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The Library of Renaissance Symbolism
The Symbolic Literature of the Renaissance

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French: Songes

Authorities: Addison, Menestrier 1694

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     This is a genre which with lotteries, divinations, oracles and fates describes means used to forsee the future or make a choice between possible courses of actions. Both Plato and Aristotle acknowledged that dreams can be prophetic. Plato said that capacity of dreaming was given by the gods to man so that he might have ‘some apprehension of truth’. (Timaeus 71d) ‘Dream books’ flourished throughout the period including those of Philo of Alexandria with his De Somniis, of Galen the physician (b. c129AD) in the first century and Artemidorus in the third Century with his The Interpretation of Dreams. It is no coincidence that Freud’s masterwork had the same title as the work of Artemidorus and Freud was happy to acknowledge his debt to Artemidorus who had categorized dreams into two main classes: the general and the allegorical. Cicero used his work The Dream of Scipio to comment on Platonic symbolism and Macrobius in his commentary on this work distinguished five types of dream: dreams, visions, oracles, sleeplessness and phantoms. According to him only visions and oracles have any prophetic function and are of the allegorical type suggested by Artemidorus.

     In the late Middle Ages there was the Dream Book of Daniel and the Dream Book of Joseph both from the 12th Century and those of many others who attempted to diagnose or divine from reports of dreams. Menestrier in his La Philosophie des images: images enigmatiques of 1694 points to God’s denial in the Old Testament of the efficacy of dreams but nevertheless also quotes the success of Joseph and Daniel in interpreting dreams. See Kruger for more information on the medieval dream books.

     We see dreams emphasized continually in contemporary literature, in the De Planctu Naturae, On the Complaint of Nature, of Alain de Lille which takes place in a dream of the narrator, in the Roman de la Rose, in several of the works of Chaucer, particularly the Parliament of Fowls, in the dreams within a dream of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili in the Songe de Descartes, the Dream of Descartes, which as recounted by Baillet describes the epiphany in which the great philosopher chooses the path of self-knowledge and in the Pilgrim’s Progress where the narrator begins the story by falling asleep and dreaming.

     Allied to the symbolism of dreams was that of the literature of visions, a feature of Christian culture from the earliest times. Perhaps the earliest example was the apocryphal Vision of St. Paul from the 4th century, followed by the Dialogues of Gregory the Great in which he relates a number of vision stories. The traditions continued with the Vision of Drythelius from the Ecclesiastical History of Bede, through the 12 and 13th centuries reaching a climax in Dante’s Commedia.

     The dream-vision was a cautionary tale about the horrors of hell in the after-life with the obvious moral that these horrors could only be avoided by good behavior in the earthly life. Most of the stories were related by people who had returned or awakened from near-death experiences. They typically included visions of the after-life, an eleventh hour reprieve from death, and a return to a reformed and often monastic existence on this earth. The visions of after-life shared many similarities, particularly a journey through purgatorial torments assisted by a guide. One frequent central motif was that of a bridge over which the traveler must pass and from which sinners would be cast off. Dante’s masterpiece was of a different order to any of his predecessors but nevertheless followed a long line of such works emphasizing the Church’s preoccupation with hell, sin and the imperative for good behavior to make the Christian worthy of the sacrifice of Christ and thus worthy of life eternal.

See also: Lotteries, Divinations, Oracles and Fates