Dreams in European Literature (3286 words)

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay


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Since antiquity dreams have fascinated people of all cultural backgrounds and have not only been proven relevant for the future of empires and religions, but also served as central motifs in the development of the world's literary masterpieces. In the classical period, the category of predictive dreams was divided into prophetic visions (Greek horamata), advice from a god (chrematismata) and symbolic dreams (oneiroi). With some fluctuation between these distinctions, as a general rule this classification still holds in medieval times (see for example John of Salisbury's distinctions between visio, oraculum, somnium, 12th century).

Prophetic visions play a significant role in the history of national self-identification and salvation. Among the many examples from the Old Testament stands out Daniel's vision of the fall of four successive “beastly” pagan empires and their replacement by a messianic realm that would bring about the liberation of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity (Belshazzar's end, 539 B. C., see Book of Daniel, 5-12). Claiming that “the gods who preside over the destinies of the Roman empire” had appeared to him in a nightly vision and had promised to help him, Scipio Africanus convinced his troops before the capture of Carthago Nova (=Cartagena, 209 B. C.) during the Second Punic War that he was certain to be victorious (Livy, The History of Rome, book XXVI, chapters 41-44). A third famous example relates to Emperor Constantine I who converted to Christianity after Christ appeared in his sleep vowing to protect him in his campaign against Maxentius (312 B.C.). Advice from a Greek god to inquiring men came in the majority of cases not in the shape of dreams, but in the response of an oracle (see Sophocles' Oedipus Rex). In later centuries of Western literature, frequently horoscopes replaced dreams (see Calderón, La Vida es sueño [Life is a Dream, 1635]) or, in a re-creation of Greek drama, dreams were reintroduced (see Schiller, Die Braut von Messina [The Bride of Messina, 1803]). The function of dreams in world literature is yet under-researched, but the following brief survey will emphasize their enduring importance as a literary motif.

Dream books (German: Traumbücher)

The notion that dreams encapsulate significant messages in need of professional interpreters can be traced back in literature to Homer. Achilles addresses Agamemnon as follows: “We might, though, ask some priest or some diviner, / Even some fellow good at dreams – for dreams come down from Zeus as well” (Iliad I, 72-74, trans. Robert Fitzgerald, in: Western Lit. in World Context, vol. I, 1995). The juxtaposition of specific dream contents with their symbolic interpretation has been practiced since the second millennium in Egypt and Babylonia, thereafter in Greece and later in medieval Europe, often transmitted by Byzantine or Arab scholars in collections of alphabetically organized items. To facilitate the interpretation of dreams, entire dream books were compiled from the fourth century B.C., yet only one example has survived from antiquity. Artemidoros of Ephesos traveled extensively to collect dreams and their meanings before publishing his Oneirocritica [Dream-Book, second century A.D., Greek print in 1518]. Of particular interest is Aelius Aristides' diary Sacred Teachings from the same period, in which he describes his visions of Asclepius, god of healing, who was expected to produce medical cures if interpreted correctly. The compilation of dream books, their copying and distribution became fashionable throughout the Hellenistic and the Byzantine era (until the fall of Constantinople, 1453), with eight manuals extant. How much the lines of dissemination merged, illustrates the Oneirocritica of Achmet ben Sirin (died 728). Employed as dream interpreter at the Baghdad caliphate, his text used Indian, Persian, and Egyptian sources and was translated from Arabic to Greek, then to Latin in Constantinople (ca. 1160). Here Arabs and Greeks relied on visions and horoscopes for government actions organized in alphabetical order and ascribed to Daniel for promotional purposes, yet nowadays labeled “pseudo-Daniel” (Somniale Danielis).

More important than Achmet was Rhazes (also Rasis), the great Persian physician and predecessor of Avicenna (in Persia ca. 1100) and Averröes (in Spain, twelfth century). As a surgeon in Baghdad around 900 he composed his medical encyclopedia Kitab-al-Mansuri [Liber ad Almansorem, English: The Spiritual Physick of Rhazes, London 1950]. Rhazes based his section “De somniorum significationibus” (book II, chapter 23-24) on the ancient theory of the four humors or body liquids: blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile. Since Empedocles, Hippocrates, and Galen the humors were thought to correspond to the four principal temperaments: sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic. In case the proper blend of liquids was disturbed, diseases could arise and influence dreams. In turn, dreams could lead to medical diagnoses and cures. Rhazes focused on natural non-prophetic dreams that had biological causes such as food imbalances and analyzed them according to Aristotle's principle e simili [according to similarity] and rarely e contrario. As an example, if someone dreams about black things and suffers from fright at night, he has too much of black cholera or melancholy in his system. Frequently, Rhazes' teachings appeared together in mixed codices together with pseudo-Daniel alphabets. One of the typical dream alphabets of the sixteenth century presents 215 one-liners such as these: aves perdere: magnum dampnum [To lose birds: great damage]; arma portare: honorem [To carry arms: honor]; caput album habere: lucrum [To have a white head: profit, see Recommended Reading].

Did Sigmund Freud cast aside all of this pre-modern lore as nonsense? Surprisingly, he essentially agreed with Rhazes that dream imagery lends itself to interpretation in the service of medical diagnosis. What he objected to are the reliance on the theory of the four humors, the symbolic interpretation e simili and the de-coding of dream elements according to fixed keys (e.g., dream of a burial= engagement!). Moreover, instead of employing the power of association on the part of the interpreter (like Artemidoros), Freud shifted the task of analysis onto his subjects. Yet especially in the case of typical sexual dreams, he still relied on symbolic readings (“Symbolverständnis”, e.g. scaling stairs=luck in love). Thus about ten percent of dream interpretations from a traditional dream alphabet still popular nowadays coincide with Freud's interpretations (see Die Traumdeutung [The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900]).

Literary dream genres

How important are dream books, dream interpretations and dreams in general in the realm of fiction? The answer is: immensely and through the history of literature increasingly so. World masterpieces are unthinkable without the dream-motif. Dreams morph into sub-genres of their own across the spectrum of poetry, drama, epic poems, and prose works, e.g. in dream visions, dream satires, dream allegories, dream novellas, and dream fairy tales. Not only do dreams enrich literature, they frequently appear at strategic junctures in plot development or in the life of a protagonist and thus propel or modify the given plot line.

Anticipatory dreams in major epics

In Virgil's Aeneid, Aeneas tells the story of “the last agony of Troy” to Dido in Carthage, starting out with Hector's appearance in his sleep, admonishing him to leave burning Troy and challenging him to “look for a great city to establish […] after long wanderings across the sea” (book II, verse 290ff.). Supported by Jupiter's “unrolling […] of the scroll of the Fates” (book I, 263, trans. Daniel West, Penguin 1991), this dream provides depth, direction, and salvation to the entire Aeneid-plot. Similarly, the German heroic epic Nibelungenlied [Song of the Nibelungen, ca. 1200] is framed, suspended, and eventually rounded out by Kriemhild's initial falcon-dream and its prediction of the downfall of the epic's protagonists. She dreamt to have reared a falcon who was torn apart by two eagles. Her mother points to its meaning: “The falcon you are rearing is a noble man [Siegfried] who […] will soon be taken from you”, as it turns out by Hagen and Gunther (Adventure I, stanza 14; compare stanza 19: “what terrible vengeance she took […] for slaying him in days to come!”). From the text's beginning this dream-image, a foreboding of doom, hovers over the entire poem.

Dream visions of cosmic or terrestrial journeys

In a study, a garden, or even a wilderness, poets and poetesses are overcome by despair, weariness or sleep and suddenly experience a vision in which figures emerge that offer themselves as guides through Heaven and Hell, through the valleys of human society (see Goethe's Faust: “vom Himmel durch die Welt zur Hölle” and back [“from heaven, through the world, to hell!”, “Vorspiel auf dem Theater, l. 242) or even to a lovely location full of allegorical significance (motif of locus amoenus, the beautiful location). Among the most influential visions of all times was Cicero's “Somnium Scipionis” [“Scipio's Dream”, 54 B.C.], a dream about a divine revelation at the end of his De re publica. Here Scipio the Younger falls asleep during the Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.) and is shown around in the Milky Way by his grandfather Scipio Africanus and his father Paulus. They explain the nature of the cosmos, foretell his future, Carthage's and Rome's destiny, the fate of souls in Heaven and Hell and exhort the dreamer to patriotic service of his country. Cicero did not know about Odysseus' journey into the underworld (The Odyssey, book 11), but he conceived his book as a complement to Plato's Politeia [Republic] which closes with Er's vision of judgment. In its turn, Cicero's “Somnium” served as a model for Virgil's Aeneid and later works all the way to Dante. Sybil leads Aeneas to the underworld where his father Anchises prophesies a glorious future for Trojan Rome (Aeneid, book VI; 19 B.C.). Two centuries later journeys through Heaven and Hell had become so popular that Lucian could satirize them in his Dialogues (e.g., Ikaromenippos). It was however due to Macrobius' (ca. 400 A.D.) commentary on Cicero's “Somnium” that Scipio's dream became known to the Middle Ages. It should be mentioned that – alongside this pagan strain of dream journeys – also a purely Christian tradition inspired by Old Testament dreams developed (Isaiah, Pharaoh, Joseph, Nebuchadnezzar etc.). For instance, in the Visio Pauli [Paul's Vision, first century A.D.] archangel Michael takes St. Paul on a tour through Heaven and Hell, a journey that spawned many Latin, Old English, Celtic, and German versions until the twelfth century.

Visions, whether in a dream or in a waking trance, turned into a much-used device for the composition of great masterpieces. Reviving and embellishing the ancient tradition of man's travel through the under- and outer world, Dante in his Divine Comedy (1321) finds himself lost and then rescued from “a dark wood” of Error (canto I, line 2) by the spirit of Virgil who conducts him through Hell to Purgatory. Finally, Beatrice leads him to Heaven. The Divine Comedy inspired many writers through the subsequent centuries all the way up to Goethe's Faust.

Dream visions were particularly popular in English literature. In Piers Plowman (1362-87) the poet falls asleep in the hills and envisions a “fair feeld of folk” (Prologue 17) caught between a Deep Dungeon of the Devil and the Tower of God's Truth. Common medieval man is in need of salvation and eventually Piers the Plowman (=Christ) agrees to guide the willing back to the Lord. Chaucer was firmly grounded in the works of his ancient (Cicero, Virgil, Macrobius) and Christian predecessors – he translated the Roman de la Rose and knew Dante – , when he embarked on his four dream visions: The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, and The Prologue to The Legend of Good Women, ca. 1380; see Recommended Reading). John Bunyan's narrator in The Pilgrim's Progress (1678-84) sets out on a dream journey in which Christian despairs and is told by an Evangelist to flee the City of Destruction. He is sent on a pilgrimage through the Slough of Despond and the Valley of Death to the CelestialCity. Together with Milton's epic poems Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained (1667-71), Bunyan's work caps the English development of major dream visions.

Other literatures too contributed to the richness of this sub-genre. Modeled on Ovid, the narrator in Roman de la Rose (part I, 1230) relates a dream about Idleness leading him to an allegorical garden of roses surrounded by a wall, where he falls victim to the god of Love who explains to him the code of courtly love. In Christine de Pisan's prose work La Cité des dames [The City of Ladies, 1405], the narrator is suffering from the dismal state of women in society and is suddenly roused from her tear-full “chair's armrest” by a vision of three ladies: Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. They aid her in building the city of ladies to promote the equality of women. In Spanish literature, the unmasking of glittering pretense and haughty bearing became a key aspect of Golden Age authors. The conflict between appearance and essence determines the plots of novels and plays between Cervantes and Calderón. Significantly, it was Francesco de Quevedo who in Dante's wake sketched several visions of Hell and in his dream introduced an old guide named Desengaño (Disillusion) who conducts the protagonist through the miserable reality behind each scene in the Street of Hypocrisy (Sueños [Dreams, 1627]). In view of the close cultural ties between the Habsburg dynasties ruling both in Madrid and Vienna, it is not surprising for a German author from Strasbourg, Johann M. Moscherosch, to embark on his free adaptation of Quevedo's work. His mentor Expertus Robertus guides Philander through the chaotic world of the Thirty Years' War in a series of satirical visions (Les Visiones de Don Francesco de Quevedo Villegas. Oder wunderbahre satyrische Gesichte Philanders von Sittewald, 1640).

Dream-dialogues across the centuries

In dream visions, dialogues with the deceased take place since Homer, Virgil, and Dante. Lucian composed Dialogues of the Dead, e.g., between Alexander, Hannibal, and Scipio (no. XII), and created a genre that still flourished in the Enlightenment (see B. Fontenelle, Nouveaux Dialogues des Morts [New Dialogues of the Dead, 1683]; Chr. M. Wieland, Göttergespräche [Divine Conversations, 1791]). In Chaucer's The House of Fame (1385), famous people of both classical and Christian provenance introduce themselves in the manner of Dante's Divine Comedy. Yet only since Petrarch did intellectual exchanges in meetings of the mind across the centuries become a key feature of the humanist tradition. For him, lively dialogues with the ancients from Homer to Horace raised his spirit above the isolation in rural Provence, making him feel like part of a poesia perennis (eternal realm of poetry). The most spectacular example provides his Secretum [Secret Dialogue, 1353], a riveting conversation with Augustine who – guided by Truth – visits him during a contemplative stance and challenges him through Socratic questioning to come to terms with his sinful life, to desist both from his quest for fame and his love of Laura. Incidentally, Martin Opitz (1597-1639) introduced “das hohe Geistergespräch” (the spirits' meeting of the minds) to German literature where this topos flourished among classicists and inspired poets such as Goethe and Hölderlin.

Life-changing dreams

Awaking from a dream, either at the beginning of an adventurous life or at some point en route, can have a life-changing and stabilizing effect on its protagonist. Recognizing the difference between dream and reality changes the dreamer's orientation and may determine the outcome of a specific plot. Among the famous examples are Calderón's La Vida es sueño, in which Segismundo, after one day's disastrous rule as King, awakens in his cell believing he is in his grave awaiting Judgment Day. His harrowing ordeal leads to his disillusion and, after a second chance enables him to return to the throne, he decides to act honorably out of fear that he may be dreaming again. In this powerful play about Spanish Baroque themes, major literary traditions and motifs merge from the Arab A Thousand and One Nights (“The dreaming shepherd”, see Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, 1594) to the mirror for princes by Machiavelli, Erasmus and beyond. Almost two hundred years later, Heinrich von Kleist transformed the Spanish prince into the sleepwalking Prince of Homburg in his eponymous play (1810), who dreams of victory and marriage to a princess, but soon will be arrested for disobeying military orders. He is led by his gravesite to his execution and loses his composure, until he finally gains victory over himself. Only then can he be pardoned. Admired as the incarnation of the law of the state, he ultimately obtains the laurel wreath he had dared to aspire in a dream without meriting it. This is a well-rounded play with its return to the initial dream of victory on a higher level. Yet in this mirror for princes (see “Schule dieser Tage” [“school of these days”], V, 9), the prince is still not quite sure: “Ist es ein Traum?” [“Is this a dream?”, V, 9). Yet another nineteenth-century author exploits Calderón's life-as-a-dream motif by inverting it: Franz Grillparzer adapted Voltaire's philosophical tale Le Blanc et le Noir [The White and the Black, 1764]) in his play Der Traum ein Leben [Dream as a Life, 1839]. Here his protagonist Rustan awakens after a life of deceit and treachery to realize that luckily everything was a dream and it is not too late to turn his life around. Finally, in Novalis' novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen [Henry of Ofterdingen, 1802] the alluring and recurring dream of a blue flower impels the young protagonist on his poetic mission to reinvent himself, to redeem Nature, to find his flower (=his beloved), and to transform the world into a realm of poetry open to Infinitude.

Romantic dreams

When, after the Age of the Enlightenment, romantic poets set out to fathom the neglected inner workings of the universe and its correspondence to the mind, they reached well beyond the visible world. In Romanticism, dreams provide access to the inward life of the soul, of the emotions, and to the voices of Nature. Romantic dream language undermines the rational syntax of everyday speech and expresses the irrational and subjective stirrings of the half conscious, the sub- and unconscious side of life, in the process liberating the creative forces of the imagination with the ultimate goal to bridge man's alienation from Nature. Extending the scope of poetic awareness manifests itself in frequent crossovers between reality and dream, between sleeping and waking and its concomitant transitional states such as somnambulism, hallucination, clairvoyance, and doubles (doppelgänger). Rousseau, on the threshold between the Enlightenment and Romanticism, inaugurated the half-conscious dreams of the soul communing with Nature (see Les Rêveries du promeneur solitaire [Dreamings of a Solitary Stroller, 1782]), but examples abound throughout the Age of Romanticism and mark the literary output of the most famous authors of the period, among them Kleist, Tieck, Eichendorff, E.T.A. Hoffmann, E.A. Poe, W. Blake, Nerval, Gautier, Nodier, Vigny etc. One dream in particular, Jean Paul's “Rede des toten Christus vom Weltgebäude herab, dass kein Gott sei” [“Speech of the dead Christ from the Edifice of the World, that there is no God”], in: Siebenkäs (1797, vol. 2) had a profound effect on French romantic poets in the 1820s and 30s (Nodier, Vigny, Nerval). What at first glance appears to be a reprise of the conventional journey through Heaven and Hell had an entirely nihilistic impact because of Madame de Staël's abridged dissemination of this “Speech” in De l' Allemagne [On Germany, 1813], since the narrator's awakening from Hell and his subsequent return to the worship of the Lord was missing. August Strindberg and other pioneering writers of early Modernism lent the dream motif a central function in their texts, which extended into the era of Expressionism and beyond. Providing insight into the protagonist's inner turmoil, surreal and dream-like states play a significant role in Kafka's narratives. For prophetic dreams in modern literature see, among many others, Thomas Mann's Joseph und seine Brüder [Joseph and His Brothers, 1933-43]. For further details and later developments see below.

Citation: Hoffmeister, Gerhart. "Dreams in European Literature". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 10 March 2009 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=5776, accessed 18 May 2022.]

5776 Dreams in European Literature 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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