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  • Dreams, Healing, and Medicine in Greece: From Antiquity to the Present editor by Steven M. Oberhelman
  • Peter S. Allen
Steven M. Oberhelman, editor. Dreams, Healing, and Medicine in Greece: From Antiquity to the Present. Surrey, England/Burlington, VT: Ashgate. 2013. 341 pp. Cloth £70/$119.95.

Dreams are a part of everyone’s life. We try to interpret them, we try to control them, and we sometimes base important life decisions on them. Moreover, there is good evidence that we have been doing all of these things for a very long time. The authors of the articles in Dreams, Healing, and Medicine in Greece chronicle such efforts among Greeks going back several thousand years. From early on, Greeks were not only concerned with dreams, but fortunately for subsequent generations, they wrote a great deal about dreams and their putative meanings. Dozens of sources are cited in these articles, attesting to the interest in dreams from early times to the present.

Several themes emerge from these articles. Perhaps the most significant is the connection between dreams and health. Scattered all over the eastern Mediterranean were dozens of healing sites called Aesclepieia (after Asclepius, the ancient Greek god of medicine and healing) where people would go to find cures for various maladies. Dreams and the interpretation thereof played a prominent role in the diagnosis and treatment of virtually every ailment, both physical and psychological.

From the earliest times for which we have records, close links between dreams, disease, and healing were clearly established. It is the multifarious ways in which these links were made and exploited that comprise most of the material in this volume. Such seminal figures as Hippocrates and Galen employed dream interpretation and dream therapy in their treatment of virtually all diseases. Inducing dreams and interpreting them were central features of their diagnoses and praxis. All of this is skillfully illuminated here by an international collection of scholars with true expertise on the subject.


Maithe Hulskamp considers the outlook on dreams of such figures as the Hippocratics and Galen, arguing that some ignored dream contents and focused only on dream types for the sole purpose of diagnosis, whereas others used dreams for both medical diagnosis and prognosis. She also maintains that Galen put less stock in dreams than most scholars believe. [End Page 452]

Louise Cillers and François Pieter Retief distinguish between two types of dreams involved in medicine: prophetic dreams which were seen as messages from the gods and dreams with physical origins that could be employed for pragmatic and diagnostic purposes. They maintain, however, that at the Asclepieia these two types tended to merge with dreams being viewed as messages from the god specifically on medical matters.

Similarities in a representation of “medical dreams” described in various Hippocratic texts and some from the Asclepieion of Epidauros are the subject of Lee Peavey’s astute contribution. Since the standard edition of the works of Hippocrates runs to ten volumes, Peavy is quite selective here, but extremely insightful. He focuses, in particular, on the interpretation of dreams for the purposes of diagnosis and prognosis. His essay is larded with excellent examples and commentary on them.

Janet Downie’s piece focuses on the dream narratives contained in a single work, Hieroi Logoi, by Aelius Aristides, a second century AD orator whose two years at an Asclepieion in Pergamum are the source of his writings. Aristides is perhaps the sole individual from antiquity who wrote about his own dreams. On the basis of an examination of the language and syntax of the writing, Downie maintains that the interpretations of dreams in this text are different from the interpretations of others. Moreover, unlike some of his contemporaries, e.g., Galen and Artemidorus, Aristides addresses non-meaningful dreams quite extensively, applying the same interpretative devices as others did to more significant dreams.

Artemidorus, a second century AD professional diviner, has left us with an important text on the interpretation of dreams in antiquity, the Oneirocritica, which is the subject of Christine Walde’s contribution. She chronicles the definition, frequency, and causes of illness contained therein with an emphasis on the role of dreams in predicting and diagnosing illness. She...


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