Mediterranean peoples: Artemidoros theorizes foreign elements in dreams (second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Mediterranean peoples: Artemidoros theorizes foreign elements in dreams (second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified October 13, 2022,

Author: Artemidoros of Daldis, Interpretation of Dreams, or Oneirokritika 1.8; 1.53; 2.3 (link to full translation; link to Greek text).

Comments: Artemidoros’ second-century guidebook on the interpretation of dreams illustrates well just how widespread an awareness of the differences among peoples was both for intellectuals like Artemidoros and for the populace whose dreams he discusses. Moreover, ethnographic knowledge forms an important basis for his method of dream interpretation. Artemidoros is very attentive to the specific life situations of dreamers in interpreting their dreams, and this includes the customs of the dreamers.  So the question of ancestral customs specific to particular peoples, and therefore to dreamers, is important to his overall method.

Furthermore, Artemidoros is aware of the ongoing theme of foreignness that recurs within the dreams of individuals in the Mediterannean world, including performing foreign customs, dreaming about speaking foreign languages, and wearing foreign clothing. All of this points to the numerous ways and settings in which the ethnographic imagination manifested itself.

Source of the translation: Translation by Harland.


Book 1

[Methodological distinction between common human customs and specific, “ethnic” customs as they appear in dreams]

8 Furthermore, common customs (ethē) differ greatly from specific ones. Unless one examines them closely, he will be deceived by them. First of all, the common customs are these: to revere the gods and to honour them. No people (ethnos) is without gods, just as there is none without a ruler, and each honours different gods but all honours are directed towards the same referent. So these are the common customs: to raise children, to yield to women and to have sexual intercourse with them, to be awake in the day, to sleep at night, to eat food, to cease from grieving, to live indoors and not in the open air.

We also call the specific customs “ethnic” (ethnika). For example, among the Thracians, the children of the elites are tattooed and slaves are tattooed among the Getians (Getai) [often, though not here, thought to be a sub-set of Thracians]. The former live near the constellation of the Bear and the latter at Mid-Day. The Mossynians (Mossynes; likely the same as the Mossynoikians) in the Pontic region have sexual intercourse in public and have sex just like dogs do, but for other men these things are considered dishonourable. Everyone eats fish except the Syrians who worship Astarte [i.e. Ashtart]. Also, the sons of the Egyptians are alone in honouring and revering wild animals and all kinds of venomous snakes as images (eidōla) of gods, but no one else does the same. Now I have learned about something in Italy that is an ancient custom: The Italians do not kill vultures and consider those who attack them as impious. In Ionia the boys among the Ephesians voluntarily compete against bulls, as do “Athenian youths as years go round” in Attica for the spectacles in Eleusis, as do the most elite among the settlers in Larissa, a city in Thessaly. In the rest of the inhabited world, however, bullfights are characteristic of those who have been condemned to death.

So it is likewise necessary to comprehend all other customs on a case-by-case basis, depending on whether something is maintained only by a certain population, because customs belonging to one’s native (egkōria) land signify positive outcomes, but foreign (xenika) customs signify negative outcomes, unless some other specific thing present in the dream causes a different outcome. . . . [further discussion omitted about the importance of people’s daily customs for the interpretation of dreams].


[Significance of reference to language and letters in dreams]

53 To learn the letters when one does not already know them foretells for the one who observes this in a dream some future positive outcome accompanied by toil and fear. . . . But if they, having already learned their letters, learn them again, it is necessary to regard this as bad and harmful. . . . And if someone who is Roman learns Greek letters or someone who is Greek learns Roman letters, that person will engage in Greek activities and the other Roman activities. In fact, many Roman men have married Greek women and Greek men married Roman women after having observed a dream like this. I also know about someone who dreamed that he learned Roman letters and was condemned to be a slave, because a slave is not taught Greek.

If a person dreams that he is reading barbarian letters well and fluently, this means that he will go into barbarian lands and engage in barbarian activities and do something brilliant there. But if he is reading foreign letters poorly it means he will go away to the barbarians and be treated badly, or that one who is suffering from a illness will be driven mad because of the foreign speech [i.e. inability to communicate]. If someone is not able to read or write specific particular letters in a dream, he will be unsuccessful. If he is not able to read or write just a few letters, the lack of success will last for a few days, but if it’s many letters, for months. . . [further discussion of the meaning of letters in dreams omitted].


Book 2

[Meaning of clothing and wearing foreign clothing in dreams]

3 Wearing barbarian clothing and dressing like a barbarian means that the dreamer will spend happy days wherever people wear this sort of clothing. This often also predicts that one will live life where people wear that sort of clothing. But for others it means disease or inaction. A specific piece of Roman clothing means the same things. The garment called a tebennos from Temenos of Arkadia, who first wore his cloak in this way when he sailed for the Ionian gulf and was received by the inhabitants. After the inhabitants learned the style from him, the inhabitants dressed in the same way and called the garment “temeneion” based on the name of Temenos, its inventor. Later on, the name was corrupted and it was called a “tebennos.” . . . [further discussion of the meaning of clothing in dreams omitted].

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