A new edition of Artemidorus’ Oneirocritica

Daniel E. Harris-McCoy, Artemidorus’ Oneirocritica: Text, Translation, and Commentary.

Artemidorus was a working interpreter of dreams who wrote the five books of this treatise over a period some time in the mid-2nd to early 3rd century. This is the only surviving manual from antiquity on the interpretation of dreams, though Artemidorus himself mentions others, and belongs to that fascinating class of texts that are technical and compilatory in nature (as also, for instance, the physiognomic treatises). In this hefty volume (ix+584 pp.) Harris-McCoy offers an introduction, revised critical text with facing translation, and commentary on the extensive treatise. Harris-McCoy for the most part follows Pack’s 1963 Teubner edition on the basis of the two extant Greek manuscripts, though in 1964 a third manuscript in Arabic was published by Toufic Fahd, and Pack himself made a number of suggestions for emendation to the text in subsequent publications. These and a few others have been taken up in the present edition, which lists differences from the Teubner text on pp. 559-62.

Harris-McCoy offers a learned introduction in which he sets the treatise in its context, discussing its composition, purpose, and arrangement, and locating it at the fuzzy intersection between philosophy and science, encyclopedism and allegorism. The treatise itself ranges from the theoretical to the practical, with many different types of examples. Artemidorus is particularly concerned with the oneiros, the dream that is significant of things in the future, rather than the enhypnion which arises merely from the present. The oneiros, in turn, can be directly predictive or allegorical, and it is particularly the allegorical oneiroi that stand in need of interpretation. Sometimes the language is generalizing: ‘And preserved foods and all salted meats [and fish] signify (σημαίνει) delays and deferrals in the matters at hand. For they will be retained for a long time because of the salt.’ (1.71). At other times, as in most of Book 5, we have a long record of actual dreams and their outcomes: ‘A certain man imagined that he lit a lamp using the moon. He became blind. For he received his light from a source by which one cannot light anything. And, differently put, they say that the moon does not have its own light’ (5.11). The interpretations are notable for taking into account the status and position of the dreamer, as well as local customs. This suggests a certain polysemy that requires the good interpreter of dreams to practice an art of applying the theories that Artemidorus promotes.

Though the process of dream interpretation described in the treatise differs from what we see operative in the New Testament, this treatise offers a fascinating window into widespread (though not uncontroversial) beliefs about the nature of dreams as signifying events. One need only consider the dreams in the Matthean infancy narratives (1:20; 2:12, 13, 19, 22; cf. 27.19) – or, indeed, the dreams in Genesis, Judges or Daniel – to see a similar set of beliefs in action. In this way, while the Oneirocritica cannot be used as direct evidence for first century thought on dreams, it offers a window into a type of mindset that would have certainly been operative in the reception, if not the creation, of the biblical texts.

Harris-McCoy has done a real service in rendering Artemidorus’ treatise immediately available to a new generation in facing page Greek and English. His orientating introduction and full notes will be of much use to interpreters seeking to make sense of a treatise that is equally fascinating and puzzling.

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