Dreams and Eroticism, Dream Books

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Dreams and Eroticism, Dream Books

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, dreams have been closely linked with eroticism, in large part because of Sigmund Freud's groundbreaking and influential Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Arguing that dreams express, in coded form, the fulfillment of unconscious wishes, Freud connected dreams to primary drives, especially the libido, and thus turned dreams and their interpretation definitively toward the erotic. As Freud suggests, "The more one is concerned with the solution of dreams, the more one is driven to recognize that the majority of the dreams of adults deal with sexual material and give expression to erotic wishes." Although the later twentieth century saw a shift, especially among brain scientists like J. Allan Hobson, toward understanding dreams as physiological events without latent meaning, the idea that dreams bring us close to our secret, sexual selves remains firmly in place in Western culture.

Earlier in the history of dream interpretation, the linkage between dreams and the erotic was weaker. From antiquity through the Middle Ages and early modernity, dreams were understood as complex phenomena, linked to the individual psyche and body but also to cosmic, even divine, forces. Some dreams might reliably predict future events; others were understood to be essentially meaningless, or even positively deceptive. In all of this, eroticism had a part, but it was not an essential quality of the dream or dream interpretation.

As early as the Hebrew Bible, dreams and their interpretation are approached in a double manner. The dreams interpreted by Joseph in Genesis or by the prophet Daniel are understood to be reliable revelations of the historical future; the same is true in the New Testament, when God's angel appears to Joseph in his dreams. But the Bible also expresses a strong distrust of dream divination, associating it, in Deuteronomy 18:9-12, with "abhorrent" magical practices like wizardry. In ancient Greece and Rome, we encounter a similar complexity. In treatises on sleep and waking, dreams, and dream divination, Aristotle (384–322 bce) expresses a deep skepticism about the possibility of dreams predicting the future; he reads dreams primarily as physiological, arguing that, when dreams do seem accurately to foretell the future, this is by "mere coincidence."

Nevertheless, dream divination played an important role in classical culture. Dream incubation—the performance of rituals in a sacred place in order to stimulate predictive or curative dreams—was part of common religious practice. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 bce) wrote a treatise De Divinatione, aware and supportive of the Aristotelian skepticism about dream divination, but also presenting arguments in support of predictive dreams. When Cicero's treatise was taken up by later writers, it was often, despite his own intentions, to buttress belief in divination. Late-antique writers like Macrobius and Calcidius (fourth and fifth centuries), and early Christian writers like Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and Gregory the Great (540–604), thus inherited complex ideas about dreaming, which they reemphasized. Macrobius, for instance, recognized five kinds of dream, two meaningless, three predictive. Calcidius, Augustine, and Gregory developed similar schemas, with the Christian writers adding a moral dimension to the understanding of dreams by arguing that they may be sent by either angels or demons. Such late-antique and early Christian systems of dream classification were reproduced and elaborated throughout the Middle Ages and into modernity.

The belief in dream divination was reflected in literary works from Homer (c. 750 bce), the Bible, and Virgil (70–19 bce) on; it also spawned a distinct literary genre, that of the dream book, a key to dream interpretation based on the dream's manifest content. Thus, to dream of falling down a hill might signify future riches. (Freud recognized a certain distant kinship between his own method for interpreting dreams and the "decoding" method represented in the dream books.) It is known that such books existed in the ancient Middle East; for instance, A. Leo Oppenheim has translated an Assyrian dream book. Biblical dream interpretations—that seven lean cows eating seven fat ones predicts seven years of prosperity followed by seven of famine (Genesis 41)—seem linked to such traditions.

Artemidorus of Daldis (second century ce) compiled an influential version of the genre in Greek, the Oneirocritica (later translated into Arabic, and influential in medieval Islam); this work contains a remarkable richness of dream contents, including four chapters devoted to erotic dreams, as experienced primarily by men. Artemidorus divides such dreams into three types based on the sexual acts they represent: (1) acts in conformity with the law, including sex with wives, mistresses, prostitutes, women encountered unexpectedly, servants and slaves (male or female), friends and acquaintances (male or female), as well as masturbation; (2) acts contrary to law, including especially incest, understood largely to mean sex between parents and children; and (3) acts contrary to nature, including deviations like oral sex from "natural" sexual positions, as well as sex with gods, animals, or corpses; self-penetration or oral contact with one's own penis; and female-female sex involving penetration. Michel Foucault begins the third volume of his History of Sexuality with a discussion of this material, emphasizing especially the ways in which Artemidorus understands erotic dreams as relating to the dreamer's social status.

Dream books proliferated in the European Middle Ages despite their being prohibited by canon law. In order to counteract such Christian prohibitions, dream books often tried to associate themselves with biblical dream interpretation. Dream books in the tradition of Artemidorus took the title Somniale Danielis (The Dream Book of Daniel) and incorporated a prologue tracing their dream code back to the Bible. We also find other kinds of medieval dream book—for instance, the dreamlunar, which associates the dream's meaning with the phase of the moon; and the dream alphabet, which keys dream significations to the letters of the alphabet found when, upon awakening, the dreamer opens a book at random. Dream books remained popular after the Middle Ages, and are in fact still published, under such titles as The Mystic Dream Book: 2500 Dreams Explained. The erotic content of the medieval dream books is much reduced compared to what we find in Artemidorus, most likely because of an expanding Christian reprobation of sexual material. Sometimes the dreams interpreted are specifically erotic—for instance, from the Somniale Danielis, "To sleep with one's sister in a dream signifies loss; with one's mother, security"—but there is nothing essentially erotic about the medieval genre.

It is not, however, only with Freud that dreams again become significantly linked to eroticism. The experience of wet dreams emphasized to ancient and medieval writers that dreams might have a connection to the physiology of sexual arousal, and many Christian thinkers wrote about what this might imply for the moral state of the dreamer. On the one hand, the intemperate or uncontrolled emission of semen was understood to be polluting and the sexual ideas accompanying the wet dream dangerous. On the other, given that wet dreams occur during sleep, when the individual is unable to make rational decisions or moral choices, they were understood to be generally blameless. Still, early (pre-Christian) traditions connected the "proper" mastery of one's passions to the disappearance of disturbed, passionate dreams, and some Christian writers argued that wet dreams occurred more frequently in individuals predisposed to sexual sin, or even that they might be sent as demonic temptations. Wet dreams were never wholly cleansed of the taint of pollution and moral culpability.

Other dream experiences were also closely connected to the body and sex. The incubus, a nightmare in which the dreamer feels a heavy weight pressing upon him or her, was understood to be caused by a demon attempting to engage in sexual intercourse. The male incubus was complemented by a female equivalent, the succubus, a demon taking female shape in order to tempt men—often religious men like monks—into sexual sin.

Aristotle's skeptical treatises on dreaming were first made available to the European Middle Ages in Latin translation in the twelfth century, and their emphasis on the non-predictive status of dreams, and on the dream's somatic and psychological status, significantly shaped later medieval thinking. The idea that dreams might predict the future by no means disappeared, but the sense that the dream reflected psychosomatic process was highlighted. This shift in later medieval dream theory might in part explain the most striking medieval eroticizing of dreams, the development of a tradition of romantic poetry intimately linked to dreaming.

In the twelfth century, dream poems in Latin like Alain de Lille's Plaint of Nature appear, taking up questions about human sexual behavior; at roughly the same moment, vernacular romances like Chrétien de Troyes's arise, considering the trials and joys of "courtly love." These two traditions—courtly romance and dream poetry—are brought together in the thirteenth century in Guillaume de Lorris's and Jean de Meun's Romance of the Rose, an immensely popular poem. The Romance depicts the dream of a lover pursuing his beloved, the (allegorical) rose. Romantic love and erotic experience are absolutely central to this dream, and we can see the linkage established here between dreaming and eroticism picked up in many later medieval writers—Dante (1256–1321), Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375), Jean Froissart (c. 1333–c. 1405), Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300–1377), Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400). An early modern text like William Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream (1596) belongs to this same tradition, as do many later works exploring the lover's psychology through the representation of dreams.

see also Ancient Greece; Ancient Rome; Freud, Sigmund; Middle Ages; Psychoanalysis.


Aristotle. 1990. Aristotle on Sleep and Dreams, ed. and trans. David Gallop. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press.

Artemidorus. 1975. The Interpretation of Dreams: The Oneirocritica of Artemidorus, trans. Robert White. Park Ridge, NJ: Noyes Press.

Brown, Peter, ed. 1999. Reading Dreams: The Interpretation of Dreams from Chaucer to Shakespeare. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Elliott, Dyan. 1999. Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Fischer, Steven F. 1982. The Complete Medieval Dreambook: A Multilingual, Alphabetical Somnia Danielis Collation. Bern: Peter Lang.

Foucault, Michel. 1986. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 3: The Care of the Self, trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon.

Freud, Sigmund. 1965. The Interpretation of Dreams, ed. and trans. James Strachey. New York: Avon Books. (Orig. pub. 1900.)

Kruger, Steven F. 1992. Dreaming in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

LeGoff, Jacques. 1980. "Dreams in the Culture and Collective Psychology of the Medieval West." In Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages, trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Macrobius, Ambrosius Aurelius Theodosius. 1952. Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, trans. William Harris Stahl. New York: Columbia University Press.

Martin, Lawrence T. 1981. Somniale Danielis: An Edition of a Medieval Latin Dream Interpretation Handbook. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

Oppenheim, A. Leo. 1956. The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East, With a Translation of an Assyrian Dream-Book. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

                                          Steven F. Kruger