Dreams and dreaming in Homeric and contemporary contexts

Published on: Author: Mark Erickson Leave a comment

I had a rather restless night and some strange dreams – the product of the cold remedies I am taking at the moment, perhaps? That is a very modern way of thinking about dreams – that they are caused by something we have ingested – but then so is the idea that dreams are the product of the unconscious mind at work. These modern ways of ‘understanding’ dreams look inside the dreamer for the origin of the dream, and see dreams as imaginary.

Archaic ancient Greeks didn’t think that way at all about dreams. For them dreams were very real experiences. Sleepers didn’t ‘have dreams’, they ‘saw dreams’ and experienced them as if they were active participants in a drama, as if on stage. And the dreams that they saw all had meaning and provenance: they had been sent by someone for a purpose, be that malign or good. Paul Feyerabend in Against Method points out a very important feature of archaic ancient Greek dreams (and other unusual psychological events): they are not only explained by reference to gods and demons, they are felt as such. “Agamemnon’s dream … the dream descends (a dream is not a ‘subjective’ event), one sees it (it is an ‘objective’ event) and one also sees how it approaches and moves away. Sudden anger, fits of strength are described and felt to be divine acts.” (AM: 243)


The Iliad is often about the gods playing with the House of Atreides (King Agamemnon’s lineage) and contemporary audiences would have been familiar with the other woes that befell this ill-starred house. At the start of Book 2 (lines 1 – 83), Zeus, who has, as a result of Achilles’ mothers pleading, promised to destroy the Achaeans, decides to send Agamemnon a ‘destructive Dream’ ουλον ονειρον. The Dream visits Agamemnon, takes the form of his elderly advisor Nestor, and tells him that he has come from Zeus and that today is the day of victory if he will arm the troops and attack the city of Troy. This is, of course, the opposite of what will happen on that day.

Agamemnon calls together his council and tells them that he has seen a Dream, that it ‘took its stand above my head and spoke to me’ (59). Agamemnon is sure his dream is true, but when he tells the other leaders Nestor says

“… if anyone else of the Achaeans had told us this dream, we might say it was a lie and rather turn away from it; but now he has seen it who declares himself to be far the best of the Achaeans.” (79-81 Murray’s translation, Loeb edition)

  • Rieu’s translation:

“… if any other of our countrymen had told us of a dream like this, we should have thought it false and felt anything but eagerness to exploit it. But as it is, the man who had the dream is our Commander-in-Chief; so I propose that we take steps at once to get the troops under arms.” (42)

  • Chapman’s translation:

“… if any should relate

This vision but the king himself, it might be held a tale,

And move the rather of our retreat; but since our general

Affirms he saw it, hold it true; and all our best means make

To arm our army.” (22)

[G. S. Kirk in his commentary notes that lines 76-83, Nestor speaking, were athetized by Aristarchus as Nestor has nothing really to say and others point out this speech, short and to the point, isn’t in Nestor’s usual style. Kirk disagrees – after all someone has to agree or disagree with Agamemnon, and Nestor is best placed to do this.]


For me, there are a number of interesting points here. Firstly, the only reason that Agamemnon’s dream is believed is because of his status. Secondly, the other participants have no way of knowing whether the dream is a true or false one: there is no ‘theory’ or ‘key’ to dreams they can appeal to, and it is clear from the text that sometimes dreams are true, other times false. Despite this perhaps random element, everyone recognises that dreams are important and significant. This means that each specific instance must be understood and interpreted from scratch, using resources at hand (such as reflection on personal experiences or considerations of the status of the dreamer). This is in sharp contrast to the ‘modern’ way of doing things where we can appeal to theory and also to more rigid and complex categories.

Are there methodological lessons here for us? You would rather hope not – having to make sense of every single new piece of experience by reference only to itself and the observer would make the task of the social scientist very difficult. However, we could use this example as a way of alerting us to be a bit more cautious about applying theoretical and conceptual schemes to phenomena we encounter in the social world. Deploying theory reveals much, but inevitably hides some things from us.


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