Dreams were very important within the culture of ancient Greece and their connection to concepts of prophecy were explored in the literature of the era. Writers tended to distinguish between two categories of dreams in ancient Greece; those they deemed insignificant, caused by hopes, fears, digestion, and other residues of the day, and those that were significant.
The significant dreams came in three varieties. Some were literal visions of the future, some required symbolic interpretation, and others were visitations by gods, ghosts, or friends. Examples of such prophetic dreams in ancient Greece come from a variety of sources, including the writing of historians, epic poetry, plays, and inscriptions at holy sites.
Prophecy and Dreams in the Literature of Ancient Greece
The Greek historian Herodotus of the 5th century BC is credited as the father of history, though his stories sometimes cross into the territory of myth. In Book 1 of his Histories, the Lydian King Croesus dreamed that his son was to die from a wound caused by a spearhead. Croesus did everything in his power to keep his son away from weapons, but allowed him to go on a hunt, where he was killed accidentally by the spear of the very man hired to be his bodyguard.
Not only did Croesus’ dream correctly predict the future, but also set into motion a series of events that led to its fulfillment. The fact that a historian reported this event attests to the pervasive belief in dreams as visions of the future.
Also common in the literature of ancient Greece were dreams with symbols that needed to be interpreted. One example is Penelope’s dream in Homer’s Odyssey. According to the story Penelope had to endure the presence of fifty suitors living in her house and eating up her husband’s wealth as she patiently waited for Odysseus, said husband, to return home from war.
In her dream, fifty geese were killed by an eagle that revealed itself to be her husband Odysseus. The geese symbolized the suitors. This dream was not only prophetic, since Odysseus did in fact end up killing the suitors, but it was also a symbolic wish-fulfillment dream. Within this passage, Penelope herself distinguished between significant and insignificant dreams. Dreams with no greater meaning come to the dreamer by passing through a gate made of ivory, she says, while significant dreams pass through a gate of horn.
Astyages’ dream from a 15th century French manuscript. ( Public domain )
Prophetic Dreams of Destructive Offspring
Ancient literature often featured parents dreaming of destruction caused by their offspring. Herodotus gave an example of this when the Median King Astyages dreamt of his daughter Mandane urinating until all of Asia was flooded. He then dreamt that she gave birth to a vine that overshadowed all of Asia.
The Persian sorcerers known as the Magi interpreted his dreams to mean that Mandane’s child would depose King Astyages. This indeed came to pass when Mandane’s son Cyrus the Great dethroned his grandfather and became king of the Persians in the 6th century BC.
When Hecuba, the Queen of Troy, was pregnant with her son Paris, she dreamt that she gave birth to a burning torch. A seer tells Hecuba her son would cause the downfall of Troy, which indeed happened when Paris’ actions prompt the Trojan War . Similarly, the Spartan Queen Clytemnestra dreamt that she gave birth and breast-fed a snake, shortly before she was killed by her son Orestes. This sort of symbolic dream became a common literary motif, but also reflected a reality where people believed in the prophetic properties of dreams.
Artemidorus, the 2nd century soothsayer, left us a book on dream interpretation , where he explained the meaning of dreaming of symbols such as snakes, crocodiles, hunting, farming, and war. He even explained what it meant for a man to dream of having sex with his own mother. Such books were apparently popular in the ancient world.
Nestor Appearing in a Dream to Agamemnon. (The British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )
Prophetic Dreams and Visitations by Gods, Ghosts or Friends
The third type of prophetic dream involved visitation from a friend, family member, or god, who spoke with the dreamer. This visitor was sometimes a dream-messenger in disguise, sent by a god. This dream-messenger took many forms, depending on what the god required. In Homer’s Iliad, for example, Zeus instructed a dream-figure to appear to King Agamemnon, disguised as the king’s friend Nestor.
The image of Nestor told Agamemnon to take his troops into battle against the Trojans. Zeus’ purpose was to sabotage the Greek army. Meanwhile, in the Odyssey, Athena sent a dream-figure to Penelope, which appeared as her sister. The phantom sister comforted Penelope and told her that her son would return from his journey.
Many centuries after these stories were written, the Roman poet Ovid continued the tradition of dream-figures in his depiction of Ceyx and Alcyone. In this poem, Juno sent Morpheus, who was able to change form at will, to visit Alcyone in her sleep. Unaware that her beloved husband Ceyx has died in war, she is visited by Morpheus disguised as Ceyx who transmits the bad news.
In ancient Greek literature the visitor in the dream often visited in the form of a ghost. Achilles, for instance, dreamt of a visit by his dead companion Patroclus, who asked him to complete his burial rites so he would be able to pass on to the underworld. When Achilles attempted to grasp Patroclus, he encountered only smoke.
Apports, or objects obtained within a dream and which are discovered upon waking, are exclusive to the realm of myth. In a poem by the Greek poet Pindar, the hero Perseus is said to have acquired a golden bridle in a dream.
Patients sleeping in the temple of Aesculapius at Epidaurus, by Ernest Board. (Wellcome Collection / CC BY 4.0 )
Asclepius and Medical Prophecy in Ancient Greece
Though these examples all come from Greek myths, it seems that people really dreamt about visitations from the gods. Asclepius was an ancient Greek god with great healing powers. He was thought to visit his worshipers in dreams and give them medical advice, diagnoses, and even cures.
Dream of Aesculapius by Sebastiano Ricci (1710). ( Public domain )
Inscriptions at his sites of worship pay testament to such dreams. Religious devotees hoping to have a significant dream would practice incubation, or ritual sleep in a sanctuary. Some sanctuaries incorporated rooms for this specific purpose. In this cult and others, certain objects were thought to encourage desired communication with a god, such as ritual bathing, animal sacrifice, or sleeping on animal skin.
The connection between dreams and prophecy in ancient Greece was frequently explored in the literature of the era, from myths and history to ancient inscriptions. Greek religious culture allowed people to believe in the truth of these prophetic dreams sent by the gods. Among religious Greeks, this belief was so strong that people bought dream books and practiced rituals to induce prophetic dreams within their everyday lives.
Top image: In the Arms of Morpheus – Sir William Ernest Reynolds-Stephens (1862-1943) Source: Fair use
By Miriam Kamil
Dodds, E. R. 1951. The Greeks and the Irrational . University of California Press.