Reflections on the (Mis)interpretation of Byzantine Dream Narratives Workshop

As I begin my summer internship, it seems appropriate to reflect on one of my most memorable experiences at Dumbarton Oaks this past semester.  I started working in Byzantine Studies last November, and was immediately thrown into the mix with the (Mis)interpretation of Byzantine Dream Narratives Workshop. This proved to be a fantastic way to start my internship.  Admittedly, I arrived at DO with scant knowledge of Byzantium, so the very accessible dream workshop served as the perfect bridge into the world of Constantinople and the Near East.  Along with Junior Fellow Beatrice Daskas, I was given the task of official timekeeper.  This seemingly routine assignment turned out to be deceptively difficult—most scholars did not want to relinquish the microphone.  What a surprise! So, I incurred the wrath of several contributors by interrupting their talks with my bell.  People would approach me to say that I had rung the bell early, but in reality I always allotted a few extra minutes before the bell chimed.  By the end of the workshop, I had come to realize that being timekeeper required some finesse.

Unfortunately I missed the opening talks of the sleep-scientist J. Allan Hobson and the psychoanalyst Catia Galatariotou, but these two provided stimulating repartee throughout the weekend.  Hobson’s explanations of, and his guide to lucid dreaming were fascinating.  But he would bait Galatariotou with his anti-Freudian anecdotes on dream interpretation.  Hobson’s presence was very beneficial for discussions that took a scientific turn, and his eccentricity motivated several passionate arguments—he even whispered in my ear at one point, “half of these fools probably believe in God.”

As the workshop segued from science and psychology to Byzantium, the different uses of dreams in Byzantine narratives came to light.  The multifaceted nature of Byzantine dream narratives was certainly manifest at the end of the weekend.  A dream could be used as a simple plot device, a view into the future, a remedy, and a way of approaching the divine, among many other things. In Aglae Pizzone’s talk on a theoretical dream in the fourth book of Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata, dreams are anticipatory—desire anticipates the character, whom Clement describes in his dream.  Since the character has an erotic dream before his tryst, he feels that his sexual appetite has been appeased, and he no longer requires the services of a courtesan.  In this narrative, mental images are in a way physically intuitive and thoughts become almost equal to acts.  Looking at something with desire is the same as transgressing the law in Clement’s eyes, and the dangers of sight are stressed.

For me, one of the most captivating subtopics of the workshop focused on incubation dreams.  Incubation dreams must occur in a church or at a shrine.  The dreamer would have gone to sleep at the holy site with hopes of a divine panacea for some scourge.  If successful, the dreamer would awake from a vision and his affliction would be no more.  Alice-Mary Talbot led a discussion on two such dreams.  In one of the narratives, there is an amazing dream that melds hallucination and reality.  The sick man has a vision of St. Panteleimon who proclaims that the man needs surgery.  The saint then proceeds to pierce the man’s chest with a scalpel.  The man is immediately roused from his sleep to discover that the incision has crossed over from his vision into reality—his wound is exuding a strange liquid and he is miraculously cured.  This phenomenon is noteworthy because it may signal that the dreams were so lucid that they were confused with reality.

Dream Doctors

Dream Doctors

Perhaps the most inspired and lively discussion stemmed from the erotic Byzantine dreams.  Christine Angelidi presented one such dream that occurs in the Life of Andrew the Fool.  A woman dreams that she is about to be raped by an “Ethiopian” (this is interesting because the villain in one of Thekla’s miracle dreams is also a “pygmy”).  The woman protests, “I have my lawful husband and am not going to join another man!” Despite her resistance, perhaps like the character in Clement’s dream narrative, the woman here feels a sort of anticipatory desire.  Since dreams can be the road to the unconscious in psychoanalysis, it is not surprising that many have erotic themes—although Byzantines were not always so eager to record these.  Stratis Papaioannou presented a dream narrative in Theodore Daphnopates that effuses sexual issues.  This dream narrative appears in epistolary form as a letter to a friend of the author’s after a wedding celebration.  Theodore writes that “certain tickling titillations” woke him from his sleep, but he attributes his desire to the satisfaction of his friend’s lust on his wedding night.  Theodore imagines the connection between his dream and his friend’s sexual experience: “When you, that is, like a man had completed those Herculean struggles of yours, and had satisfied your desire sufficiently, and had taken enough pleasure in the erotic breezes, it is precisely at that very moment that the invisible arrows of Eros began to wound my liver, strike my heart, pierce my mind.”  Papaioannou astutely noted that this letter does not seem homosexual, but rather homosocial.  There seems to be a sort of camaraderie present between the two friends when discussing sexual matters—almost a locker-room milieu.  Since Theodore writes, “I am deprived of those whom I desire,” he seems to experience sexual gratification vicariously through his dream and his friend’s experiences.  This epistle gives the reader a glimpse into the intimacy between close friends and the Byzantine approach to erotic dreams.

These were just a few highlights from the many great discussions and papers that took place over three days in November. It was incredibly rewarding to witness my first scholarly meeting (my position as timekeeper was great because it allowed me to hear all the talks).  I was able to meet many of the scholars and further discuss their papers.  It was also fantastic to listen to the perspectives of the sleep-scientist J. Allan Hobson and the psychoanalyst Catia Galatariotou. Even though I missed their initial lectures, both had much to contribute during discussions. I think the presence of these two really made the workshop more accessible to a layman like myself—especially entertaining were Hobson’s wit and antics.

A few days after the conclusion of the workshop, I created a pseudo-blog for the contributors.  It is a Google Doc that contains the texts of each participant along with sections for discussion. I am happy to say that it is complete and up and running for anyone who would like to comment. I look forward to my future endeavors at DO, and I fondly remember my first experience at the (Mis)interpretation of Byzantine Dream Narratives Workshop.

Alec Luhring at his desk

Alec Luhring at his desk

Alec Luhring is a rising junior at Georgetown University double majoring in Classics and Government.

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