Peter Struck

Andrew W. Mellon Penn Faculty Fellow in the Humanities

20042005 Forum on Sleep and Dreams

Peter Struck

Assistant Professor, Classical Studies

Natural Supernaturalism: Ancient Explanations of Dream Divination

Ancient theorists who try to explain divination by dreams consistently investigate their physical selves. Plato tells us that the gods communicate to us in dreams by reaching into the very center of the body cavity. In numerous classical accounts, including those by Synesius, Aelius Aristides, Cicero, Artemidorus, and Macrobius, dreams consistently bring about a conversation between the gods and our physical natures. The dream then stands as a remarkably durable bridge between human bodies and human aspirations for the divine—the very bookends of imagined human identity. 

Why should theories generated to explain divination by dreams over-represent physicalist solutions? Prof. Struck explains this using a three-fold approach. On a phenomenological level, dreams are so intimate an experience as to call for body-centered explanations. They are deeply personal experiences that cannot be shared and seem to provoke thoughts on the human self. Second, longstanding uses of dreams in medicine are a contributing factor, and divinatory theories are following the pull of the medical texts. Third, and most important, dreams belong to a small class of divination methods with a unique character. Only dreams, along with inspired oracles, counted as “non-technical” forms. They were thought to arise from direct inspiration. In the “technical” varieties, by contrast, the divine communicated through a non-human a medium (a sacrificial liver, for example), which then provoked the practitioner to engage in an interpretive art.