C.G. Jung – Dreams Ancient and Modern

C.G. Jung Dreams Ancient and Modern, Princeton University Press, Princeton & Oxford, 2014

This latest publication from the Philemon Foundation is a record of parts of the seminars Jung gave on children’s dreams and the historical literature on dream interpretation from 1936-1941 at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The Children’s Dreams seminars were interspersed with material from wide ranging historical sources on the nature and meaning of dreams as an overview to how dreams were understood in different epochs. As in the Children’s Dreams material, each topic is a prepared presentation by a seminar member. I shall give a (very) brief summary of the flavour of each in turn.

The fist paper delivered in chapter one is on the Neoplatonist Macrobius who lived in Rome around AD 400. The paper summarises Macrobius’s commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, a lost work which only survives in Macrobius’s commentary on the dreams of Cicero’s adopted grandson who live from 185 to 129 BC.

Macrobius presenting his work to his son Eustachius. From an 1100 copy of Macrobius' Dream of Scipio.
Macrobius presenting his work to his son Eustachius. From an 1100 copy of Macrobius’ Dream of Scipio.


Macrobius distinguishes and classifies five different types of dream. Two are discarded as uninteresting because they contain nothing divine. The worthy types of dream are oraculum (when an honourable figure gives advice as to action, or about future events), visio (looking into the future), and somnium (symbolic material that requires interpretation). This latter category is itself split into five subcategories. Essentially the paper highlights the similarities of the ancient mode of dream interpretation with Jung’s modern approach. Although the former mode of interpretation is less sophisticated, it is essential the same.

Chapter 2 focuses on a monograph of Monsieur Edmond Le Blant on Artemidorus’s Five Books on the Art of Dream Interpretation, of the 2nd century AD, which we learn was a primary source for the treatment of dreams and superstition in antiquity. We are transported by the paper into a time when the content of dreams were of primary of Gods, the circus and theatre, danger and death and other motifs of pivotal importance in the lives of Artemidoris’s contemporaries (he was said to have worked on around 3000 dreams). This cultural history is amplified in the hundreds of little motifs encountered in everyday life that appear in dreams, such as proverbs, customs, quoted verses, details of cults, etc. much the same as our modern dream life is also populated in the main by motifs and objects from our everyday existence. Much of the paper is devoted to the Gods and their appearance in dreams as the most important factor, carry varying forms a specialised interpretations, good and bad omens. Again the association method is used to interpret dreams, excepting that for Artemidorus the use of personal associations was unthinkable as the ‘personal problem’ was not in the ascendant at that time., although the personal concrete circumstance of the dreamer were taken into account in the interpretation. Jung sums up this attitude in one of his rare comments on the proceedings at this stage of the seminars:

“For ancient man the Gods had a completely direct influence. Fate, morality, and thinking depended upon them. There was no room, therefore, for personal psychology. This mentality prevailed until the 17th or 18th Centuries.” (p.19)


Chapter 3 deals with the Treatise on Dream Visions by Synesius of Cyrene who lived circa AD 370-AD 415. He concentrates on the prophetic nature of dreams, the dream’s relation to what will come to pass in reality. This prophesy possible because of the underlying unity in the cosmos where everything is interconnected and bears a close relation to everything else. Whoever understands this has wisdom.

Synesius of Cyrene

In chapter 4 we jump more than a thousand years to the thinking of the 16th century professor and physician Caspar Peucer.Peucer draws on ancient dream theory, Macrobius in particular. He distinguishes dreams with two different causes; procatarctic causes are the physical, material causes of dreams which originate from sense impressions of the outer world. Prohegomenic causes are those immaterial causes not affected by the senses and their general direction is towards the future. In Peucer’s cosmology of dreams, in addition to these causes, there are two different types of dreams. Phantasmata are those dreams produced by material causes and hence do not have a metaphysical background in themselves. Visions and dream oracles which originate in God, demons and Satan are the second type. The ‘natural’ dreams are those sent by God whereas ‘incubation’ dreams are sent by Satan and their most likely function is to deceive. Peucer, after Macrobius, also has a classification of dreams into five categories depending on the dream object to be interpreted. The treatise under discussion is mostly devoted to somnia physica, physical dreams, and Peucer describes the anatomy of the brain/dream convergence at length.

We are now firmly in the territory of Enlightenment rationality. Chapter 5 is devoted to M. L’Abbe Richard’s Theorie des songes and his intention is one of “destroying the ancient belief in the preternatural and prophetic characteristics of dreams, and explaining them in terms of rational causes.” (p.45) Richard’s cosmology of dreams is embedded firmly in the physiology of Descartes, having their source in the sense impressions which filter through the body into the esprits animiaux, subtle blood corpuscles that are secreted through the blood and absorbed into the nervous system. Although this is a physiological dream theory, there is a place for soul, since “imagination is the place where the soul forms images.” (p.46) and the strength of the impressions that the esprits animaux receive depend on the vivifying effect of the soul..


Chapter 6 deals with Franz Splittgerber’s Schlaf und Tod from the latter half of the 19th Century. He classifies dreams into meaningful and meaningless varieties. The meaningful dreams represent the workings of the “eternally waking spirit” from the deep within the psyche, whereas the meaningless dreams contain only remnants of the day. He comes close to Jung’s formulation of the collective unconscious as he remarks that the symbolic form that images take in dreams can have the same characteristic in many different peoples from all over the world with constantly recurring motifs. Ethically he believes that dreams can improve the dreamer as they often characterise the dreamer in less favourable terms than the dreamer would expect. Which of course  Jung’s principle of compensation.

Franz Splittgerber








Chapter 7 deals with the biologist Yves Delage’s La Reve, wriiten in 1891 and published in 1920. In the main his approach to dreams is physiological. For Delage there are 3 methods of dream research, which he calls objective, experimental and introspective and he categorises dreams into 10 different forms of content. He is very much of the spirit of his time in his rational explanations of dream life.

Yves Delage


Chapter 8 is a discussion of Schlaf und Traum by Paul W. Radestock from the 1870’s and represents the height of scientific materialism in that all psychological processes are traced back to organic causes. He writes that there is “a continuous relation between physical and psychic changes” (p.72) and he draws on consciousness to explain the unconscious. However, there is here already the anticipatory idea of the dream function as compensatory and also that typical dream ideas can be found everywhere in ethnopsychology.


Chapter 9 is a discussion of the ideas around dreams coming out of German Romanticism via The Dream in German Romanticism by Philipp Lersche. There is a discussion of collective psychic life as contrasted to the collective unconscious and a discussion of the romantic attitude of intoxication towards mythology and folktales.


Chapter 10 is a discussion of The Dream in Primitive Culture by Jackson Stewart Lincoln, whom Jung new personally. He rejects Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, believing that the dreams in primitives share the same mythological ideas as our dreams because of tradition and the similarity of social conditions, rather than because of something innate in the psyche, as Jung does. He also takes Freud’s view that the dream is a wish fulfilment and he deduces cultural processes – religion, ethic, the arts – to the Oedipus Complex.




Chapter 11 is a discussion of The Soul of the White Ant, by Eugene Marais, which is a digression from dreams to a comparison of the life of termites and it’s relation to subjects of concern for analytical psychology. Analogies are drawn, for example, between the social structure of humans and termites; between termite communities and the sympathetic nervous system; the seeming androgeny of the queen termite is compared to deities seen historically always portrayed hermaphroditically, and ultimately the comparison is between the queen and the Self, as the centre.




Chapter 12 is a discussion of the visions of St. Perpetua, which is of course given by Marie-Louise von Franz, which shows the psychic transition from antiquity to Christianity. Von Franz’s famous paper is not included but the discussion between Jung, von Franz and the participants really adds a new slant to the published version of the book available as part of von Franz’s oeuvre.



Chapter 13 is a discussion of the dreams of the Renaissance scholar Girolamo Cardano and is by far the weightiest portion of the book covering almost 100 pages, over one 3rd of the book., and it is where Jung really moves into his element as seminar leader and university professor, coaxing his students into ever deeper explorations of the texts. Cardano’s dreams are extraordinary. The 15 dreams discussed cover a period of 23 years and yet Jung weaves them into a narrative as if they were a single cycle. And indeed it is a single series to Jung:


“This process – it seems (with some reservations) to be a genuine series – is what we can also find today in a dream series, in which motifs appear but disappear again, so that one gets the impression of a circular process that proceeds on its own, unless it gets interrupted a some point by the intrusion of consciousness.” (p.195)


Ultimately this is a failed process for Cardano as his entrenched one-sided views spell the end for the fundamental change that is trying to break through into consciousness but does not, and so Cardano “really went to the dogs” (p.194) This failure is due to Cardano’s inadequate interpretations of his own dreams and his tendency to treat the unconscious as if it were merely material for his own conscious thoughts, despite his belief in the prophetic nature of his own dreams. In this Cardano shows that he is a man of his time, the time of the reformation and the decline of the Christian myth, or the beginning of the “great hubris” of consciousness, as Jung aptly names it. In discussing Cardano, we are treated to vintage Jung at his very best, and he covers an enormous range of subjects in the process, which makes this chapter very useful.

Girolamo Cardano


The last chapter deals with Three Dreams of Dr. John Hubbard published in 1916. The three dreams are quite astounding in their scale and intricacy. Jung discusses these dreams from the collective point of view, not the personal, and thus finds in them a parity with modern events, or modern events that are to come, particularly the idea of social contrasts which cause an inner conflict in the individual.


The introduction by John Peck is very dense, a piece of work in its own right, which pays dividends to read again when you have read the seminar material. Peck draws out what he believes Jung leaves largely unstated and compares his approach to today’s emergence theory in physics, biology and psychology (which he does not explain), although the drift of it is that to understand the fabric in which dreams are embedded there needs to be less of a concentration on myth, complex and dreams being somewhat interchangeable terms but rather that “inner and outer lives alike, radiate from psychoid comings-into-being.”(p. XIII)


As regards the format of the book I do have a question: why weren’t the whole of the EFT seminars published in their chronological form, rather than being split up into the Children’s Dreams portion and the current volume under discussion? The answer that comes to mind is that publishing them in this way makes them more marketable to non-specialists.


I did very much enjoy reading this book, and I wondered what the next 2000 years of dream-as-cultural-history will bring. An intriguing thought. I was struck by how remarkably human Jung appears in these seminars. Of course he is brilliant, sage-like and erudite as one would expect, but he also has something of the ordinary professor about him, a man who has a job to do and one that he takes pride in.G

Copyright Leslie Laine 2015

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