Saturday 21 September 2013

What the Ancient Greeks Knew about Slaves' Dream-Lives

While suffering from concussion earlier this summer I agreed to be in three places at once this week:  introducing the great Orlando Patterson at a conference on slavery in Indiana, co-relating classics and social class in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and interpreting ancient dream interpretation in Poland. So I have chosen according to personal loyalty on the conference front (Poland) and sent video talks to the other two (something I may do more of now, it being nicer to the planet than planes).

Fortunately for my hosts, virtual and actual, and for my own sanity, there is a link between all three talks: our one surviving ancient handbook of dream interpretation, by Artemidorus of Daldis, who recorded the colourful dreams experienced by his customers—mostly Greeks—under the Roman Empire.  His book, The Interpretation of Dreams, enthralled Sigmund Freud, who borrowed the title for his own most famous work, Traumdeutung, in 1899/1900.

Freud was struck by the numerous positions in which ancient Greek men told Artemidorus that they had enjoyed dream-sex with their mothers. But the real reason why Artemidorus is important is that his accounts of the dreams experienced by his many slave-class customers provide our best surviving access to the inner, mental and emotional lives of the millions of people in Greek and Roman antiquity who were not free.

Artemidorus tells us that the same dream will mean different things depending on whether you are a slave or  not: ‘Olive trees whose fruit has been gathered up means good luck for all but slaves, for whom it means thrashings, since it is by blows that the fruit is taken down’.  If a pregnant free woman dreams she gives birth to a snake, it is a good omen, but in a slave woman it can only mean that the child will become a runaway, ‘because a snake does not follow a straight path’.

Slaves' dreams tell desperately sad stories. A house-slave dreamt that one star fell out of the sky while another star ascended into the sky.  When his master died, he thought he was free and without any master. But it came to light that his former master had a son, and he was forced to become his slave.  The fallen star therefore stood for the man who died, while the one that ascended into the sky signified the one who would control him and be his master. 

This slave’s disappointment on discovering that he was legally compelled to serve another man, much younger than his previous owner, can only be imagined.  Another slave, whose subconscious clearly could not cope with his subordination, dreamt that he was playing ball with Zeus. He then quarrelled with his master, and, since he took certain liberties in his speech, he antagonised the man. For Zeus signified the master. The ball-playing indicated both the exchange of words on an equal footing and the quarrel itself. 

Artemidorus was a man of his time, and often recycles embarrassing prejudices against slaves. He argues, for example that slaves are more physical and less cerebral than the free. Slaves are often represented by animals (e.g. mice) and body parts (feet) in dreams, whereas the free are represented by more abstract symbolism to do with souls. 

But Artemidorus’ book also undermines the ancient distinction between slaves and free in ways which are paralleled by no other ancient evidence. It undermines the hierarchies of waking life by his actual practice of taking slave dreams seriously. The egalitarian form of many passages in the amazing ancient dream book implicitly dismantles its hierarchical content.  Ancient slaves may have left us few documents in their own voices. But the soul – or psyche - of the ancient slave was of course really there all the time. [A full discussion of Artemidorus' slave dreamers is included in Alston, Hall & Proffitt, Reading Ancient Slavery and can be read free online ninth offprint from the top here].

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