Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a Culture

By Heffernan, Thomas J. | The Catholic Historical Review, October 1996 | Go to article overview
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Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a Culture


Heffernan, Thomas J., The Catholic Historical Review


Dreams in Late Antiquity: Studies in the Imagination of a Culture. By Patricia Cox Miller. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1994. Pp. xii, 273. $39.50.)

In the Passio Sanctarum Perpetuae et Felicitatis, the dreamer Perpetuae says that she awakened from a dream in which she received cheese to eat; "still eating something unknown to me but sweet/conmanducans adhuc dulce nescio quid." How are we to understand this remark? How does the oneiric world of abstract imagining, a world of shape but no substance, a world unlike the conscious world, give rise to her belief that in her present awakened, conscious state she retained in her mouth the taste of a sweet food given to her by a gray-haired male figure in her dream? Perpetua's reflection is crucial to the thesis of Miller's book as it presents in microcosm much of the argument. Miller contends that for the late-antique citizen, dreams are a discourse, an "ancient semiotics," which provide a representation of meaning not possible in a narrative more indebted say to causal logic. Rightly critical of the rigid dualism of certain modern theorists who stigmatized dreams and divination of antiquity as flights from reason, Miller imaginatively explains late antique dreams as "imaginal category[ies]" capable of representing intangibles, recording the play between primordial antagonists, like life and death, illustrating conscious and unconscious states, and as a permeable membrane between time and space. It is the expressed aim of this volume to show how dreams are significant vehicles for the construction of meaning in late antiquity.

The book is divided into two parts and consists of an introduction and nine chapters. Part I is a general inquiry into the social function of dreams, theories of dreams, and an explanation of those systems designed to classy dreams; part II is a series of essays which present her reading of autobiographical dreams.

Since space does not allow a consideration of the innumerable points and selections Miller considers, I shall summarize her major points. Chapter 1 is a reading of the representation of dreams between Homer and Porphyry. Homer's dream state is adjacent to the land of the dead, and shares some of its metaphors. Porphyry's language describing the soul and dreams is a further conflation of these metaphoric lexicons. Chapter 2 is a survey of dream theories, like Cicero's, who follow the Aristotelian position that dreams are the result of psycho-physiological interaction, to middle positions like that of Gregory of Nyssa, to the theories of Plutarch and Apuleius who viewed dreams as demoniac, relational, and of Tertullian and Synesius who seek to theologize dreams from a Stoic and Neoplatonist perspective. The difficulty and the real interest in decoding the opaque language of these dreams is discussed in Chapter 3. Dream visions, like that of Jacob's ladder, allowed for the construction of interpretative systems which themselves, as is the case with Philo, became allegorical mediators leading to ever increased arenas of intellectual activity. Dream theory was not relegated to a textual arena only; rather such heneneutic investigation became a type of dream therapy. Chapter 4 discusses the Asclepian cult, and shows that the dreams attendant on the god Asclepius direct the dreams away from the illness toward cure, from the present to the future.

Part II of the book is aptly entitled "The Dreamers." Here in five studies Professor Miller discusses significant dream[er]s: Hermas and the Shepherd, Perpetuae, Aristedes' Sacred Tales, Jerome, and Gregory of Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa. To do justice to the scale of her discussion, I shall summarize four and focus on the longest, that concerning the Carthaginian Roman Perpetuae. In "Hermas and the Shepherd" Hermas' struggle offers the community an alternative to ethical literalism and additionally provides them with a means of addressing practical problems.

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