Before Freud, There was Artemidorus

Sigmund Freud is one of the most polarizing figures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the course of his career, he developed the popular theory the “Oedipus Complex,” which is based on an ancient play by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex. The “Oedipus Complex” postulates that children have a repressed and unconscious desire to have sex with a parent of the opposite sex. (No matter what you think about this theory, I for one do not believe it, it is rather interesting the number of men who marry women similar to their mothers, and the number of women who marry men similar to their fathers.)
Be that as it may, Sigmund Freud was not the first to coin the idea that children have a repressed and unconscious desire to have sex with a parent of the opposite sex. For example, the second century CE composer of a handbook for the interpretation of dreams, Artemidorus notes the meaning of dreams in which a man has sex with his mother:
“The discourse about the mother has many different aspects, sections and subsections not noticed by many interpreters so far. It goes like this. Sexual intercourse as such is not enough to indicate the meaning, but the different forms of embrace and positions of the bodies refer to different outcomes. First of all we ought to speak of intercourse in the ‘body to body’ position if the mother is still alive, for if she has died then the dream means something different. If someone dreams of having intercourse with his mother ‘body to body’, in the position called by some natural, when she is still alive and the father healthy, that means he will have hatred against his father, as a result of the normal jealously amongst men. If the father is in bad health, he will die; for the son dreaming will be taking over his mother both as her son and as her husband. For a craftsman or artisan it is a fortunate dream, because it is usual to call one’s trade one’s ‘mother’, so having intercourse with one’s mother could only mean working constantly and making a living. For political leaders and politicians it is a favorable dream also, for the mother then signifies the fatherland. Just as the man who has intercourse by Aphrodite’s rule has power over the woman’s whole body, if she consents willingly, so the dreamer will have power over the political life of his city” (Artemidorus, Dream Book 1.79; Religions of Rome 2.192-93). 
One of my favorite TV characters of all time, Fox Mulder, once said in an episode of The X-Files, “Dreams are answers to questions that we haven’t learned how to ask.” I do not like the answers to my questions if they look like the ones noted by Artemidorus. Nevertheless, it is fascinating that people in the ancient world struggled to understand a deeper meaning of their dreams. Whether it is Joseph attempting to decipher the dreams revealed to him by God that he would be a ruler over his brothers, father, and mother in Genesis 37, or the vision that appeared to Paul in the form of a dream in Acts 16, that he, Timothy, Silas, and Luke decided that it meant they should preach the gospel in Macedonia, or even the pagan Artemidorus, all of these people believed that dreams had a deeper meaning. Such a belief is strange and even foreign to the modern Western mindset. It is a reminder of the gulf that exists between us and the ancient world. Hence, in order to properly understand the ancient world, we have a lot of work to do. 
Photo from http://www.biography.com/people/sigmund-freud-9302400

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *