A Psychological Study of Dreams in Hellenistic Poetry

Citation with persistent identifier: Karamitsou, Dimitra. “A Psychological Study of Dreams in Hellenistic Poetry.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:BoufalisD.A_Psychological_Study_of_Dreams_in_Hellenistic_Poetry.2019


The aim of my paper is to examine the dreams in Hellenistic poetry and to decode them based on the dreamers’ internal world, as this is represented by the poet. In Homer, dreams are presented as the gods’ will and they are a useful instrument for predicting the future. Contrary to the Homeric dream’s divine origin, the motivation of dreams in Hellenistic poetry seems to be more psychological. The human mind and soul are the key factors in the creation of dreams, whereas the gods and any external and supernatural power play less important role.


In my paper, I study three Hellenistic dreams. In particular, I identify and analyze the dreamers’ sensations during dreaming. Then I study to what extent sensations experienced in dreams and the content of the vision dream itself are affected by the characters’ general psychological state and how the characters’ emotions after dreaming are shaped by the dream. Finally, I examine if and to what extent the emotions generated by the dream contribute to the development of the poetic plot.

The first dream that I study is Medea’s dream in The Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius. Medea is the protagonist, who experiences an emotional dilemma. The development of the poetic facts depends to a great extent on her final decision. Her emotional conflict is depicted exceptionally vividly through her dream. Medea’s dream is mainly a manifestation of her emotional disposition. Concerning her already existing emotions before sleeping, the adjective ἀκηχεμένην (618) reveals a woman who is in a situation of deep grief. Sleep initially effects beneficially and relaxing on Medea’s psychology (616-617). Erotic desire, fear and shame are her prevailing emotions which draw and determine the poetic facts. Her psychological dilemma is apparent also in her dream as well, which is characterized explicitly as a nightmare (618). Essentially, her dream echoes the situation that Medea lives in reality. Medea dreams of Jason coming to Aietes’ city not in order to take the Golden Fleece, but because he wants to drive Medea to his home as a bride. Her reactions after her awakening are of particular interest. Medea wakes up screaming and looking anxious around her chamber (632-634). Medea, after her awakening, is in a situation of despair and great uncertainty, thinking about the possible negative consequences that the strangers may have to her life (637-638). The main psychological dilemma continues to be apparent. The heroine is torn between love (638) and shame (649), desire (653) and fear (637). We remark that the emotions after awakening are the same with the emotions before her dream.The basic difference is the fact that her emotions become more externalized after her sleep.

Based on this last statement, we can characterize Medea’s emotions as a whole a mental process rather than bodily reactions. When we talk about emotions in the case of Medea, we usually mean deep, complicate intellectual processes without specific bodily or linguistic expressions. Medea experiences her emotions internally and does not dare to express them not even to herself. Her dream is the initial manifestation of all these oppressed emotions. Just after her dream, Medea screams, cries and collapses physically and emotionally. Regarding the poetic role which the dream is called to serve, there is a disagreement among the modern scholars. The main question which arises is if Medea’s dream can be characterized predictive or its role is restricted only to bringing to light the heroine’s oppressed emotions. According to the poetic plot, Medea finally helps Jason and abandons her parents. There are, however, ambiguities regarding the predictive nature of the dream, because Medea is presented as wanting to help Jason before her dream. So we cannot claim that her dream predicts the poetic future.

The second dream that I study is the one we encounter in Moschus’ epyllion Europa. The epyllion incorporates all the characteristic Callimachean features one of which is the intense sentimentality and the psychological plausibility. Indeed Moschus’ Europa is a very sensual poem as senses seem to have a very prominent role. The references to Europa’s sensations are apparent from the beginning of the poem (3-4). Just after the positive effect of sleep on Europa’s psychology, a strange vision makes its appearance. We notice, particularly, the sweet timbre that the dream has on the girl, just before the dream vision generates her subsequent emotional turmoil (16-27). During the dream senses of displeasure result from references such as περιίσχετο (11), which coexist with a simultaneous sense of desire, as results from line 14. Once the dreaming vision has disappeared, Europa finds herself terrified (16). Her fear is physically expressed as it seems from the reference to her heart (17). Without being able to understand the meaning of her dream, Europa feels confused and nervous (20-24). At the same time, for all these negative emotions, Europa is overwhelmed by a positive emotion, the desire (πόθος) for the one of the two women (25), with whom she felt an intimate connection.

Generally, we notice that there is interplay between senses and emotions. Senses are the physical sensations, whereas emotions are not only bodily sensations but also involve the mental process. Consequently, we would support the view that during her dream Europa experiences only senses, because reason is absent, whereas after her awakening, her senses become emotions, because her mental processes start to function. Europa’s emotions stop being incomprehensible for her, when she is confronted with the reality. We find connections, regarding the emotions, between the dream and the subsequent poetic events. Indeed the emotions that Europa experiences after her dream are to a great extent similar to the emotions Europa is going to experience during her future meeting with the bull.

Another Hellenistic dream with psychological references is the dream of Alcmene in Moschus’ epyllion, entitled Megara. In Megara we encounter two passionate lamentations, performed by Heracles’ wife and mother respectively. In particular, Heracles’ wife, Megara, mourns for the dreadful killing of his own sons by their father, whereas Heracles’ mother, Alcmene, mourns for the threatening fate. In Megara the prevailing emotion of sorrow is expressed through two different points of views, which are about two different times. Studying these two different points of views, we conclude that the poet intends to emphasize the view pertaining to the future. We notice that the dream is not sent as a divine message by a god, but it derives from Alcmene’s heart. Regarding Alcmene’s emotional state before the dream, Alcmene is deeply saddened by the events that preceded and have just been narrated by Megara. Her grief is manifested physically through the tears running on her cheeks (59). Therefore, the dream manifests itself as the result of her emotional state. Her dream is clearly a nightmare (92). Firstly, we note the sweet feeling of sleep that occupies Alcmene (91), shortly before the dream episode begins to unfold. The dream is a nightmare, as is proved by the line 92. Her awakening takes place at the most crucial moment of the dream, when her fear and agony are at their peak. Alcmene is crying, externalizing in this way her fear physically (119-120). This fear is the only reference to dream’s potential impact, as we have no information about the role that the dream eventually plays in the development of the poetic plot. In essence, the epyllion is completed with the description of the dream. From other mythological sources, however, we know that events actually are developed according to Alcmene’s dream.

The conclusions from my study are as follows: Regarding the heroines’ feelings during their sleep, I notice that in all three cases the sleep at first has a positive effect on the dreamer’s psychology. After that positive feeling, negative senses of fear, anxiety and grief mainly conquer the three dreamers. Regarding the general psychological disposition of the sleepers’ pre dreaming, I observe that emotions before dreaming to a great extent are relative to the sensations during the dream and also affect the shape of the dream vision. Regarding the emotions after the dream, I remark that they are merely identical in all three cases. Regarding the role that the dreams are called to serve in the development of the poetic plot, I notice that each dream plays its own role.

Given the relationship between characters’ psychology and the content of Hellenistic dreams one wonders if and to what extent we could apply modern psychoanalytical theories to the interpretation of these dreams. One of the most important modern theories is Freud’s dream theory as it is described in his work entitled The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Is using Freudian dream theory to better understand Hellenistic dreams anachronistic? Some scholars believe that we should avoid imposing modern Freudian theories on Hellenistic dreams. However, the application of modern psychoanalytical theory can be a useful tool in our interpretation. Freudian theories give us the opportunity to approach the Hellenistic dreams through a modern perspective giving an additional clarity to our attempt to understand and interpret them.

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