From the Iliad to Aristophanes, from the gospel of Matthew to Augustine, Greek and Latin texts are constellated with descriptive images of dreams. Some are formulaic, others intensely vivid. The best ancient minds—Plato, Aristotle, the physician Galen, and others—struggled to understand the meaning of dreams.
With Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity the renowned ancient historian William Harris turns his attention to oneiric matters. This cultural history of dreams in antiquity draws on both contemporary post-Freudian science and careful critiques of the ancient texts. Harris traces the history of characteristic forms of dream-description and relates them both to the ancient experience of dreaming and to literary and religious imperatives. He analyzes the nuances of Greek and Roman belief in the truth-telling potential of dreams, and in a final chapter offers an assessment of ancient attempts to understand dreams naturalistically.
How did dreaming culture evolve from Homer’s time to late antiquity? What did these dreams signify? And how do we read and understand ancient dreams through modern eyes? Harris takes an elusive subject and writes about it with rigor and precision, reminding us of specificities, contexts, and changing attitudes through history.
With dreams, Harris has come into a world of mirrors and uncertainties, where traditional boundaries between truth and fantasy, reality and fiction, reportage and invention have all but disappeared. I cannot think of any other ancient historian who would have dared to undertake a book like this. Its undoubted success is due as much to the clear thinking and crisp exposition of the author as to the vast erudition that underlies it.
In Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity, William Harris takes on the whole culture of ancient dreaming with characteristic wit and erudition, against a background of modern scientific, psychological and psychoanalytical theories. His wide learning gives him the ability to see the important intellectual contributions made by some ancient theorists even as he goes against the grain of contemporary thought. This is classic Harris.
The 5th century BC Greek philosopher Empedocles famously proposed that dreams dealt with "the day's residue." In his wonderful Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity, W. V. Harris describes the ancient world's fascination with the phenomenon.
- 352 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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