The connection between dreams and desire is something that is accepted in today’s post-Freudian world. However, for Byzantine Christians to come to terms with illicit dream images, without the benefit of a theory of the unconscious, was a different matter entirely.
Dreams, Memory and Imagination in Byzantium (Volume 24 in Brill’s Byzantina Australiensia series) grew out of papers offered at the 19th Biennial Conference of the Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, on February 24-26, 2017, at Monash University Law Chambers in Melbourne. Selected and revised conference papers have been supplemented by others to cover the volume’s three-fold theme. Our contributors come from the United States, Israel, Italy, Australia, and New Zealand, and our sources stretch from Byzantine Greek and Latin to Hebrew, Arabic, and Armenian.
Overview of the Volume
Monastic writings from Egypt, Gaza, and Sinai indicate the practical challenges that dreams posed to Eastern monks in their attempts to implement ideals of purity in their ascetic regimen. The Eastern tradition of Evagrius of Pontus was mediated to the West by John Cassian of Marseilles, among others. Although the classical background to the notion of “yearning for the divine” in Cassian and other writers of the Western Christian tradition has attracted an impressive amount of scholarship, the oneirological theories of ancient philosophers and their influence on Byzantine thought have been given considerably less attention. This is the subject of Part 1 of the book.
Three of our authors deal with homoerotic imagery: first of monastic dreams (Inbar Graiver); second, the dreams and fantasies described in the letters between an emperor and a favoured monk (Mark Masterson); and third, in Symeon the New Theologian’s hymns, where the divine is addressed as a male lover (Derek Krueger). Each author shows that dreams and fantasies held an ambiguous place in Byzantine literature. Were they simply metaphors of human and divine longing, or something more?
Dreams and visions also played an important role in Byzantine historiography, where they could be used to move the narrative along or signal plot changes, operating in a similar way as in the Byzantine novel. Dreams were particularly useful for promoting dynastic succession: they could be used to legitimate unpopular or morally suspect actions and events in the imperial sphere, such as violent regime change.
Their other literary functions included authenticating prophetic traditions, revealing divine intervention in history, and establishing the authority of the chronicler. In Part 2, we present four chapters on prophetic dreams in court poetry and historiography.
Part 3 contains three chapters concerning dreams and other portents in Byzantine and Islamic universal chronicles.
The final part of the volume deals with religious commemorations of saints and the sacred, in hagiography and liturgy. As we saw in the previous chapters, imagination interacts with both dreams and memory in curious ways, especially when it comes to creative remembering of the saints. A common theme in the first three chapters here is repurposing: the use and reuse of commemorative texts and objects in different contexts through time. In the final chapter Derek Krueger, rather than focusing on Symeon’s sexualised spirituality, investigates the impact of the erotic imagination on Symeon’s theology and self-understanding.
The full table of contents can be viewed and the volume ordered on the Brill website.
Bronwen Neil is Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University in Sydney and holds a Senior Future Fellowship on “Dreams, Prophecy and Violence from Early Christianity to the Rise of Islam.” She holds a PhD in Medieval Latin and History from Australian Catholic University in Brisbane. View her Academia profile here.
Eva Anagnostou-Laoutides is Associate Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University in Sydney and holds a Senior Future Fellowship on “The History of Inebriation and Reason from Plato to the Latin Middle Ages.” She holds a PhD in Classics from the University of Kent in Canterbury UK.