Interpreting Byzantine Dream Narratives
Workshop participants, from left to right: Columba Stewart, Steven Oberhelman, J. Allan Hobson, Aglae Pizzone, Barbara Tedlock, Andrei Timotin, Christine Angelidi, George Calofonos, Catia Galatariotou, Susan Ashbrook Harvey.
From 8-10 November Byzantine Studies held a workshop on the (mis)interpretation of Byzantine dream narratives. The study of dreaming in Byzantium is in its infancy. There exists a corpus of dream-books, and studies on dream treatises, but the study of dream narratives has hardly begun, despite the ground-breaking database initiative of the Institute of Byzantine Studies in Athens.
In different societies, dreams can be many things: a view into the future, a manifestation of the past, a means of approaching the divine, a mechanism for healing, a plot device, a medieval cinema, a complex means of communication, or an alternative plane of existence. We have simply not determined which of these are pertinent to Byzantium. We invited a sleep-scientist, a psychoanalyst, an anthropologist, the directors of the database, and experts in phantasia, dreams and prophecy, and Byzantine dream-theory. We did not ask them to give papers (though some explained their methodology), but to respond to dream narratives presented by philologists, historians and art historians in the audience. In fact there was no audience, since almost everyone presented a dream as well as responding to dreams brought by others. We read an amazing array of dreams, visions, fantasies in histories, letters, saints’ lives, miracle collections, manuscript illuminations and monumental art. We compared the narratives with ascetic theory and with alien abduction accounts. We saw dreams as homosocial communication, as plot devices, as releasers of emotion, as validation for political acts, as pointers to court allegiances. Debates raged on Freudian and other approaches, on terminology, and on the relationship between dreams and the text. We decided that we were at the beginning, rather than the end, of something and hope to draw others into our discussion, which we shall carry out on the web. Watch our website for the appearance of the dream-narratives!