Erotic Dreams and Nightmares from Antiquity to the Present *

By Stewart, Charles | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Erotic Dreams and Nightmares from Antiquity to the Present *


Stewart, Charles, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living (Die Tradition aller toten Geschlechter lastet wie ein Alp auf dem Gehirne der Lebenden).

Marx, Tue eighteenth brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Erotic dreams have raised perennial questions about the boundaries of the self and the individual's ability to control and produce this self. Do erotic dreams result from divine intercession, an immoral life, or recent memories? Are they products of the self for which the individual dreamer may be held responsible? Or are they determined by a force majeure such as original sin, or human physiology?

The answers that various societies supply to these questions no doubt condition the ways in which people in different cultures and historical periods react to their experiences of erotic dreams. The Hadza of northern Tanzania publicly marked a boy's first nocturnal emission by decorating him with beads in exactly the same way as they decorated a girl with beads at the time of her first menstruation. Both occasions were unequivocally positive and celebratory (Woodburn, pers. comm.; see also Woodburn 1964: 269, 303, table 19, ill. 14). By contrast, the monks addressed in the fifth-century CE writings of John Cassian were instructed that:

It [an emission] is a sign of some sickness hidden inside, something hidden in the inmost fibres of the soul, something that night-time has not produced anew but rather has brought to the surface of the skin by means of sleep's restorative powers. It [night-time] exposes the hidden fibres of the agitations that we have collected by feasting on harmful thoughts all day long (Cassian, Institutions, 6.11, trans. in Brakke 1995).

Granted the value or danger accorded to erotic dreams in different societies, it is not surprising that vastly different practical techniques have been formulated cross-culturally to cultivate intended results. In order to fend off erotic dreams Graeco-Roman doctors variously recommended sleeping on one's side, excluding warming foods from one's diet, sleeping with a lead plate in contact with one's testicles, or having intercourse in the dark so as to avoid mentally registering lust-provoking visual images that could later recur during sleep (Foucault 1986: 137 ff.). By contrast, among the Umeda of Papua New Guinea a hunter intentionally slept on a net-bag scented with magic pighunting perfume (oktesap) in hopes of receiving the erotic dream that presaged a successful hunting expedition. Such erotic dreams held out the promise of real sexual consummation, which often followed after a kill was made (Gell 1977: 33).

Just how, and how successfully, such culturally prescribed bodily practices actually affect the subjective phenomenological apperception of dreams is a debated issue to which I shall return near the end of this article. I begin simply with the observation that the social construction of erotic dreams manifestly varies, cross-culturally and diachronically. In examining the historical nightmarization of the erotic dream within European history, I present a corollary to Foucault's thesis (1978; 1985; 1986) that sexuality increasingly became a site of 'subjectivation' (assujettissement) in the West. By this neologism he meant that sexual desire became the indicator of the truth about one's self, and thus a fundamental constituent of one's subjectivity. At the same time this sexuality was also a conduit for subjugation by social forces such as the Church or medical science that instructed how desire should be regulated. In volumes two and three of The history of sexuality Foucault frequently considered the evidenc e of dreams, particularly erotic dreams, and the challenges they posed to images of self-control in antiquity. …

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