In ancient Greece, dreams were regarded as messages from the gods, and it was believed that during sleep the soul was freed from the body and was able to perceive and converse with higher beings. The authors of Greek tragedy maintained that dreams of such dignity should be carefully interpreted. Aeschylus, in particular, said that dream interpretation was one of the most important inventions of Prometheus.
One of the primary functions of dreams in Greek tragedy, where a fundamental element is the conflict between fate and individual free will, is to reveal the logic of destiny. Different types of dreams are employed in tragedy and find their origin in a more or less direct imitation of the dreams used by Homer, although there are many differences between the use of the dream device in Homer’s epics and its employment in tragedy.
For instance, with respect to the relations of the poet with his audience, in the epic the narrator is omnipresent and omniscient, even aware of every secret thought of Olympus. By contrast, in tragedy the knowledge of the dramatis personae is limited, as is the knowledge of persons in real life. Thus, the objectivity of the dream must usually correspond to the experiences of the person represented by the actor on the stage.
Divination played the principal role in the tragedies and was the main guide of the plot, with the role of the dream generally being secondary. The dream represented one of many motifs. The tragic poets often used dreams to help dramatize their narratives, even when there was no mention of dreams in the original source material. The dream was often unnecessary to the myth, but was considered a powerful artistic medium through which the poets could guarantee considerable literary effects in the plot.
The first dramatist who successfully employed the dream device was probably Aeschylus, who, like Homer, recognized the importance of the psychological aspects of the dream. In his extant plays there are no indications of the growth of the dream from a less to a more artistic device. In The Persians—which deals with the conflict between Oriental despotism and Greek freedom, and the victory of the Greeks over Xerxes—Atossa, mother of Xerxes, experiences a troublesome allegorical dream after her son’s departure for Greece. This dream, which is considered the most beautiful in Greek literature, has a considerable influence on the plot, finding its model in the dreams of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The dream plays a secondary, yet very important role in Prometheus vinctus providing the grounds for the meeting of the hero and Io. In Choephoroi the dream, which is sent by the soul of the dead, is employed to produce suspense. In contrast, the objectivity of dreams is emphasized in Eumenides, in which the ghost of Clytemnestra rebukes the sleeping Furies. Here the dream has theatrical effectiveness and assumes considerable importance as a factor in outlining the plot of the tragedy. Some references in Aeschylus to dreams, such as in Septem, Supplices, and Agamemnon, are unimportant, although they are picturesque and happy.
The dream device was sparingly employed by Sophocles. Two brief references to dreams can be found in Oedipus Tyrannus and Acrisius. One fully related dream is introduced in the Electra. Clytemnestra’s allegorical dream is not very important for the independent action of the play, but is fundamental for the portrayal of character. There is no direct reference to any deity as the sender of the dream, which appears to a woman, following the convention of tragedy.
Following the Aeschylean tradition, Euripides adopted the dream device in Hecuba, in which the ghost of Polydorus is portrayed on the stage before the eyes of the audience. The dream has a considerable role in the plot, in which the emotional state of Hecuba under the lash of sorrow and revenge constitutes the main subject. Another important dream is Iphigenia’s dream in Iphigenia in Taurus, in which the oracle of Apollo at Delphi represents the mainspring of the action, as elsewhere in tragedy. In this play the dream, sent to a woman, and the oracle, sent to a man, represent the two leading forces. The elaborate dream, as well as the device of misinterpretation, which leads to a truly tragic situation, is important to the progression of the plot. Among Euripides’s minor references to dreams are those reported in Rhesus, in which the plot parallels an incident from the Iliad. The dream is added to the tale as an embellishment rather than as a necessary part of the story. Dreams also serve as embellishment in other Euripides plays, such as Cyclops, Alcestis, Hercules Furens, Alope, Aeolus, Orestes, Helena, and Meleager.