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Book Forum: Sleep and Dreaming   |    
Dream Cultures: Explorations in the Comparative History of Dreaming
MONTAGUE ULLMAN, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2001;158:1546-1547. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.158.9.1546
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Ardsley, N.Y.

Edited by David Shulman and Guy G. Strommer. New York, Oxford University Press, 1999, 325 pp., $45.00.

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This book is written by scholars immersed in the cultures of antiquity and the medieval epoch. The disciplines represented include comparative literature, comparative religion, classics, Jewish studies, anthropology, Native American studies, folklore, and mythology. The book is addressed primarily to scholars in these fields. It is not an easy read. This is not said to alarm you but to alert you to the fact that the level and at times abstract quality of the discourse requires some getting used to by the nonspecialist. The contributors, understandably working with primary sources, have found it necessary to resort to the original language where any translation would fail to convey the precise meaning. This is well and good, and for the most part the translation and the context suffice. In a few instances, however, the original Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, German, and French stand alone and the context is not quite sufficient. This is a minor irritant in a text that succeeds memorably in depicting the interpenetrability of dreams and culture.

In contrast to an earlier generation of cultural anthropologists who, captured by the fervor of Freudian theory, studied dreams of primitive cultures for the light they shed on the evolution of character structure in a given society, this text explores the way dreams are shaped by different religious world views at given moments in history.

In my attempt to convey the amount of information in this densely written volume, I am going to consider it under three headings: the search for transcendence, the nature of the forces at work in shaping dream content, and, finally, the permeability between the personal and the social significance of dreams.

Ever since mankind made a forced exit from the Garden of Eden, there has been a search for a transcendental metaphysic within which answers could be found to the mystery of one’s existence. The 16 chapters in this book focus on the important role played by dreams in relating to a domain larger than the physical self, one linking the individual to the powers that control his or her fate. The dream as an imperative, involuntary, spontaneous, intrusive event, often strange and bizarre, was a natural vehicle available to support an overarching explanatory metaphysic. By its very nature, the dream offered a way of transcending the limitations of the physical self. With the negation of the personal subjective pole of the dream, the external or objective pole became the playground of gods endowed with revelatory powers. The result was a mythology concordant with the personal content of the dream. One looks to the gods for the answers.

Religious belief formed the basis of dream interpretation, particularly during the classical period of ancient Greece but also lingering on to the Middle Ages. The Oneirocritica of Artemidorus (second century A.D.) is the most complete narrative account to come down to us from the Greeks. It offers both a system of classification and a guide to interpretation. Tertullian (second century A.D.) was the counterpart of Artemidorus in Rome, where dreams did not receive as respectful an audience as they did in Greece. Dreams were peopled by disembodied souls set free wandering about on their own, often in the company of souls of the departed. In polytheistic religions, the soul served as an intermediary between the gods and the physical self in the effort to achieve a balance between the cosmic and the individual.

As monotheistic religions took over in the Middle Ages, particularly as Christianity took a central role, the division between good and evil became more clear-cut. Dreams were regarded as divine manifestations much as visions were. In the case of dreams, however, there was the likelihood of satanic influences shaping the imagery. Ecclesiastical authorities, ever on the alert for evil influences, bore down on the growing popular interest in dreams, a trend that ultimately led to the Inquisition and the persecution of witches. The Church assumed the role of censor of the dream.

The central point of this volume is the way dreams articulate with culture. Ancient Greece was the classical example of this meld. The dream was an objective entity closely knit into the fabric of society as ritual, folklore, and religion. Dreams provided access to the gods and to their prophetic power just as did the different socially sanctioned mantic practices. The ancients failed to develop the internal or subjective pole of the dream by embedding the dream in their religious belief system, but, by our focus on the subjective pole, we isolated dreams from their roots in society. Dreams contain social as well as personal referents. The former address the unresolved problems of society, such as sexism, racism, etc., to the extent that they seep into the subjective domains and influence behavior. The concept of the superego as internalized social values was not an invitation to further explore the foundations of society. In a way, we have been as one-sided about dreams as the ancients were.

For anyone with a serious interest in dreams and with enough humility to realize that the clinical significance of the dream is only one facet of dreaming consciousness, this volume will unveil a past where dreams served a legitimate and important social function. In that respect, we live in a dream-deprived society.

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