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Synesius, On dreams


Mosaic depicting an angel. Museum of Ptolemais. Photo Marco Prins.
Mosaic depicting an angel. Museum of Ptolemais
Synesius of Cyrene (c.370-c.413) was a Neo-Platonic philosopher who became bishop of Ptolemais in the Cyrenaica. He left behind a small corpus of texts that offer much information about daily life in Late Antiquity, and about the christianization of the Roman world. His treatise On dreams is offered here in the translation by A. Fitzgerald.
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On dreams 7

We, therefore, have set ourselves to speak of divination through dreams, that men should not despise it, but rather cultivate it, seeing that it fulfills a service to life; and it is to this end that we have so much occupied ourselves with the imaginative nature. The immediate need for it here below has been perhaps clearly shown by our discourse, but a better fruit of a sane spirit is the uplifting of the soul, a really sacred gain; so that it becomes a sort of cult of piety to endeavor that this form of divination should be ours. [1301] Nay, some men already through some such motive, enticed by their passion for knowledge of the future, have had set before them, instead of a groaning board a sacred and modest one, and have hailed the joys of a couch pure and undefiled.

For as to the man who would consult his bed as he does the tripod of the Pythian deity [Apollo], far be it from him to make the night spent in it witnesses of unbridled passion. Rather does he bow before God and pray to Him. What is collected little by little becomes much in the end, and that which happens through quite another cause terminates in a greater one. Thus those who did not set out at first with this object have come, in their advance, to love God and one day to be united to Him. We must not therefore disregard a prophetic art which journeys to divine things, and has, dependent on it, the most precious of all things which are in the power of man. Nor indeed has the soul that is united with God less need here because of the fact that it has been deemed worthy to handle better things. Nor is it heedless of the animal in us.

Nay, from its vantage ground it has a steady and much more distinct view of things below than when it is with them and is mingled with the inferior elements. Remaining unmoved, it will give to the animal in us the appearance of things that come into existence. This is, according to the proverb, 'to descend without descending,' where the better takes unchallenged mastery of the worse. This art of divination I resolve to possess for myself and to bequeath to my children. In order to enter upon this no man need pack up for a long journey or voyage beyond the frontiers, as to Pytho [1] or to Hammon. It is enough to wash one's hands, to keep a holy silence, and to sleep.

Then did she make all ablutions and dressing in purified raiment
Prayed she long time to Athena...[2]

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Note 1:
Pytho is a poetic name for the oracle of Delphi.

Note 2:
Homer, Odyssey, 4.750, 752.
Online 2006
Revision: 11 Nov. 2006
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