Dreams and Visions in Old English


For millennia dreams were thought to be the interventions of supernatural forces either making personal or eschatological predictions about the future, or simply imparting wisdom or incentivising one to change their ways. Since they were widely considered to be messages from deities, dreams have been entwined with the matter of religion since pre-Homeric times, when oneiromancy, the divination of dream meaning, was first practised (though it was, at that time, superseded in importance by other customs like observing the flight of birds or inspecting the viscera of sacrificial animals).

The Babylonian Talmud underscored the significance and perhaps the predictive power of dreaming, stating, “There are three things for which one should supplicate: a good king, a good year, and a good dream” and it also describes the importance of interpreting these visions: “A dream which is not interpreted is like a letter that is not read.” The text goes on to explain that nightmares in particular are notices from God that men must fear and obey him; an idea later brought forward into the Old Testament. The Book of Job in particular contains a passage expounding on God’s purposing of dreams to inspire, save or terrify his subjects:

For God does speak—now one way, now another— though no one perceives it.
In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on people
as they slumber in their beds, he may speak in their ears
and terrify them with warnings,
to turn them from wrongdoing
and keep them from pride,
to preserve them from the pit,
their lives from perishing by the sword.

Later Greco-Christian dream-theory continued emphasising this close relationship between dreaming and divinity. Porphyry of Tyre (c. 234 – c. 305), whose textbook Isagoge became standard reading in medieval universities, wrote that, “Truth hides; however, the soul can sometimes see it when the body has gone to sleep and gives the soul more freedom. The rays of the deity reach our eye only in a refracted way, as if the light were shining through horn.”

Problematically, since dreams were private affairs and relied on the dreamer to accurately remember their details, and since they came in many forms, some scrutiny and categorisation was needed. The fifth century Roman writer Macrobius defined five types of dream in his Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis, which is, as the title attests, a commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis. According to Cicero, the Roman consul Scipio Aemilianus was granted knowledge of the cosmos through a dream, in which his grandfather Scipio Africanus materialised and taught the secrets of the cosmos to him, (fittingly, the ninth century French priest Hadoard, who compiled Cicero and Macrobius’ texts in a collectaneum, claimed to have uncovered their hidden location through a dream-vision of his own.)

The first type of dream that Macrobius classifies is somnium, which are dreams proper. They are largely symbolic and interpretive. Then there is visio, or revelatory visions experienced when we are awake. Then there is oraculum, or oracle dreams, that is, the appearance of an authoritative figure (a parent’s spirit, angel, or deity) that appears to expound wisdom; Cicero’s account of the two Scipios falls into this category. Finally there is insomnium and visum, which are essentially daydreams and other fritterings of the mind and are largely worthless.

The works of Macrobius were not, as far as we can ascertain, known to the Anglo-Saxons, though it was known to Boethius (his adoptive father, Symmachus, edited one version) and he alludes to it in his own Consolation of Philosophy, which was translated into Old English by King Alfred the Great. In The Consolation, Lady Philosophy tells Boethius that “Even now thy spirit sees [the divine] in dreams, but cannot behold in truth while thine eyes are engrossed with semblances.” Alfred excised the wording of this particular passage, having essentially rewritten much of the text himself, but he still ascertains that man can come to some understanding of God in waking life just as he already glimpses it in dreams — but only if he can move beyond simply perceiving God and begin the process of understanding him through good works.

The majority of surviving works from the Anglo-Saxon period are paraphrases of Biblical stories, reworked to fit the distinct Anglo-Saxon perspective. Dream narratives like those of Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar, or Joseph, Jacob et al were particularly useful in that they could, as the Bible attests with its various dream-inspired saints and martyrs, inspire intense devotion and piety. These paraphrases and hagiographical texts were developed exclusively in monastic settings from the time of Pope Gregory I onwards and were developed further in commentaries by Bede, Alcuin and Rabanus Maurus before being passed down to an illiterate laity.

The Old Testament in particular was fertile ground for adapting dream narratives. The Book of Genesis contains multiple dream visions, such as God’s warning to Abimelek and later Laban the Aramean, and of course, Jacob’s vision of the ladder leading to heaven. Genesis also censures those who dismiss dreams and prophecy, though probably to endear the faithful to its own underdog prophets. When the patriarch Joseph first begins experiencing prophetic dreams he tells his brothers and father, who all rebuke him in turn: “And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it his brethren: and they hated him yet the more.”

As Joseph’s dreams continue, his brothers eventually conspire to kill or exile him, “And they said to one another, Behold, this dreamer cometh. Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” They resolve to sell him into slavery instead, and after switching hands Joseph ends up at Pharaoh’s court. In a scene later repeated in the Book of Daniel, Pharaoh has two consecutive dreams which trouble him into the morning. He summons all of the wise men of Egypt to interpret his dreams, but they are unable to do so. Pharaoh then approaches Joseph, who tells the Pharaoh that “I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires,” a humble reminder that the power of divination lay in God, not man – a comment likely to keep Pharaoh’s ego in check.

The Junius manuscript’s Daniel is based on The Book of Daniel, though Antonina Harbus argues that Daniel himself was set aside to such a degree that “its modern title is hardly appropriate” and that “Nebuchadnezzar would have been a more suitable title.” Unlike the Biblical text, the Old English version repositions Nebuchadnezzar as the subject rather than the object of the story. Babylon is depicted as an anti-Jerusalem, and King Nebuchadnezzar the root of its wickedness and folly. Alvin A. Lee writes that the events of Daniel centre on “that period of sacred history between the First Coming of Christ and the Parousia, during which […] repentance, as for the Babylonian king, is still possible.” This redemption is offered to Nebuchadnezzar via a series of dreams through which God speaks. Nebuchadnezzar’s first dream reveals to him the impermanence of earthly empires. This is not enough to convince the king of God’s greatness, and he resorts to idol-worship. Later, another dream is sent to enlighten him. “Then in his sleep a dream was revealed to Nebuchadnezzar.” This terrifying and highly metaphoric dream –revealed to him; a divine communication rather than a concoction of the imagination– foretells his own descent from greatness to madness. “Then the earthly prince –his dream was at an end– awoke from sleep. The fearfulness of it stayed with him, the terror of that phenomenon which God sent there.” The king is then struck by lunacy as a punishment, and enters the wild for seven years where he lives as a rambler, near-naked and filthy until he accepts the celestial hierarchy and his place within it below God. Only then does his sanity and some semblance of his former station return.

Despite the humiliation and distress of his temporary madness, the ordeal is ultimately described as having had a positive effect on Nebuchadnezzar: “When the ruler of Babylon was restored to sovereignty, he had a better disposition, a more enlightened belief in the Lord of life – that God bestowed on every man prosperity as well as punishment as he himself willed.” It is for his tribulations with his dreams and madness that Nebuchadnezzar is remembered. When the Babylonian King Nabonidus (556 – 539BC) was commemorated by a stele the sculptors depicted him suffering from a troublesome dream that is interpreted for him by a vision of his long dead predecessor, Nebuchadnezzar.


Job’s Evil Dreams by William Blake (1825).

The Bible also contained stern warnings against believing wholeheartedly in dreams that may stray from official religious doctrine: “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.” In his Dialogues Pope Gregory I (c. 540, d. 604) also distinguished between dreams that involve the intrusion of demonic or angelic beings: “Sometimes dreams are caused […] by the deception of the tempting enemy” he wrote (centuries later, Joan of Arc’s prosecutors could argue that her account of her visions were, indeed, true; but that they were demonically-inspired instead.) The ninth century Anglo-Saxon bible, The Heliand, possibly inspired by Gregory, changed the New Testament account of the dream of Pontius Pilate’s wife from a divine warning to an instance of demonic malfeasance. The Book of Matthew reads: “While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: ‘Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.’” Conversely, the Anglo-Saxon version read:

That uuif uuard thuo an forahton,
suido an sorogen, thuo iro thiu gisiuni quamun
thuru thes dernien dad an dages liohte
an helidhelme bihelid.

[The woman [Pilate’s wife] was very worried, she was frightened by the visions that were coming to her in the daylight. They were the doings of the deceiver [Satan], who was invisible, hidden by a magic helmet.]

Satan being clad in a helmet is an especially Anglo-Saxon detail: it casts him as a combatant dressed for battle, his invisibility-rendering helmet perhaps analogous to other Germanic and Celtic battle-dress with the same abilities, such as Siegfried’s tarnkappe, or cloak of invisibility, and the “mantle” that Caswallan drapes around himself in battle in Culhwch and Olwen that allows him to slay his enemies unseen: “no one could see him killing the men – only the sword.”

Dreams were also capable of amplifying undesirable waking thoughts as well, to the distress of many Christians. St. Augustine of Hippo fretted that though memories of his sinful youth assaulted him with little strength during his waking hours, they “not only give me pleasure but feel like acquiescence in the act” when he dreamed. Troublingly, “the power which these illusory images have over my soul and my body is so great that what is no more than a vision can influence me in sleep in a way that the reality cannot do when I am awake.” Augustine’s only solution is to acknowledge the gulf between waking and sleeping states and to thereby absolve himself of guilt, though he ultimately remains “sorry that by some means or other it happened to me.”

These sorts of concerns are typically absent from the hagiographical Old English texts: saints are often encouraged by their dreams and visions, martyrs do not suffer in many ways but the physical and all for a good end. Only sinners or strayers are tormented with admonitions from God. One exception is the secular take on a dream contained within The Wanderer where the dreamer’s dream is an extension of his own loneliness and anxiety:

Forþon wat se þe sceal his winedryhtnes
lefoes larcwidum longe forþolian,
ðonne sorg ond slæð somod ætgædre
earmne anhogan oft gebindað
þinceð him on mode þæt he his mondryhten
clyooe ond cysse, ond on cneo lecge
Honda ond heafod, swa he hwilum ær
in geargardum giefstolas breac.

[Often, when grief and sleep combined together enchain the wretched solitary man, it seems to him in his imagination that he is embracing and kissing his lord and laying hands and head on his knee, just as at times previously in days of old he enjoyed the gift-throne.]

This is a rare, non-religious take on a dream in Old English literature. In terms of inspiring the laity, it is not helpful. The Wanderer’s dream is an assault on his wellbeing; as a part of his psyche it is inextricably bound to him; it overwhelms him when he is tired. But Biblical narratives were designed to reinforce one’s faith with promises of God’s kingdom to come, rather than torment them with woes of the present world and the things that are gone from it. It’s telling, then, that the most famous Anglo-Saxon example of divine inspiration is the more salutary story of the field-hand Caedmon, who was visited in his sleep by a man who asked him to sing. Caedmon responded that he was unable to, but the man persisted, asking again, and “Caedmon began immediately to sing verses in the praise of God that he had never heard before.” Caedmon then became something of a luminary figure who dedicated himself to God and who “crowned his life with a happy end” as a result of his piety. Likewise, the saint Cuthbert, Bede wrote, was likewise “spurred on by his heavenly vision of the joys of eternal bliss” and as a consequence was “ready to suffer hunger and thirst in this life in order to enjoy the banquets of the next.”

Caedmon’s tale has antecedents in European myth; most notably in the Nordic story of Thorleif Jarlsakald, where the shepherd Hallbjorn falls asleep near Thorleif’s grave and dreams that his spirit appears and teaches him how to compose and sing poetry. What Caedmon’s story might lack in originality it makes up for by associating his attained poetic powers with divine rather than simply supernatural inspiration. Geoffrey Shepherd writes that the focal point of Caedmon’s dream are its effects, which are “an intensification of piety, a suitable response to a vision.” Christian dream narratives often followed the same formula, where the poet-narrator moves from ignorance to knowledge of God and His works before exhorting (often at command) the greatness of the divine to the reader. “Listen!” opens the narrator of The Dream of the Rood, “I want to recount the most excellent of visions, and what I dreamed in the middle of the night when voiced mortals lay abed” – this vision being one in which the cross enjoins the narrator to spread God’s message and “declare this vision to people”

The power of dreams to empower Christian converts were even utilised in historical accounts like Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. For example, King Edwin of Northumbria’s (b. 585, d. 633) conversion is largely attributed to pressure from his second wife Ethelberga, a committed Christian, and Pope Boniface V, yet Bede writes that, rather than political necessity, “the principal factor influencing the king to study and accept the truths of salvation was a heavenly vision which God in his mercy had once granted the king when he was in exile.”

One of the most important dream visions in Christendom concerns another regal figure, the Emperor Constantine (272 – 337AD), who was, as the story is told by his contemporary Lactantius, instructed in a dream before the decisive Battle of Milvian Bridge to adorn his army’s shields with the cipher of Christ. Constantine did so and was subsequently victorious, driving his enemy Maxentius into the Tiber. Eusebius tells a similar story with additional details, where Constantine sees a vision of the Cross in the sky by day and at night is told the purpose of his vision by Christ. It is an interesting addition that Constantine not only dreams about the symbol of the Cross but actively sees it as he is awake; Eusebius likely trying to place the vision somewhere tangible so that others, specifically Constantine’s troops, could see it as well (as other versions of the story relate.)

The image of the Cross taking shape in the sky would become a potent propagandistic legend; Guibert of Nogent wrote that during the First Crusade a crowd in Beauvais “grew ecstatic thinking it had seen a cross in the clouds,” helping spur fervour for another historic Christian victory. The Old English Elene retells the story of Constantine’s vision and also his mother Helena’s (styled ‘Helen’ in the poem) legendary discovery of the True Cross in Jerusalem. The poem opens with Constantine’s dream and the invigorating effect it has on him: “Then to the emperor himself there was revealed in sleep as he slumbered among his retinue, by the man renowned for his victories was seen, the portent of a dream.” When Constantine awakens he is “the happier, the less anxious at heart, for the lovely vision.” After his victory Constantine gathers “the wisest men” who have “acquired a knowledge of wisdom from ancient writings” to enlighten him further on Christ and the imagery of the Cross. Constantine subsequently undergoes baptism – a necessary alteration of the historical record, where Constantine was baptised on his death bed rather than after his defeat of Maxentius. Christian storytellers and propagandists could not suffer Constantine’s vision, victory and baptism occurring twenty five years apart from one another.

Dream narratives would go on to prosper in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, sometimes employed as frame narratives (Piers Plowman) or as doctrinal works like those written by the Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen (d.1179), who described how, one day in her forty second year, “Heaven was opened up and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain […] and immediately I knew the meaning of the exposition of the Scriptures.” Hildegard was, just as Caedmon centuries before her, inspired by a heavenly voice to promulgate the word of God, to “write, therefore, the things you see and hear.” In the realm of poetry Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343, d. 1400) continued to invoke the stimulating power of dreams (or ‘sweven’, from the Old English ‘swefn’: to dream) in ‘The Parliament of Fowls’, where he appeals to the creative powers of Cytherea, or Aphrodite.

Be thou my help in this, for thou mayst best;
As wisly as I sae thee north-north-west,
When I began my sweven for to wryte,
So yif me might to ryme and endite!

The Anglo-Saxon period, commonly denigrated as the ‘Dark Ages’, is in fact the bridge between the Classical age and the Early Middle Ages. It continued the tradition of dream narrative and divine sponsorship or reproachment with narratives like The Dream of the Rood, Daniel and Elene that emphasised how visions and the dream-world were not separate worlds at all, mere insomnium and visum and other hypnogogic uncertainties, but an extension and instrument of God himself. Dr. Faith Wallis observes in her essay ‘Caedmon’s Created World and The Monastic Encyclopaedia’ that for Bede and his contemporaries and successors “the idea of the hymn was perhaps more important than was the text of the hymn itself” – the notion that a deity communicates with his creations through the dream-world is on one hand a romantic one; but it is not as cosy an idea as that, since those who are visited in the night find themselves faced with equidistant paths towards glory or damnation. Overall, it was a useful doctrine when combined with a phenomenon as universal as dreaming. Later, in ‘The House of Fame’, Chaucer marvels at dreams in all of their diversity and mysteriousness:

God turne us every dreem to gode!
For hit is wonder, by the rode,
To my wit, what causeth sweveness
Either on morwes, or on evenes;
And why the effect folweth of somme,
And of somme hit shal never come;
Why that is an avisioun,
And this a revelacioun,
Why this a dreem, that a sweven,
And nat to every man liche even;
Why this a fantom, these oracles.

[May God turn every dream to good for us!
For to my mind it is a wonder, by the cross,
What causes dreams by night or by morning;
And why some are fulfilled and some not;
Why this one is a vision, and this a revelation;
Why this is one kind of dream, and that one is another,
And not the same to everyone;
Why this one is an illusion and that one is an oracle.”]


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