There is in sleep something mysterious which seems, from the earliest times, to have impressed man and aroused his curiosity. What philosophy of sleep sprang from the observation of phenomenon, we do not know; but like all phenomena the causes of which are not obvious, sleep came, in the course of time, to be considered as the effect of the Divine agency and as something sacred. We should very likely see a vestige of this simple and primitive philosophy in the reverence shown at all times by the Arabs to a man sleeping.
But the mystery of sleeping is enhanced by the phenomenon of dream which accompanies it. Primitive people, unable to explain the psychology of dreaming or to discover the causes of sleep, observed that, whereas man can, when awake, control his thoughts and fancies, yet he is utterly incapable, when in sleep, either of bringing about such dreams as he might wish, or of directing and ruling those that offer themselves to his faculties; hence they were led to attribute dreams to outside and supernatural agencies. The gods, whose power was believed to manifest itself in natural effects, such as thunderstorms and earthquakes, whose message were supposed to be written by signs in the heavens, could as well send their communication to men in dreams. Hence the persuasion arose that persons favoured by frequent dreams were sacred and chosen intermediaries between the deity and man.
Far from being cast aside by advancing civilization, these ideas developed with it, and were to a certain extent even systematized, as appears in particular from the records of the ancient peoples of the East. These all took it for granted that every dream expressed a Divine message. Most dreams came unsought; but occasionally supernatural communications were solicited by "incubation". The person desirous of obtaining a prophetic dream then betook himself to the temple of the deity from whom he expected instructions, and there slept, after some ritual preparation. Among the shrines known in antiquity for vouchsafing oracles to sleeping worshippers, the temple of Aesculapius at Epidaurus, where dreams were obtained in which remedies were revealed to cure diseases, the cave of Trophonius, the temple of Serapis, and that of Hathor, near the turquoise mines of the Sinai Peninsula, are the best known. As a last means to wrest the dream from a reluctant deity, magic was also resorted to. An interesting example of magical formulae used for this purpose is contained in a Gnostic papyrus of relatively late date preserved in the Leyden Museum; it is entitled "Agathocles' Recipe for sending a Dream", and may be read in Wiedemann's Religion der alten Egypter (p.144).
The meaning of the Divine message conveyed in dreams was sometimes obvious and unmistakable, as when the facts to be known were plain revealed by the deity himself or through the ministry of some messenger. Thus Thomas IV was instructed by Ra Hormakhu in a dream to dig out of the sand the statue of the Great Sphinx, near the place where he was sleeping. In like manner the early Babylonian king, Gudea, received the command to erect the temple Erinnu to Ninib. Of this description also were the dreams recorded in the annals of King Asshurbanipal. From these documents we learn that Asshur appeared in a dream to Gyges, King of Lydia, and said to him: "Embrace the feet of Asshurbanipal, King of Assyria, and thou shalt conquer thy enemies by his name." Forthwith Gyges dispatched messengers to the Assyrian ruler to narrate this dream and pay him homage, and henceforth succeeded in conquering the Kimmerians. Another passage relates that, in the course of an expedition against Elam, as the Assyrian troops were afraid to cross the Itti River, Ishtar of Arba-ilu appeared to them in their sleep and said: "I go before Asshurbanipal, the king whom my hands have made." Encouraged by this vision, the army crossed the river ("West, As. Inscr.", vol.III; G. Smith, "Hist. Of Ashurbanipal"). The Divinely sent dream might also at times foreshow some coming event. Moreover, its meaning was not always clear and might be shrouded in symbols, or, if conveyed through oral communication, wrapped up in figures of speech. In either case, the knowledge of the significance of dream would depend on the interpretation. And as most dreams portend no clear message, the task of unfolding dream symbols and figures gradually grew into an art, more or less associated with soothsaying. Elaborate rules were laid down and handbooks compiled for the guidance of the priests in explaining the portent of the visions and symbols perceived by the inquirer in his sleep.
Many such manuals have been found in Assyria and Babylonia, the contents of which enable us to understand the principles followed in dream-interpretation. From Daniel 2:2 sqq., it would seem that the potherim or dream-interpreters, might be called upon even to discharge the perplexing task of recalling dreams forgotten by the dreamer. The instance here recorded cannot, however, be much insisted upon, as the context distinctly intimates that this task, impossible "except to the gods", yet imposed upon the Babylonian diviners by a whim of the king, was beyond their acknowledged attributions. Most of the Egyptian magic books likewise contain incantations either to procure or to explain dreams. There incantations had to be recited according to fixed cantillations, and the soothsayer's art consisted in knowing them thoroughly, copying them faithfully, and applying them properly. Side by side with this religious view of dreams, which regarded them as the expression of the will of God, there existed the superstitious view, according to which all dreams were considered as omens. Assuming "that things causally connected in thoughts are causally connected in fact" (Jevons), people blindly believed that their dreams had a bearing on their own fate, and eagerly strove to discover their significance.
Like the Eastern peoples, the Greeks and the Romans attached a religious significance to dreams. Of his belief many traces may be found in classical literature. Homer and Herodotus thought it natural that the gods should send dreams to men, even to deceive them, if need be, for the accomplishment of their higher ends (Agamemnon's dream). The same indications may be found also in the works of the dramatists (e.g. Clytemnestra's dream in the "Agamemnon" of Aeschylus.) Plato, whilst regarding it as inconceivable that a god should deceive men, admitted nevertheless that dreams may come from the gods (Tim., cc, xlvi, xlvii). Aristotle was similarly of the opinion that there is a divinatory value in dreams (De Divin, per somn., ii). The teaching of the Stoics was along the same lines. If the gods, they said, love man and are omniscient as well as all-powerful, they certainly may disclose their purposes to man in sleep. Finally, in Greece and Rome, as well as in the East, the popular views of dreams went a great deal farther and developed into superstition. It was accordance with these views, and to gratify the cravings which they created that Daldianus Artemidorus compiled his "Oneirocritica", in which rules were laid down whereby any one could interpret his own dreams.
In the light of the belief and practices of the ancient peoples, we are better able to judge the belief and practices recorded in the Bible. That God may enter into communication with man through dreams is asserted in Numbers 12:6, and still more explicitly in Job 33:14 sqq.: "God speaketh once. . . By a dream in a vision by night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, and they are sleeping in their beds: then he openeth the ears of men, and teaching instructeth them in what they are to learn." As a matter of fact, Divine revelation through dreams occurs frequently in the Old and in the New Testament. In most of the cases recorded the dream is expressly said to come from God; of this description are, e.g., the dreams of Abimelech (Genesis 20:3); of Jacob (Genesis 28:12; 31:10); of Solomon (1 Kings 3:5-15); of Nabuchodonosor (Daniel 2:19); of Daniel (Daniel 7:1); of Joseph (Matthew 1:20; 3:13); of St. Paul (Acts 23:11; 27:23), unless we should interpret these passages as referring to visions granted to the Apostle while awake. God is said to appear Himself only in a few instances, as to Abimelech, to Jacob, to Solomon, and to Daniel, if, as is generally admitted, the "Ancient of days", spoken of in this connection, should be understood to be God; in other instances He is said to speak through an angel, as in dreams narrated by St. Matthew and St. Paul. The Bible records other dreams, which, though prophetic, are not distinctly said to come from God (Genesis 37:6; 40:5; 41:1; Judges 7:13; 2 Maccabees 15:11). It appears, however, from the circumstances and from their prophetic import, that their Divine origin cannot be doubted; at least their interpretation is declared (Genesis 40:8) to "belong to God". Accepting the historical truth of these facts, there is no reason indeed why God should not use dreams as a means of manifesting His will to man. God is omniscient and all-powerful, and He loves man; He may, therefore, in order to disclose his purposes, choose natural as well as supernatural means. Now dreaming, as a natural psycho-physiological phenomenon, has undoubtedly its laws which, however obscure they may be to man, are established by God, and obey His bidding. But since man may be easily deluded, it is needful that God in using natural causes should supply such evidences as will make His intervention unmistakable. Sometimes these evidences are manifested to the dreamer, at other times to the interpreter, if one be necessary; but they will never fail. The analogy of the foregoing reasons with those brought forward by theologians to prove the possibility of revelation is readily perceived. In fact, there is here more than a mere analogy; for communication by dreams is but one of the many ways God may select to manifest His designs to man; there is between them a relation of species to genus, and one could not deny either without denying the possibility of a supernatural order.
All the dreams actually recorded in Holy Writ came unsought. Some scholars infer from the words of Saul (1 Samuel 28:15): "God is departed from me, and would not hear me, neither by the hand of prophets, nor by dreams", that the practice of deliberately seeking supernatural dreams was not unknown in Israel. The words just quoted, however, do not necessarily imply such a meaning, but may as well be interpreted of unsought prophetic dreams. Still less can it be asserted that the Israelites would seek prophetic dreams by resorting to a well-known sanctuary and sleeping there. The two instances sometimes adduced in this connection, namely the dream of Jacob at Bethel (Genesis 28:12-19) and that of Solomon at Gabaon (1 Kings 3:5-15), do not bear out such an affirmation. In both cases the dream far from being sought, was unexpected; moreover, with regard to the former, it is evident from the narration that Jacob was quite unaware beforehand of the holiness of the place he slept in. His inference on the next morning as to its sacredness was inspired by the object of the dream, and his conduct in this circumstance seems even to betray some fear of having unknowingly defiled it by sleeping there.
It should be concluded from the above remarks that there were no errors with regard to dreams and dream-interpretation in the minds of individual Israelites. Like their neighbours, they had a tendency to consider all dreams as omens, and attach importance to their significance. But this tendency was constantly held in check by the more enlightened and more religious part of the nation. Besides the prohibition to "observe dreams", embodied in the Law (Leviticus 19:26; Deuteronomy 18:10), the Prophets, from the eighth century B.C. onwards, repeatedly warned the people against giving "heed to their dreams which they dream" (Jeremiah 29:8). "Dreams follow many cares", says Ecclesiastes 5:2; and Ben Sirach wisely adds that "dreams have deceived many, and they have failed that put their trust in them" (Sirach 34:7). This was, according to 2 Chronicles 33:6, one of the faults which brought about the downfall of Manasses. Above all, the Israelites were warned in every manner against trusting in the pretended dreams of false prophets: "Behold, I am against the prophets that have lying dreams, saith the Lord" (Jeremiah 23:32; cf. Zechariah 10:2; etc). From these and other indications it appears that the religion of Israel was kept pure from superstition connected with dreams. True, a mere glance at the respective dates of the above-quoted passages suggest that the zeal of the prophets was of little avail, at least for certain classes of people. The evil opposed by them continued in vogue down to the Exile, and even after the Restoration; but it is scarcely necessary to remark how unjust it would be to hold the Jewish religion responsible for the abuses of individual persons. Neither did there exist at any time in Israel a class of diviners making it their business to interpret the dreams of their country-men; there were no potherim among the temple-officials, nor later around the synagogues. The very few dream-interpreters spoken of in the Bible, as Joseph and Daniel, were especially commissioned by God in exceptional circumstances. Nor did they resort to natural skills or art; their interpretations were suggested to them by the Divine intellect enlightening their minds; "interpretation belongs to God", as Joseph declared to his fellow-prisoners. Undoubtedly there were among the people some soothsayers ever ready to profit by the curiosity of weaker and credulous minds; but as they possessed no authority and as they were condemned both by God and by the higher religious consciousness of the community, they practised their art in secret.
That certain dreams may be caused by God seemed to be acknowledged without controversy by the early Fathers of the Church and the ecclesiastical writers. This opinion they based mainly on Biblical authority; occasionally they appeared to the authority of classical writers. Agreeably to this doctrine, it was admitted likewise that the interpretation of supernatural dreams belongs to God who sends them, and who must manifest it either to the dreamer or to an authorized interpreter. The divine intervention in man's dreams is an exceptional occurrence; dreaming, on the contrary, is a most common fact. We may inquire, therefore, how the official guardians of Faith viewed ordinary and natural dreams. In general they repeated to the Christians the prohibitions and warnings of the Old Testament, and denounced in particular the superstitious tendency to consider dreams as omens. It may suffice in this connection to recall the names of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory the Great, whose teaching on the question at issue is clear and emphatic. A few, however, held opinions somewhat at variance with the traditional view. Among them the most noteworthy is Synesius of Cyrene (about 370-413), who is the author of a very strange treatise on dreams. Starting from the Platonic anthropological trichotomy, and from certain psychological hypotheses of Plato and Plotinus, he attributed the imagination a manifestly exaggerated role. Above all the arts of divination, the lawful use of which he did not seem to doubt, he extolled dreaming as the simplest and surest mode of prophesying. We know that he had accepted the episcopacy only on the condition that he might continue to hold certain favourite philosophic ideas; and it is reasonable to suppose that his theories on dreams were included in the compact.
Medieval theologians added to the reasonings of their predecessors a more careful, and to some extent more scientific, study of the phenomena of sleep; but they found no reason to depart from the moral principles contained in the writings of the Fathers. Suffice it here to quote St. Thomas Aquinas, who summarizes the best teaching of the Schoolmen. To the query: Is divination through dreams unlawful? he replies: The whole question consists in determining the cause of dreams, and examining whether the same may be the cause of future events, or at least come to the actual knowledge of them. Dreams come sometimes from internal, and sometimes from external, causes. Two kinds of internal causes influence our dreams: one animal, inasmuch as such images remain in a sleeping man's fantasy as were dwelt upon by him while awake; the other found in the body: it is indeed a well-known fact that the actual disposition of the body causes a reaction on the fantasy. Now it is self-evidence that neither of these causes has any influence on individual future events. Our dreams may likewise be the effects of a twofold external cause. This is corporeal when exterior agencies, such as the atmospheric conditions or others, act on the imagination of the sleeper. Finally dreams may be caused by spiritual agents, such as God, directly, or indirectly through his angels, and the devil. It is easy to conclude thence what chances there are to know the future from dreams, and when divination will be lawful or unlawful (II-II:95:6).
Modern theologians, whilst profiting by the progress of psychological research, continue to admit the possibility of dreams supernatural in their origin, and consequently the possibility of dream-interpretation depending on supernatural communications. As to ordinary dreams, they readily grant that, because the imaginative faculties of man acquire sometimes a keenness which they do not possess otherwise, it is possible in such cases to conjecture with a certain degree of probability some future events; but in all other cases, by far the most common, it is useless and illogical to attempt any interpretation. As a matter of fact dreams are now we speak of civilized peoples seldom heeded; only very ignorant and superstitious persons ponder over the "dictionaries of dreams" and the "keys to the interpretation of dreams" once so much in favour. "As idle as a dream" has become a proverb expressive of the popular mind on the subject, and indicating sufficiently that there is little need nowadays to revive the laws and canons enacted in past ages against divination through dreams.
BOUCHE-LECLERCQ, Histoire de la Divination (Paris, 1879); LENORMANT, la divination et la science des presages chez les Chaldeens (Paris, 1875); LEHMANN, Aberglaube und Zauberei (Stuttgart, 1898); SCHANZ in Kirchenlex., s.v. Traumdeuterei; LADD, Doctrine of Sacred Scripture (New York, 1883); REYNOLDS, Natural History of Immortality (1891).
APA citation. (1909). Interpretation of Dreams. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05154a.htm
MLA citation. "Interpretation of Dreams." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05154a.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Listya Sari Diyah.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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