taken care of their mothers and provided for them after this dream and, in this way, the mothers have taken pleasure in their sons. The dream indicates that the sick will recover and return to their natural state, since nature is the common mother of all things and we say that the healthy, not the sick, are in their natural condition . . .

But the meaning will not be the same in the case of a sick man, if his mother is dead [in the dream]. For then the dreamer will himself die very soon afterwards, since the anatomical structure of a corpse is broken down into the material from which it has been formed and composed. And, since bodies are generally made from earth, they are changed into their proper substance. Furthermore, we speak of 'Mother Earth,' and what else would intercourse with a dead mother signify to a sick man if not that he will have intercourse with the earth?

But for a man who is involved in a lawsuit over land rights, for a man who wants to purchase land, and for a man who would like to farm land, it is good to have intercourse with one's dead mother. Some people say that it indicates bad luck only for farmers. For they will cast their seeds down into, as it were, dead land. That is, it will bear no fruit. In my opinion, this does not seem to be the case at all unless, of course, the person dreams that he repents or is distressed by the intercourse. It signifies, moreover, that a person abroad will return to his homeland and that a man who is involved in a dispute over his mother's property will win, and thus take delight not in the body of his mother but rather in her property.

But if a man has the dream in his native land, he will leave it. For it is impossible to remain near one's maternal hearth after such a crime. If he feels grief or remorse because of the intercourse, he will be banished from his native land. If not, he will travel abroad of his own free will.

It is not good to possess a mother who is looking away from one. For then either the mother herself will look away from the dreamer, or his native land, his trade, or any present undertaking. It is also unlucky to have intercourse with one's mother while she is standing. For men use this position only when they have neither bed nor mattress. Therefore it signifies constraint and oppression. It is also bad to have intercourse with one's mother while she is kneeling [and still more unseemly, while she is prostrate]. For it signifies great poverty because of the mother's immobility. [For we interpret the mother as a symbol of birth, chance, some fate of the dreamer managing his affairs or as a universal first principle.]

Possessing one's mother from underneath while she is in the 'rider' position is interpreted by some as signifying death to the dreamer. For a mother is like the earth, since the earth is the nurse and mother of all things. But the earth lies above the dead only and not above the living. I myself have observed, however, that sick men regularly die after this dream whereas those who are in good health spend the rest of their lives in great comfort and doing whatever they want. This is both natural and reasonable. For, in the other positions, exhaustion and heavy breathing are generally associated with the male partner. The female partner exerts herself less. But in this position, just the opposite is true, since the male derives his pleasure without exerting himself. But it also signifies that a man will escape the notice of others and remain undetected, since heavy breathing is for the most part eliminated.

But it is not auspicious to use many different positions on one's mother. For it is not right to insult one's mother . . . In my experience, however, the worst dream by far is one in which the dreamer practices fellatio with his mother. For this signifies to the dreamer the death of children, the loss of property, and grave illness. I know of a man who, after this dream, lost his penis. For it was understandable that he was punished in the part of the body with which he had sinned.

Book 2

Artemidorus discusses the symbolism of various animals:

[2.13] A serpent signifies a king because of its strength. It also signifies time because of its length and because it casts off its old skin and becomes young again....It also means wealth and possessions, since the serpent guards treasures. Furthermore, it signifies all the gods to whom it is sacred, namely Zeus, Sabazius, Helios, Demeter, Corē, Hecate, Asclepius, and all the heroes.

[2.46] Partridges signify both men and women, but generally godless, unholy women who are never kind to the men who support them. For partridges are hard to tame, speckled, and they alone of the birds have no respect for the gods.

Book 3

[3.11] The crocodile signifies a pirate, murderer, or a man who is no less wicked. The way in which the crocodile treats the dreamer determines the way in which he will be treated by the person who is represented by the crocodile. The cat signifies an adulterer. For it is a bird-thief. And birds resemble women, as I have already pointed out in the first book.

Book 4

Artemidorus discusses recurrent dreams:

[4.27] But whenever the intervals between recurrent dreams are long, one must realize that the dreams will have different meanings at different times...For example, a man dreamt that he lost his nose. He was a perfume dealer at the time. Since he did not have a nose in the dream, he lost his store and stopped selling perfumes. For he no longer possessed the means to test his perfumes and it was obvious that he would not continue in the perfume business. When he was no longer a perfume dealer, the same man dreamt that he did not have a nose. He was caught forging a signature and fled his own country. For anything that is lacking to a face disfigures and degrades it. And the face is the image of one's own respectability and reputation. It is understandable that this man was disgraced. During an illness the same man dreamt that he did not have a nose. He died not long afterwards, for the skull of a dead man has no nose. The first time, when he was a merchant, the dream referred to his perfumes. The second time, when he was a citizen with full rights and franchises, it referred to his reputation. The third time, when he was sick, it referred to his body itself. In this way, then, the same dream came true in three different ways for the same man.

Artemidorus discusses dreams that have to do with myths:

[4.47] When you are dealing with a legend that has two traditions - one that sometimes says one thing but at other times says something else - it is not wrong to base your interpretation on either of the two traditions, even if you do not choose the right one. But it is better to know and to relate both versions . . . You must also bear in mind that one should take into consideration only those stories whose complete accuracy is supported by as much weighty evidence as, for example, the Persian War, the Trojan War before it, and so on. For from these, dwelling places are revealed as well as lines of battle, camp settlements, cities that were founded at that time, altars that were erected then, and everything else that is related to them. Whenever, therefore, a man sees anything of this sort [in a dream], he will by all means encounter something similar to it.

One must, moreover, pay attention to stories that are well-known and believed by most people as, for example, those about Prometheus, Niobe, and all the heroes of tragedy. For even if these stories are not actually true, they are fulfilled in a way that resembles the content of the tales because of the predispositions of most men.

But legends that are completely obsolete and full of nonsense and frivolity as, for example, those about the battle of the gods and giants, the Sparti {"Sown-Men"} in Thebes, and those in Colchis and so on, do not come true at all, or they signify, in accordance with the previous section, that one's expectations will be thwarted and cancelled out. These legends are also symbols of vain and empty hopes unless, of course, any of them admits of a physical explanation.

Artemidorus discusses the same dream that came true differently for different people:

[4.67] But to give you some practice in the concept of similarities, the dream that I have provided shall suffice. A pregnant woman dreamt that she gave birth to a serpent. The child that she brought into the world became an excellent and famous public speaker. For a serpent has a forked tongue, which is also true of a public speaker. The woman was rich, to be sure, and wealth serves to pay the expenses of an education.

Another woman had the same dream and her child became a hierophant [a priest]. For the serpent is a sacred animal and plays a part in secret rites. In this case, the woman who had the dream was also a priest's wife.

Still yet another woman had the same dream and her child became an excellent prophet. For the serpent is sacred to Apollo who is the most versed in prophecy. This woman was also a prophet's daughter.

A fourth woman had the same dream and her child turned out to be undisciplined and wanton, and he committed adultery with many of the women in the city. For the serpent slips through the most narrow holes and attempts to escape detection by observers. The woman was herself a rather wanton prostitute.

Another woman had the same dream. Her child was apprehended in a robbery and was beheaded. For whenever a serpent is caught, it is struck over the head and dies in this way. The woman herself did not lead an especially virtuous life.

A sixth woman had the same dream and her child became a runaway slave. For the serpent does not follow a straight path. The woman herself was a slave.

Still yet another woman had the same dream and her child became a paralytic. For the serpent must employ its entire body to travel anywhere, which is also true of paralytics. The woman was sick at the time of the dream. It was entirely natural, then, that the child that had been conceived and carried during a sickness would not maintain a healthy nervous system.

Book 5

[5.51] A man dreamt that he heard someone saying that his staff was broken. He got sick and was paralyzed. For the support of his body, that is, the strength and good health of his body, was signified by the staff. The same man, who was upset and annoyed that his paralysis lingered on, dreamt that his staff was broken. He regained his strength immediately. For he would no longer have any need for a support.

[5.91] A man dreamt that he had three penises. He was a slave at the time and was set free. He then had three names instead of one, since he acquired an additional two names from the man who had set him free.


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