Thursday, April 30, 2015


Christina Angelidi, George T. Calofonos (ed.), Dreaming in Byzantium and Beyond. Farnham; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. Pp. xci, 232. ISBN 9781409400554. $119.95.

Reviewed by Stephanos Efthymiadis, Open University of Cyprus (

Version at BMCR home site


Academic gatherings that bring to the fore topics previously considered marginal are a welcome development in the field of Byzantine Studies. This volume is the outcome of a conference held in Athens in May 2008 that covered a subject previously approached via two main themes: dreams as a component of the ritual of incubational healings and the oneirokritika, i.e., manuals of dream interpretation. Though it goes well beyond these issues, this volume does not omit these aspects of the literature on dreaming.

Three of the thirteen papers in this volume retrace well-trodden paths, on the one hand, of healing dreams as part and parcel of miracle collections (Constantinou) and, on the other, of dream books and their interdependence (Oberhelman; Mavroudi). Constantinou examines the morphology of healing dreams—corporeal, medical, and allegorical—as they occur in late antique collections of miracles. Their role in the narrative of these texts is pivotal in that they can prolong the story and orient it towards a different denouement. Oberhelman revisits the dream-manuals of Byzantium, focusing on their thematic peculiarities. His final point concerning the paucity of such texts from the Byzantine period is worth considering, as is his explanation for it: written dream-manuals would not have been in high demand in a society based on an oral culture that derived most of its dream interpretations from folk wisdom. Mavroudi picks up the thread of dream handbooks from Artemidoros of Ephesus, translated into Arabic in the ninth century, to the tenth-century Oneirokritikon of Achmet, and then on to the dream book associated with Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (1391–1425). Her attention is drawn to the interplay between the Muslim and the Byzantine worlds at the philosophical and scientific levels as well as the use of the new material brought in from Persia after the twelfth century, as evidenced in the renewed interest of Byzantine intellectuals, mostly of the Palaiologan period, in divination and astrology. A critical aspect of her research is devoted to questions of sexual mores as seen through Greek dream books, which, aside from acting as witnesses to the transmission of Islamic texts, echo a reality that, to some extent, was shared between Muslim and Christian societies.

Most of the thirteen contributions are devoted to the literary function of dreams. In other words, this book is geared more toward dreams as stand-alone stories or as stories integrated into larger textual entities. This is, for instance, the case of the long series of dreams in the twelfth-century Life of St Cyril Phileotes, discussed by Margaret Mullett as an important narrative element that brings out the spiritual disposition of the protagonist towards his future and contributes to the advancement of this long text's plot.

'Literary' dreams should hardly be regarded as 'genuine', but rather as something foreordained by prescriptions, clichés, and literary reminiscences. In fact, the 'Byzantine dream experience' is a term that hardly applies to the dream experience of common people. The question then becomes whether the dreams of the Byzantines that are attested in these texts should or can be interpreted according to their oneiromancy and oneirocritical standards or using our Freudian and other modern tools.

The dream of Ignatios the Deacon that Angelidi singles out from his correspondence is a case in point. It represents a real experience and results in a spontaneous confession addressed in the form of a letter to a friend, Ignatios' most frequent correspondent, Nikephoros, along with the wish that its distressing prognostications may not be fulfilled. Although, as Angelidi rightly suggests, this is 'an exceptional and genuine document of self-expression' (p. 78), it cannot be interpreted beyond the 'constraints' of oneirocritical literature which were no doubt deeply 'inscribed' in Ignatios' conscience. In a similar vein, Anagnostakis discusses the dream of the historian Prokopios before general Belissarios' campaign against the Vandals in 533 and points to the literary traditions of dreams behind it (from Herodotus to Homer). By his artfully constructed dream narrative, Prokopios implicitly opposes the overambitious dreams of Justinian for world domination.

The picture of literary dreaming changes in middle and late Byzantine historiography, when, rather than looking toward the classical tradition, it begins to conform to the dream scenery usually exhibited in hagiography. In Theophanes Continuatus, a multi-authored work that promotes the interests of the reigning Macedonian dynasty, dream narratives function as vaticinia ex eventu and are meant to promote a dynastic cause by drawing a clear dichotomy between good and bad rulers. Both Calofonos and Magdalino investigate instances of a dream narrative in this text, yet from different angles. Magdalino finds two types of dreams in later historiographers, iconic-hagiographical and allegorical-symbolical, and adds a third category of subversive dreams, which are found in Michael Psellos and Niketas Choniates. He further notes the tendency of fourteenth-century historians to present dream stories as digressions from the narrative rather than as contributions to its propaganda and plot. Calofonos postulates an increased interest in dreaming after the end of Iconoclasm, which he associates in part with the parallel intrusion of the fictional element into contemporary (tenth-century) hagiography. In a section appended to the core of his contribution where he responds to Magdalino's subsequent discussion, he appears reluctant to accept the latter's distinction between the iconic and the allegorical or his interpretation of dream occurrences in Theophanes Continuatus as a crossover of hagiography into history.

Two other papers discuss visionary experience, especially ecstasy, as attested in early monastic literature (Krönung) and the visionary landscape of the Other World in Byzantine literature (Cupane). Christian apologists were much more suspicious of ecstatic experiences than pagan writers and would in principle argue against their being easily accepted, the risk, of course, being demonic deception. Yet this caution was challenged by the flowering of monasticism, which validated ecstasy as a mystical experience and as a form of union with the divine. The complex image of the Heavenly City, as discussed by Cupane, is such a mystical experience which emerges in various kinds of texts—not only hagiographical—spread between late antiquity and the last centuries of Byzantium. However interesting, one may question whether such visions should be included in a volume on dreams and dreaming. For us the distinction between dream and vision is hard to make or of no pragmatic significance, all the more so as it boils down to the same consideration of an illusion lodged in the mind or generated by a physical condition. But for the Byzantines, the distinction was not only a matter of qualification (visions were a gift to the holy man) but of completely divergent experiences, produced while sleeping or awake respectively.

The volume concludes with two short studies, one from a cultural anthropologist who is not a Byzantinist (Tedlock) and another by a former Byzantinist turned psychoanalyst (Galatariotou). There are two problems here. First it is questionable how modern theoretical approaches can profitably be applied to the interpretation of Byzantine dream experience when this 'experience' is overwhelmingly literary, i.e., cannot be treated as an actual event. Secondly, it is doubtful that they will be explored as such by Byzantinists, whose adherence to the 'traditional' reading of Byzantine literature is still prevalent, as is evident in this very volume. The other study which openly engages with modern perspectives, using the tools of gender and sexuality studies, is the chapter on erotic dreams in Byzantium (Messis), which reviews a wide range of recipients of such dreams, ranging from monks in the isolation of the desert to laymen featured in hagiography or in secular literature (epistolography, poetry, romance). In both cases, a didactic purpose is discernible with the creation of an ideal self which takes control of one's sexuality. Yet we are left with the impression that titillating accounts of this sort might, in fact, have worked against this by stimulating impure thoughts.

In sum, this is an interesting collection of papers on dreams that discuss texts or passages which deserve to be noticed, not least for their engagement with the irrational. Its somewhat random assemblage of material is an inevitable shortcoming of its pioneering character.

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