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Greek Philosophy on Dreaming

Posted by andypragnell on December 7, 2012 at 10:50 PM

The Greeks didn't begin seriously considering dreams until 8th century BC. Homer, in his Iliad, describes a scene wherein Agamemnon receives instructions from the messenger of Zeus in a dream. Greeks also believed that dreams carried divine messages, but they could only be interpreted with the aid of a priest similar to those of the Babylonians and Egyptians. It was from these two groups the Greeks also inherited many occult techniques. Dreams also aided in their practice of medicine, sending sick people to particular temples in those places where the "gods of the body" had their shrines. The ailing Greeks would visit these temples, perform various religious rites, sleep, and hope to have a dream that assured a return to good health. Night after night they would sleep and sometimes this would go on for weeks or even months until they had the "right" dream. The most famous for dream pilgrimage was the Aesculapius at Epidaurus.

It is uncertain whether or not the first dream interpreters were legend or reality. Pliny the Elder suggests that the earliest interpreter was a man named Amphictyon, son of Deucalion. It was Deucalion, who in Greek mythology, was the son of Prometheus. Yet, Herodotus, an early historian claimed that the people of Telmessus, which was located in southwest Asia Minor, specialized in dream interpretation. In fact, it was even heard that King Croesus, the last king of Lydia, consulted them for an interpretation of an important dream.


The first steps into modern dream interpretation were taken in the 5th century BC when the Greek philosopher Heraclitus suggested that a person's dream world was something created in their own mind. This went against the other philosophers who believed dreams were the result of outside forces, such as the gods. Most Greek philosophers, in that time period, pondered dreams and what they might mean. Plato was one of these philosophers, and realized how much dreaming could affect a personality or someone's life. In the Phaedo, he tells how Socrates studied music and the arts because he was instructed to do so in a dream.


Aristotle finally put an end to Heraditus' idea that dreams were messages from the gods. He began to study dreams and the dreaming process in a rational way. In his De divinatione per somnum, he states, "most so-called prophetic dreams are to be classed as mere coincidences, especially all such as are extravagant," and later includes that "the most skillful interpreter of dreams is he who has the faculty of absorbing resemblances. I mean that dream presentations are analogous to the forms reflected in water." Aristotle's Parva naturalia suggests that dreams are in fact believed to be a recollection of the days events.


Aristotle also helped advance the theory that dreams reflected a person's bodily health. It suggested that a doctor could diagnose a person illness by hearing a dream that they had. Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine supported this theory, and is still practiced by some doctors of today. Galen of Pergamum, a Greco-Roman physician, picked up where Aristotle had left off. A patient of his dreamed that his left thigh was turned into marble and later lost the use of that leg due to palsy. A wrestler, he had treated, dreamed that he was standing in a pool of blood that had risen over his head. From this dream Galen concluded that this man needed a bloodletting for the pleurisy which he labored. By this means of treatment the man was cured.

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