Are Epiphany Dreams Found only in the Past?

The Bryn Mawr Classical Review’s book-review feed recently served up a review of William V. Harris’s Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity
The reviewer writes,

Some combination of [cultural expectations, generic demands, and the imperatives of performance and publication.], Harris argues …  accounts for the relative frequency in antiquity of the epiphany dream, in which an authoritative figure visits the dreamer and makes a significant statement, and for its rarity in the post-Enlightenment West.

He goes on to argue that if readers say that they too have epiphany dreams, it don’t prove nuthin’:

No doubt some reader of this review is now saying, “But I had an epiphany dream just the other night!”  That is the problem with studying dreams:  one must work hard to free oneself from dependence on anecdote and from the powerful attraction that dreams have for those who dream them.  Appealing to concepts of “selfhood” or “personality” will only reinforce these tendencies by compelling the question, “What does this dream tell us about you?”  Harris chooses instead to concentrate on ancient descriptions of dreams and reports of actions based on them.  This is a book about dreaming, not about dreams; that is, about behavior and experience in antiquity, not about the ancient self.

If I tell it, it’s only an “anecdote,” but if someone back then wrote it, it’s a “description” and thus useful? But if you act upon the advice of the dream, does that count?

“Epiphany dreams” are not common, but when you have one, you know it.

My example (oops, an ancedote!) was a dream that–at a time when I was not consciously thinking about it–told me to quit my job and go to graduate school in religious studies.

When I awoke with the dream-voice echoing in my ears, I knew that “some god or daemon” had spoken. I immediately started researching university programs, thinking without irony that now I knew what was meant in those biblical accounts of “the Lord spake unto Abraham” or whomever.

Someone or something sure enough spake unto me, and I knew I had to follow the instructions. Or else.

Anyone else had a real epiphany dream? Show of hands? Yes, I thought so.

As to the academic study, there is, I have learned, an almost-complete disconnect between the academic study of ancient Paganism and the study of contemporary polytheism, Paganism, etc.

The former people are mostly in Classics and history, they have an academic heritage a couple of centuries old, and they publish in their own journals, attend their own conferences, and so on.

The latter field only began to take shape in the 1990s.

Some study of ancient Pagan religion does sneak into the Society of Biblical Literature, and when the SBL goes back to having its annual meeting together with the American Academy of Religion’s meeting in 2011, maybe, just maybe, there might some crossover.

3 Comments

  1. Erik says:

    That is the problem with studying dreams: one must work hard to free oneself from dependence on anecdote

    Without anecdote, what IS there in that field? EEGs?

  2. Apuleius Platonicus says:

    Your dream, Chas, is very close to the one that saved Proclus from becoming a lawyer and set him on the righteous path of philosophy.

    It sounds like the scholar in question is simply echoing (uncritically) the basic gist of the Protestant Doctrine On the Cessation of Miracles and Spiritual Gifts.

  3. thehouseofvines says:

    That is almost verbatim the response I had when I read that review. I even considered posting about it. Dreams play a vitally important part of my spiritual life. Not only is that what kicked off my interest in polytheist religions, way back when I was still an adolescent, but I rely on them for guidance and instruction, and have done some important magical work through them. But eh, I guess that's just anecdotal, isn't it?

    What's even more absurd, of course, is that dreams are still an important part of Christianity. Several denominations were founded in the 19th century, and I used to know a bunch of evangelical and charismatic Christians who very strongly believed that their god spoke to them through dreams, including predicting future events. So, even if he wants to discount dreams with Pagan deities since they belong to a "dead religion" I wonder what he makes of that. To say nothing of the prominence that Jung placed on them. Hell, his (auto)biography is called Memories, Dreams, Reflections.