Dreams in ancient Greek Medicine

Dreams preoccupied the Greek and Roman world in antiquity; therefore they had a prominent role in social, philosophical, religious, historical and political life of those times. Ancient Greek physicians tried to give a rational answer for the creation and content of dreams setting aside any supernatural beliefs.

Hippocrates     Hippocrates

Dreams in Corpus Hippocraticum

The earliest medical study on dreams is found in Corpus Hippocraticum and in the book De diaeta (Hippocrates Med. et Corp. De diaeta i-iv 86.1–93.30). The author of this work attempts to present in a scientific way the creation and function of dreams separating them from the art of prediction (Hippocrates Med. et Corp. De diaeta i–iv 87.1–12). In the introduction it is stated that dreams are creations of the soul’s vigilance during sleep, because in contrast to relaxed body, soul is on alert making images of body’s activities (Hippocrates Med. et Corp. De diaeta i–iv 86.1–14).

The central idea is that dreams reveal the state of human body and are influenced in their development by it. The core of the research lies on the diet. It is believed that diet, in terms of quantity and composition, plays a significant role in the content of dreams, since it is essential for the presence of wetness, dryness and heat in the body which in turn will nominate or disturb the balance of its humors. Dreams therefore reflect the equilibrium (health) or disturbance (disease) of the body. Therefore, if diet reinforces the equilibrium of humors, man will have calm and sweet dreams, but if it provokes disturbance of humors man will have turbulent sleep and nightmares (Hippocrates Med. et Corp. De diaeta i–iv 93.1–30).

The author distinguishes three main thematic categories of dreams. Firstly, the examples of celestial objects are used. Subsequently, examples about the earth and the natural environment are mentioned. The third section of this work deals with the dead.

Two other passages of this work are of particular interest. The first one refers to a dream, wherein the human traverses rivers and confronts warriors, enemies and bizarre monsters. The author considers it as an indication of a certain disease or mania, thus making the first mention of the possibility of a specific mental disease manifestated in a dream (Hippocrates Med. et Corp. De diaeta i–iv 93.23–25). The second passage is related to the previous one, because again there is a reference to a mental disturbance which affects the content of the dream, but in this case this is probably not a mental illness. More specifically, dreams that have as subject the pointless wandering in various places, declare some agitation of the soul due to an everyday life problem. In fact the solution proposed is to cheer up and try to entertain himself, otherwise there is a risk that these dreams will come true, in two to three days, and become a disease (Hippocrates Med. et Corp. De diaeta i–iv 89.52–57).

The author’s intention was to create a dreams’ list matching each one with the pathological or natural condition that provoked them, in order this study to become a rationalistic medical teaching manual for use by the physicians.

Herophilus on Dreams

Herophilus’ (ca.320 – 250 BC) has concentrated his interest almost exclusively on intellectual-mental processes about soul functions and its comprehension of the world, but mainly he focused on men’s desires, considering them crucial to the creation of dreams. His views are quite different from those of other physicians of antiquity.

Herophilus thought that dreams are divided into three main categories. In the first one he places dreams derived from god, which he considered necessary and inevitable, while the other two categories of dreams according to Herophilus are characterized by their rational context. Into the second category he places natural dreams in which the soul creates images of what is in its best interests. In the third category he lists mixed dreams –as he names them– which occur suddenly, and their context is the idols of man’s desires, presenting the example of the lovers who dream of those who love (Pseudo-Galenus Med. De historia philosophica 106.4–8.21 Pseudo-Plutarchus Placita philosophorum 904.F.6–1122).

Setting aside the first category, we will underline that the other two categories define dreams as creations of human desires, which is clearly seen in the third category and indirectly observed in the second one, because what is in the interest of the soul apparently is associated with desires and expectations. It should be noted that the reference to the term ‘idols’ should not be limited only to images and scenes of everyday life, but it also incorporates an imprint of emotions and abstract concepts.

Herophilus limited his concepts solely to the mental sphere, without involving specific views about dreams theory, such as that of the humoral theory, or determining the function of the soul in relation to that of the body, introducing now especially for the dreams the idea of the imaginary, which is decisively determined by the interaction of man with his natural and social environment.

According to our point of view, Herophilus highlighted his medical status, and his research on dreams showed that he overcame the stage of “medical dreams”, as seen in other ancient physicians. In contrast, we will consider possible that by performing an in-depth study of the imaginary, which he analyzed rationally and by medical standards, he faced the inability to adequately and fully explain according to the rules of ancient Greek medicine –which combined body and soul– the imaginary situations of dreams. That is why he rather opted exclusively for the function of the soul, focusing on human desires, which made him a pioneer of his time.

Rufus of Ephesus on Dreams

Rufus of Ephesus (1st–2nd c. AD) relies on the theory of humors and states his strong belief that corporal humors cause dreams, both good and bad. In fact he states that he has no knowledge of another theory for their interpretation. His views will converge, at least with regard to their general principles, to those encountered in Corpus Hippocraticum (Rufus Med. Quaestiones medicinales 33.1–3).

Rufus of Ephesus deals exclusively with the medical dimension of dreams, perhaps more than any other ancient Greek physician, as he advises that dreams, as well as the general state of sleep, are an important tool for the proper and successful diagnosis. This is why he also underlines that physicians need to ask if the patient slept or not, and if he falls asleep easily or has insomnia, and if there are fantasies or dreams, since all of the above would aid the physician to come to a diagnosis (Rufus Med. Quaestiones medicinales 28.1–29.3).

Galen on Dreams

Galen (129 – ca. 210 AD) has embraced the importance of dreams for medicine, devoting a special work on them, where he analyzed the diagnosis through dreams. Complying with the lessons of the earlier physicians and honoring the findings of the ancient Greek medicine, he also considers dreams as reflections of the physical condition of the patient.

Galen recognizes the disequilibrium of humors as the main cause of dreams, so that the form of the dream is associated with the characteristics and qualities of the humor, and in this way he goes along with the thoughts developed in the corresponding work of Corpus Hippocraticum.

Galen also adds the psychological factor, which is determined by the events of everyday life and by the human wishes which disrupt mood, pointing a diversity from Corpus Hippocraticum, because there the revival of everyday incidents is a health component while in this work they are highlighted for their negative impact.

Galen starts this work with the assumption that the dream testifies the mood of the body, so that he matches the types of humors with the dreaming representations, citing general examples.

Subsequently, the author analyzed the impact of daily events. It is mainly pathologic conditions in the body that occur during sleep, resulting in the patient experiencing the dream and being able to realize it when he wakes up. Therefore, divination plays only a secondary role (Galenus Med. De dignotione ex insomniis 6.833.7–18).

(Source: “Dreams in ancient Greek Medicine”, by K. Laios et al., 2016)

Mind Burst

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Maximus E. Niles

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