09.10.21, Oberhelman, Dreambooks in Byzantium

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Stavroulla Constantinou

The Medieval Review 09.10.21

Oberhelman, Steven M.. Dreambooks in Byzantium: Six Oneirocritica in Translation, with Commentary and Introduction. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2008. Pp. vii, 251. ISBN: 978-0-7546-6084-2.

Reviewed by:
Stavroulla Constantinou
University of Cyprus

Dreams played a very important role in Byzantine culture, as the popularity of dreambooks and the abundance of dreams in literature attest. However, the number of studies devoted to Byzantine dream culture is limited. Steven Oberhelman's latest book together with his previous one The Oneirocriticon of Achmet: A Medieval Greek and Arabic Treatise on the Interpretation of Dreams constitute significant contributions to the study of an essential element of Byzantine dream culture: the oneirocritica. By introducing and translating all seven dreambooks produced in Byzantium, Oberhelman's two books along with Maria Mavroudi's work on Greek and Arabic dreambooks promote the further examination of an important yet understudied subject. Oberhelman's translations in particular can be used not only as tools facilitating a university course on Byzantine dream culture, but they also contribute directly to making Byzantine dreambooks available to a much wider audience.

The book under review consists of nine chapters, a bibliography of the cited works, and two indexes: an index of dream symbols and a general index. The book's chapters may be divided into two parts. The first part (chapters 1-3) is introductory whereas the second part (chapters 4-9) provides a translation and commentary for each of the following six dreambooks: Oneirocriticon of Daniel, Oneirocriticon of Nicephorus, Oneirocriticon of Astrampsychus, Oneirocriticon of Germanus, Anonymous Oneirocriticon, and Oneirocriticon of Manuel II Palaeologus. The translation and commentary of each dreambook are given in a separate chapter starting with the earliest and ending with the latest dreambook.

The first chapter discusses the dreambooks' authors, their dates, sources and manuscripts. According to Oberhelman, it is very difficult to recover the original form of the texts that have come down to us. Equally hard is to determine the sources of each dreamwork. Except from perhaps the Oneirocriticon of Manuel II Palaeologus all the others are anonymous, and their dates cannot be established. However, as Oberhelman concludes, "these dreambooks are invaluable, in that they are unique sources of information on the everyday life of the people of Byzantium, on their culture and society, on their very psyches" (17). I do not think that the six dreambooks discussed by Oberhelman provide any information about Byzantines' "very psyches," and if they do so such information is not presented in the book under review. There is no doubt that these dreambooks are informative of certain aspects of Byzantine daily life, culture and society, but of which time and region? If Oberhelman's argument is right, and obviously it is, that these dreambooks are in large part compilations whose origin and date cannot be determined how could the provided information be used and evaluated?

The second chapter, which, as is the case of the third chapter, repeats to a large extent material from the author's book on the dreambook of Achmet, is devoted to the art of dream interpretation. This chapter opens with a short discussion of Artemidorus's dreambook and dream theory. The author concludes this discussion by pointing out that none of the six studied dreambooks provides any theory concerning dreaming and dream interpretation. He then goes on to present Achmet's dream theory, which, as he notes without offering any supporting evidence, "there is no reason to think [] that the writers' thoughts on these subjects [dreaming, dream causation, and methods of interpretation] would have differed too much from Achmet's discussions" (23). However, a bit later Oberhelman notes some significant departures of the six dreambooks from that of Achmet, such as the application of the dream interpretations they offer to everyone. An important aspect of Achmet's dream interpretation theory, on the contrary, is the bodily, social, political, and financial situation of the dreamer. According to Achmet, the dream interpreter cannot offer a valid interpretation without taking into consideration the dreamer's identity and situation.

In the last part of the second chapter, the author presents shortly the methodologies employed by Byzantine dream interpreters. He distinguishes the following five methods: (1) use of traditional material and conformity of the dream symbol with culture, (2) puns/wordplay/etymology, (3) antinomy, (4) analogy, and (5) metaphor and hypothetico-deductive reasoning. Of course, as Oberhelman remarks towards the end of the chapter, the reason for a number of interpretations will remain unknown. Possibly, as the author rightly suggests, interpretations that cannot be explained by modern scholarship were the product of the interpreters' own experience.

The third chapter offers a brief overview of ancient and Byzantine philosophical, medical, and religious sources on dreams and dream theory. All together the book's introductory part is very informative and useful. However, the reader misses a more detailed examination of the six dreambooks in their own right: their contents, symbols, language, style, and structure, their misogynistic and other ideologies, and their possible relations with dreams depicted in literature.

As far as a non-native reader of English can judge, the translations are clear and correct. They read easily, and difficulties are generally addressed in the footnotes. It would have been very useful if the original texts were also provided, since their editions are not easy to find. The commentary of each dreambook is very helpful and informative. It refers to linguistic, lexical and grammatical issues; it offers explanations for the interpretations of certain dream symbols; it provides information about Byzantine court titles, family names, places, and aspects of daily life and culture; and it makes cross-references with Artemidorus, Achmet, and the other Byzantine dreambooks. Sometimes, however, the information provided in the commentary is not directly relevant to the dreambooks and the interpretations they offer. For example, in chapter 8 (it is devoted to the translation and commentary of the Anonymous Oneirocriticon) the text's line 120, which reads as follows: "frying fish means tuberculosis", has the following comment: "the emperor Constantine III died of tuberculosis" (173). In this case, the reader wonders about the purpose of such information. I do not think that the author wants to suggest that Constantine III died of tuberculosis as a result of having such a dream.

At some other points the provided commentary is rather misleading. A case in point is the comment to the following excerpt from the Oneirocriticon of Manuel II Palaeologus: "Frankish clothes signify the greatest freedom and [indeed] reveal freedom" (ch. 17). The comment reads as follows: "a surprising interpretation coming from a Byzantine emperor" (204). Such a comment takes for granted that the author of this dreamwork is indeed the emperor Manuel II Palaeologus. Oberhelman, however, mentions previously more than once that the attribution of the authorship to the emperor is not certain.

Despite its omissions, and some problems in the commentary, Oberhelman's latest book, as already stated, is a very important contribution to the scholarship on Byzantine dream culture. Everyone will profit from the introduction, the translations and the commentary. This book will be useful for many scholars: Byzantinists. Arabists, medievalists, and cultural historians. We may hope that Oberhelman's work will stimulate other scholars to think further about Byzantine oneirocritica.

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Stavroulla Constantinou

University of Cyprus