People have long been fascinated by dreams and seen them as potential sources of meaning and insight. While today we focus on dreams as potential windows into our unconscious minds, ancient peoples often thought of dreams as a potential channel to the supernatural. Ancient Greeks produced complex manuals for interpreting the symbolism of dream images as a way of understanding the gods and predicting the future.
In that context, it is interesting to see evidence for a more rational, grounded approach to dreams. This passage comes from Herodotus’ account of how King Xerxes of Persia decided to invade Greece. After debating the merits of the proposed campaign with his court and deciding against it, Xerxes repeatedly dreamt of a shadowy figure that demanded he carry on with the attack. When Xerxes brought up this dream to his uncle Artabanus, Artabanus offered a level-headed interpretation:
Now when you have come around to a better way of thinking, you say that although you have decided to abandon the expedition against Greece, you are visited by a dream from some god forbidding you from giving up on the plan. But there is nothing divine in this, my boy. I have many years on you, so I’ll teach you what recurring dreams like this are about: the things we see in our dreams are usually the things we have had on our minds during the day, and in recent days we have been concentrating on this campaign.Herodotus, Histories 7.16b
(My own translation)
Now, in Herodotus’ narrative, it turns out that Artabanus was wrong and Xerxes really was being visited by some divine force prompting him to carry on with the invasion plan, but the fact that Herodotus could put that argument into Artabanus’ voice tells us that the idea was part of the contemporary conversation in the Greek world. Indeed, Artabanus generally figures in Herodotus’ work as a wise and perceptive counselor whose advice Xerxes would have done well to heed. Giving this argument to Artabanus gives it a significant weight as an idea, even in a cultural context where people were inclined to see dreams as messages from the gods.
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