What are dreams?

I woke up and walked into the kitchen. Peering through the window I could see an orange tree in the backyard. The tree was tall and had produced many fruit. I stood in the kitchen gazing at the tree’s beauty and success; and during this hypnosis time itself became impatient and rushed forward. The fruit grew larger. Oranges became like basketballs. The branches began to bend at the weight of the fruit. Suddenly a sense of urgency overcame me. I needed to harvest the fruit before it all detached and burst on the ground. I was panicking but stood there frozen. I could see the roots popping out of the ground. Finally, the tree collapsed to the earth with its fruit gone forever. The fruit was gone forever, and I had only watched.

. . . I awoke from my dream. (This was written in first person, but this dream was actually not mine).

What is a dream?

It seems that waking reality imposes a stringent world on us with its natural law. Natural law seems to be unbreakable. Err, natural law is unbreakable by definition. But, while asleep our minds can create reality, albeit not with total freedom. Our memories and emotions and other deep parts of us seem to restrict the dream’s content and meaning.

In the second century AD Artemidorus wrote the Oneirocritica, a treatise on dreams which ultimately influenced thinkers like Freud and Foucault. Two things make Artemidorus stand out IMHO. First, he attempted to be empirical before theorizing about dreams by interviewing many people and gathering data. Second, he concluded that dreams were unique to the individual and was symbolic of something within their waking lives. Therefore, he concluded that dream interpretation requires intense knowledge of the dreamer. Even with this very naturalistic understanding of dreams, Artemidorus left room for prophetic dreams.

This should not be a huge surprise given the religions of ancient Greece. Classics scholar, Verity Platt, provides evidence that dreams were important for epiphanies about Pagan deities, their image, and related sacred knowledge:

“ While the coalescence of god and statue in Aristides’ dreams draws upon public representations in order to authenticate and reify his private experiences, we can trace an inverse relationship in Pausanias’ Description of Greece, which repeatedly draws upon the epiphanic quality of personal dream-visions in order to confirm the sanctity of objects and locations within the public realm. In particular, Pausanias accounts for the creation and appearance of cult images through tales of oneiric inspiration, whereby artists claim legitimacy for their descriptions of deities through narratives of epiphanic autopsy. In this sense his use of the mutually reinforcing relationship between dream vision and sacred object reflects the aetiological function of mantic dreams. . .” (emphasis added)

Prophetic dreams are also found in Hebrew scripture. One great example is the story of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dream (Genesis 41). Pharaoh had two dreams which were similar. In the first he was standing on the bank of the Nile when seven healthy cows came out of the water and began feeding. Then, seven emaciated cows came out of the Nile and swallowed the healthy ones. In the second there were seven healthy heads of grain and seven withered heads of grain. The withered heads of grain swallowed the healthy ones. Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams as predicting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and the fact of two dreams was interpreted as God having fixed this for the future. Accordingly the monarch built storehouses for food during the years of plenty in order to avert the upcoming crisis.

To conclude, no matter what worldview one espouses, dreams can be an interesting subject. What are they? What can they be? How can they give meaning to us? How should they give meaning to us? These are just some of the interesting questions we can ask.

Platt, V. “Facing the Gods: Epiphany and Representation in Graeco-Roman Art, Literature and Religion.” Cambridge University Press. Page 266. Accessed on Google eBooks 5-25-2014.


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