Saint Francis of Assisi

Christian attitudes towards dreams

     In the New Testament, it was through a dream that Joseph was told to keep Mary as his wife despite her pregnancy and to give her son the name "Jesus". The wise men from the East were warned via a dream not to return to Herod and Joseph and Mary were warned to flee Israel and head for Egypt by means of the same agency. Pilate's wife warned her husband to have nothing to do with the death of Jesus because of a troubling dream she had had (which shows again that such dreams are given to everyone).

     Following the death of Christ, dreams continued to play a role in the Church. Constantine and St. Augustine were both converted to Christianity as a result of their dreams (Hiestand, 1994, pp. 52 - 53). While it was believed that dreamers could have experiences of the divinity in their dreams, it was also held that "our irrational emotional experiences could erupt in dreams." In the 4th century, Gregory of Nyssa wrote that some seemed to be more privileged with divine revelations in their dreams than others and St. John Chrysostom of Constantinople "pointed out that the dreamer was not responsible for acts committed in dreams and should not feel disgraced by what he saw or guilty for what he did while dreaming" (Van de Castle, 1994, p. 74).

     Mention must also be made of Synesius of Cyrene who lived in the 5th century and was bishop of Ptolemais. He wrote a short book with the title On Dreams, which as Morton Kelsey wrote, is "the most thoughtful and sophisticated consideration of dreams to be found until we come to the modern studies of Freud and Jung" (Kelsey, 1968, p. 142). Synesius praised dreams for all the possibilities they offered, ranging from "converse with the stars" to understanding the bleatings of sheep. He suspected they were the source of much in myth, but were also influenced by our emotions. He was in favor of using dreams for divination and for problem solving. He even claimed his dreams helped him write his books. According to Van de Castle, "Synesius warns against resorting to dream books for help in understanding the dreams of a given individual, because each person has such a diversity of 'imaginative spirit'". He also encouraged the use of dream journals. It is a shame that while he was respected in the Eastern church, he was completely ignored in Western Christianity and a useful translation into English of his work was not made until 1930 (Van de Castle, 1994, pp. 75 - 77).

     It seems the attitude towards dreams in western Christianity was heavily influenced by St. Jerome who lived in the 4th century and was head of a monastic community in Bethlehem. It was he who created the Vulgate Bible which became the authorized version in the Roman Church from the Council of Trent (1545 - 1563) down to Vatican II (1965). Even though his zeal for Christianity came from an important dream he had had, he apparently changed his attitude towards dreams later on. According to Van de Castle, Jerome for some reason deliberately mistranslated the Hebrew word anan (which in other places he translated correctly as "witchcraft" or "practicing divination") as "observing dreams". Thus passages prohibiting the practice of witchcraft and divination (e.g. Lev 19:26 and Deut 18:10) became prohibitions against paying attention to dreams and this "changed the course of Christian belief and practice regarding dreams" in the western world (Van de Castle, 1994, p. 79). This has been corrected, though, in the Jerusalem Bible, available in English since 1966 and now widely accepted in the Roman Catholic Church.

     In Western Europe during the middle ages, dream interpretation was monopolized by the Roman Catholic church. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great, following a line taken by Saint Augustine, declared there to be two categories of dreams, the somnium coeleste and the somnium naturale and only monks and priests (and possibly kings) were considered competent for distinguishing between the two types. The former were divine revelations, while the latter arose from the dreamer's own psychology (or were even diabolical) and were thus not very important (Hiestand, 1994, pp. 54 - 55).

     That dreams were still regarded as quite important in the middle ages, though, can be seen in the life of St. Francis from Assisi (1181 - 1226) as well as Pope Innocent III, who dreamed that St. Francis would save the church. There was an important dream manual composed by Macrobius (a contemporary of Jerome's) called A Commentary of the Dream of Scipio which was quite influential. It is also known that St. Thomas of Aquinas concerned himself with dreams and, despite a critical attitude towards them, even had quite an important dream himself (Van de Castle, 1994, pp. 80 - 81).

     Macrobius based his work on that of Artemidorus but, unfortunately, included two new dream categories, namely nightmares and apparitions. In the latter, he spoke about the incubus, a male demon who seduced women, and the succubus, which afflicted male dreamers. The stage was thus set for a preoccupation with demonology during the middle ages which even influenced Protestant writers like Martin Luther and the Calvinist Gaspar Peucer. Something of the negative attitude towards dreams may be detected in the works of Sigmund Freud and even in the stance taken towards such matters during the Nazi regime in Germany (Van de Castle, 1994, pp. 81 - 85).

     Despite discouragement from the church and its clergy, dream manuals were often very popular among the rank and file and were among the first books printed after the Bible. One source has it that "they were reprinted or copied by hand. Obviously, the old expressions were often misunderstood or simply altered by printing errors. Thereby all sorts of curious nonsense arose, which we descendants understand falsely and which were confusing for our ancestors: this didn't disturb them greatly, though - one assumed that a dream book must have almost as many levels as the dream itself" (Golowin, 1987, pp. 122 - 123) (translation from the German by AF).

     This account continues, "'One should not possess only one dream book' was the general conviction. As one is still told, such writings were bedroom accessories: often one had an entire little library of them on the night table! If one awakened, they were consulted before the strange dream images 'flowed away and were forgotten' in the light of the new day." The writer notes that the ones that were the most trusted were those said to be the most ancient. Some claimed to have been written by the Biblical patriarchs themselves or by Greeks, Egyptians, Chaldeans, Arabians, Persians or Indians.

     In the 18th century, according to the same author, such dream manuals were made fun of as "old wives' libraries" because women still liked to consult them. Around Bern, on the other hand, rural midwives were steeped in the knowledge of dreams, especially those which might foretell if the baby was to be male or female.

Previous section   Next section   List of sections   List of chapters