Volume 4, issue 1 (summer 1996)
Distinguishing between dreams and visions in ninth-century
by Margaret Kenny
Today the dream and the vision have acquired definitions that
distinguish them as wholly separate phenomena. The dream is an
internalized experience that occurs during sleep,1 while the vision
is a waking event that is apparently perceived otherwise than by
ordinary sight.2 The question 'Can we distinguish between the
Byzantine dream and vision' then arises from a need to understand
their role in society. Byzantine oneirology suggests dreams and
visions are hierarchically structured, each having a defined
function and, from this, a role in society. A review of
ninth-century hagiography, however, reveals that the dream and the
vision cannot always be so clearly distinguished.
The study of dreams falls into two areas, the study of dream
interpretation and the study of dreams. I wish to obscure, a
little, the demarcation lines between the two, for I wish to access
the content of the dream, without entering into a dialogue that
interprets the dream imagery, as a means of assessing its role. The
initial research was completed using the Dumbarton Oaks Hagiography
Database for the ninth century. It is designed to allow a
systematic search of a large number of Vitae for specific topics,
and I have located some 322 episodes from 58 vitae. I will look
closely at two of the episodes.
We cannot divorce ourselves from our own culture when examining
another, and our exploration of Byzantine material will necessarily
be conditioned by our own cultural world. That we should find their
dream and vision material perplexing is unsurprising for within the
last century there have been very many theories regarding our own
dreams, most of which disagree radically. Recently the trend of
dream study is one of fusion;3 of creating an inter-theoretical
discipline that enables the dream to be studied from a number of
perspectives. The theories that have influenced this paper are
Psychoanalysis,4 Analytical Psychology,5 Content
Analysis,6 Neuroscience,7 Lucid Dreaming8 and Cognitive
Psychology.9 On the surface they may appear incompatible
bed-fellows but they all seek a similar goal, which apart from
dream interpretation, is to understand the function of dreams and
to ascribe them a value. Such a fusion then facilitates an
inclusive classification of six dream-types. They are:
- Personal-mnemic - which includes everyday matters in the
- Medical-somatic - which includes those episodes related to the
workings of the body
- Prophetic - which present aspects of future events
- Archetypal-spiritual - in which the dreamer explores
existential questions, and which results in some transformation of
- Nightmares - with upsetting or frightening images
- Lucid dreams - in which the dreamer is aware of experiencing a
dream and then consciously alter the events.
Dreams are pan-cultural, however: while dreams may be universal
to humans,10 it does not follow that each culture will
assign the same value to each dream-type. Thus while the
personal-mnemic dream carries the greater influence within a
'western'11 culture, this should not be expected of other
cultures, present or historic.
All cultures appear to experience the same dream-types although
their emphasis of status is different. The Byzantine interest in
classifying the dream-vision experience is evidenced through the
continuous evolution of their oneirology.12 While it
evolved over the centuries, it maintained the division of phenomena
between the body/soul experience of the dream that occurred in
sleep, and the soul/divine communication of the vision that could
occur in either a state of sleep or wakefulness.13 The dream
experience was viewed as ambiguous, and yet, while considered
highly suspicious, dream interpretation, or oneiromancy, proved
The function of oneiromantic literature was to provide an
interpretation of the dream. This was achieved through the analysis
of the dream imagery in conjunction with the social status,
economic activity and gender of the dreamer. The resulting
interpretations centre entirely on the secular and physical
elements of the individual - that is their health, wealth and
status. Any figures that populated these dreams, known or
fictitious, or alive or dead, sent messages that were related to
the daily activities of the dreamer. For example in the
Oneirokritikon of Nikephoros 'If you dream of seeing a
naked woman you will see your wife's grave'.15 Or in the
Oneirokritikon of Achmet 'if someone dreams that a
priest entered his house and fell asleep on his bed, he will become
friends with that man'.16 Oneirokritika are
orientated toward the personal-mnemic, and occasionally, medical
dream-types, and any elements of prophecy originate within a
body/soul context. Thus, as universal interpretations they would
not be applied to archetypal-spiritual episodes. References to
dream interpreters and dream-books are frequent, but not as being
used by the holy or the saint. There is never a suggestion that
they were used in a religious context.
To turn to the episodes. One is taken from the life of Niketas
of Medikion and one from the life of Theophano. Both of these
episodes involve a visitation. Neither the visitors nor the visited
are saints, but in each case a saint was the reason for the
episode. Thus while only indirectly involved, these holy figures
necessarily have an impact on the context and function of the
experience. Involving the saint elevates the episode from the level
of everyday considerations, to that which explores existential
concerns such as 'Who am I' and 'Where do I fit in relation to
society and the holy'. Thus they can be classified as
archetypal-spiritual episodes for they transform the material life
of the recipient as a direct result of the experience.
The episode from the life of Niketas is generally identified as
a dream, whilst the episode from the life of Theophano is
identified as a vision. The basis of this, and all such
identification, is the vocabulary used in these episodes.17
Modern definitions would have oneiros denote a dream that
occurs in sleep18 and hupar as a waking vision.19
However, I believe that things are not as clear cut as they may
first appear, and these two episodes have been chosen because they
highlight some of the difficulties involved when making such a
Niketas of Medikion20
In 813 Niketas of Medikion became the Hegoumenos of a Bithynian
monastery. During the persecutions by Leo V he was exiled but was
later recalled under Michael II. He died in 824. The dreamer is a
fellow monk, Nikolaos, who blaspheming against Niketas then
receives a dream.
'In a dream his own father (who died before this) stood near him
and threatened him. 'Withdraw' he said 'from the slaves of God',
thenceforth the unruly one behaved more sensibly, he no longer
annoyed the righteous one and even prevented others from doing
Theophano was the first wife of Leo VI. Chosen by brideshow and
married at fifteen, she was also imprisoned with Leo. She died aged
about thirty and after her death performed miracles for the family
of her Hagiographer.
In the life of Theophano the author tells us that at one hour
past noon, at the onset of sleep, 'In a vision Martin the
Artoklines approaches him' with a request that the author
write hymns praising her (Theophano's) miracles, when the author
professes his disinclination to do so, a long conversation between
the two ensues. 'How do you say you love me, but refuse these small
requests?' And to him I responded 'What are these, O revered
friend?' And he said; 'I said to praise the saint in different
hymns and as far as God will make it possible for you to tell, to
weave a canon to the glory of the Lord and to her honour and
remembrance'. I replied to him 'What basis of her virtues shall I
use? She possesses no ascetic pathway, no struggles of martyrdom,
display of miracles. I am at a loss what to say or write'. But he
said to me 'Because of God do not shrink away from this
undertaking, but taking paper and pen write what I tell you.'
Taking pen and at the same time paper, joyfully to him I said; 'Say
what you wish; I am ready to write as much as you address to me.'
He said to me; 'Do it as far as 'Christ set you in place for the
church as a luminous lantern which in times past served as a
guide''. And I awoke again, bearing in my memory the word which had
Specific vocabulary was available to the author from which to
create a particular environment for an episode. For the vision an
author could use hupar, optasia, apokalupsis,
chresmos, fainoo and ekstasis, and of the 322
episodes under investigation these appear in 52. Should the author
wish to emphasise the appearance of a messenger then fasma
and epifainoo were available, and these can be found in 54
of the episodes. For a dream environment, oneiros
establishes this context, and of the 322 episodes this is used in
72. If the author declines to be so specific, syntax is utilized to
create a more nebulous context that could be either dream or
vision. hupnos and koimaoo tell of sleep while
enupnios tells of an appearance in sleep. An alternative,
much favoured by authors, was to suggest sleep and then incorporate
words related to sight, such as horoo22 and even
blepoo.23 Very often to mix the context further, the
author can refine this technique by suggesting a dream environment
but incorporating specific vision vocabulary. For example a dream
in which an angel appears, as happens in the vita of David, Symeon
Therefore, even with the available vocabulary the distinction
between the dream and vision is not always entirely clear. This is
illustrated by the narratives from the vita of Niketas and of
Theophano. Each account creates a similar scene in which the
recipient is visited by a familiar figure who persuades him to
undertake a specific course of action. For Nikolaos this involves
the protection of Niketas from his adversaries, while our reluctant
Hymnographer is persuaded to take up his pen and write. This poses
the question: should these two be separately classified?
The building blocks of dreams
Apart from the vocabulary does the context create a distinction
between these phenomena? There are generally seven components,
which in any number of combinations will comprise the framework of
a narrative account.25 These are time, place, the mental state of
the recipient, the dream/vision figure, the message/scene, the
initial reaction to the episode and the action taken as a response
to it. These components provide the building blocks of the episode,
but only rarely supply evidence of its origin, and in our two
episodes not at all.
The time and place play only a minor role in setting the scene,
but if the remaining elements are ambiguous and the vocabulary
nebulous, this can play a deciding factor in determining what the
episode is. In the dream (oneirooi) of Nikolaos, we are
given no time or place of the episode. As a dream, this would imply
a night-time experience but the audience is left to infer this. As
for Theophano's reluctant Hymnographer, he tells us he receives his
vision at the onset of sleep, one hour after midday. However, the
vocabulary used is hupar and this is generally understood to
denote a waking-vision. Here the time and place only add more smoke
to an already cloudy issue.
The mental state of the recipient often holds a key to the
length and the detail of the episode, but alone it is insufficient
to determine the origin of it. Thus, while the audience is left to
ponder the depth of relationship between Nikolaos and his father,
it is the appearance of the father that suggests an origin of the
experience. The same can also be said of Theophano's disinclined
author. It is with the messenger in both of these episodes that the
demarcation lines begin to blur. We are told that Nikolaos has a
dream and that the Hymnographer has a vision, and yet they both
receive a visitation. The Hymnographer is able to identify his
visitor as Martin, uncle of Theophano and friend to himself. The
audience remain uninformed as whether he is alive or dead, but the
author makes the context clear. This is a vision. Nikolaos is also
able to identify his visitor, for it is his father. Moreover, the
audience are informed that he was dead when the communication took
place. As such, his journey must have commenced in either heaven or
hell. In light of the message - as a means of enabling the
protection of the blessed Niketas - this implies a heavenly origin.
As for the messages themselves, each has a similar purpose. In
both, the visitor commands a course of action be adopted which
ultimately the recipient carries out.
How then are these two episodes, and many more like them, to be
distinguished? Or can it be that they were not expected to be so
rigidly segregated? We must take seriously these narrative accounts
and their ability to be readily understood by their audience, both
in terms of content and function. Nikolaos and the Hymnographer
undergo a similar experience and therefore this implies the
accounts were expected to receive a similar reception.
These episodes function on several levels, but for each the role
is of validation. On one level they serve to validate a
transformation of behaviour by the recipient. For Nikolaos this
entails he not only desist in his slanderous activities, but that
he actively engage in protecting Niketas from others who continued
to attack him. For the reluctant Hymnographer the transformation
moves him from disbelieving inactivity to enthusiastic authorship
about Theophano. On another level they validate the saintliness of
Niketas and Theophano, while on a third level they validate the
cult that was to grow around them.
My review of ninth-century hagiography does not
confirm and maintain the theoretical structure of Byzantine
dream-vision classifications. Rather, syntax and content are used
in such a way as to blur these distinctions, creating a tension
between theoretical hypothesis and practical application. Authors
use dream vocabulary within contexts that are clearly vision
narratives. These episode are elevated above the value of the
everyday dream. Its content and context removes it from the level
of the personal-mnemic dream to that which Jung would have called a
'big dream'26 and that McFague would call a 'root-metaphor
dream',27 making them a religious experience or event.
In doing so the distinction between the dream and vision becomes so
blurred as to be lost altogether. The ultimate result of this
technique is that the personal internalized experience, that is,
the dream, is displaced. The vision has not merely become the more
important, it has become the prevailing experience in its relation
to the saint.
This paper was given as a communication at the thirtieth Spring
Symposium 'Byzantium dead or alive' at Birmingham in March
C. Rycroft, The innocence of dreams (London, 1979);
also J. Empson, Sleep and dreaming (London, 1989).
The new shorter english dictionary, ed. L. Brown
(Oxford, 1993), 3589.
K. Bulkeley, The wilderness of dreams (New York,
S. Freud, The interpretation of dreams, 1900 tr. J.
Strachey (New York, 1965), and also Introductory lectures on
Psychoanalysis 1917a tr. J. Strachey (New York, 1966).
C. G. Jung, The Archetype and the collective
unconscious 1951, tr. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton, 1969), and
also 'General aspects of dreams' 1948a in Dreams, 2nd
ed. tr. R.C. F. Hull (Princeton, 1966).
C. Hall and R. Van de Castle, The content analysis of
dreams (New York, 1966), also C. Hall and V. Nordby,
The individual and his dreams (New York, 1972).
J. Hobson, The dreaming brain: how the brain creates the
sense and nonsense of dreams (New York, 1988), see also the
work of Dement and Rycroft et al.
S. Laberge, Lucid dreaming (Los Angeles, 1985).
H. Hunt, The multiplicity of dreams: memory, imagination and
consciousness (New Haven, 1989).
10 W. Dement, 'The effect of dream deprivation',
Science, 131 (1960), 1705.
11 This is a difficult term and is representative
of an ethos allied to economic development rather than a
geographical linguistic boundary. For example it includes Western
Europe and North America.
12 Beginning with the first Christian oneirology
by Tertullian and ending with the last Byzantine oneirological text
by Manuel II Palaiologos.
13 Synesios of Cyrene, John Klimakos, Anastasios
of Sinai and later Michael Psellos, all accept this
14 G. Calofonos, Byzantine
oneiromancy, Mphil thesis (Birmingham, 1995), charts the
progress and popularity of oneiromancy as well as its sources of
opposition, both religious and legal. S. Oberhelman, The
oneirocritic literature of the late Roman and Byzantine eras of
Greece, PhD thesis (Minnesota, 1981), provides a translation
of the seven surviving Oneirokritika, tracing their
inter-dependance and the manuscript tradition.
15 Oneirokritika of Nikephoros, 120,
tr. S. Oberhelman, The oneirocritic literature of the late
Roman and Byzantine eras of Greece, PhD thesis (Minnesota,
16 Oneirokritika of Achmet, 149, tr.
S. Oberhelman, The oneirocritic literature of the late Roman
and Byzantine eras of Greece, PhD thesis (Minnesota,
17 This is the basis of distinction used in the
Dumbarton Oaks Hagiography Database for the ninth century and also
in Greek-English lexionaries.
18 Liddell and Scott, Intermediate
Greek-English Lexicon, 7th ed (Oxford, 1992), 559.
19 Liddell and Scott, Intermediate
Greek-English Lexicon, 813.
20 Acta Sanctorum, April 1, 3rd
edition, ed. J. Carnende (Paris and Rome, 1866), XXVI, 38, 17-18;
also Dumbarton Oaks Hagiography Database, record card 21362.
21 E. Kurtz, Zwei griechische Texte
über die HL. Theopano, die Gemahlin Kaisers Leo VI.
(St. Petersburg, 1989), 21-22, chapter 30; also Dumbarton Oaks
Hagiography Database, record card 15945.
22 144 episodes in the database create a vision
context by using words for sight, of seeing something -
23 There are 6 episodes in the database that use
blepoo: Key 15892, 16582, 18643, 12874, 8129, 15728.
24 David, Symeon and George - Dumbarton Oaks
Hagiography Database Key 20442: an angel appears in a dream
25 J.S. Hanson, 'Dreams and visions in the
Graeco-Roman world and early Christianity', Aufstieg und
Niedergang der römischen Welt, 11:23, 1396-1427,
provides an examination of early Christian material, and while
episodes in Byzantium suggest a similar construction, a definitive
study has yet to be undertaken.
26 Jung, The Archetype and the collective
unconscious 1951, tr. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton, 1969).
27 S. McFague, Metaphorical theology:
models of God in religious language (Philadelphia,
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