All antiquity has had faith in dreams, prophets and philosophers- strong and weak minds, all believed that the Divinity employed these means to reveal the future and instruct us in his designs. Sacred and profane history are full of examples that attest the universality of this sentiment. It is, then, more than probable that the
Aselepiadae shared in it, and, moreover, as it was advantageous to them, they must have tried to maintain this belief, by pious frauds. Thus, while they endeavored to draw from dreams some natural indication, they affected to consider them also as a divine manifestation, above the laws of nature. In all ages, the signs furnished during the sleep of the sick, have been profitably studied in a semiotic point of view ; and in this sense, dreams have an importance, which was, doubtless, very much exaggerated by the ancients, but has been too much neglected by moderns.
My readers, I think, will not be displeased to find here some extracts from one of the most ancient treatises that exists on this subject." Whoever," says the author of this book, " desires to know the inferences that may be drawn from dreams, will find, in the first place, that they are closely related to what has transpired during the previous day. The soul, during sleep, is untrammeled ; but while it is distracted by its service to the body, its existence is, as it were, divided ; it is not entirely itself, but belonging, in part, to the bodily wants, it subserves the senses, as sight, hearing, touch, and the faculty of voluntary movements ; it directs the various operations of business ; in short, it gives aid to every act of the body requiring thought, which prevents it, in some degree, from enjoying its own innate reflections.
" When the body is asleep, the soul visits every part of this her habitation, and regulates all its various functions. The body is then unconscious, but the soul is awake, it possesses all its intelligence, it sees visible things, it hears sounds, it feels, it moves, it is pained and irritated. In brief, the soul during sleep, performs everything that relates to the body and the soul, and wisdom is largely possessed by him who is able thus to comprehend it.
" We see persons much occupied with this art, who pretend to under- stand and explain dreams sent by the gods to announce beforehand, the good and the evil with which cities or persons are menaced. Sometimes they are correct, at others they are mistaken ; but no one knows why it is so.
" They say there is something to be done to guarantee persons or places against certain evils, but not knowing really what, prayers to the gods are prescribed. It is, doubtless, good to pray to the gods ; it is always apropos ; but it is necessary also, for a person to concur with the divinity, and endeavor to help himself while invoking his aid." (Oeuvres Hippocratiques," Gardeil.t. III - Songes, § 1)
We remark, first, that the author of the passages just quoted does not deny the possibility of dreams being sent by the gods, but he questions the art of those who pretend to interpret them. He judiciously observes that these persons happen sometimes to be right, and at others are mistaken ; that is, that the event sometimes justifies their prediction, and sometimes contradicts it, without any one knowing how or why.
He gives a theory of dreams, which he thinks is perfectly natural and which may be summed up as follows : the soul, or the vital principle, or to use the language of anatomists, the encephalic organ, being free from external distractions during sleep, perceives much better the sensations that proceed from the viscera, and manifests them more distinctly. This is a theory which we may find to be contrary to observation, but which, at first sight, is neither absurd nor unreasonable.
Unhappily, the author of it does not exhibit the same spirit of wisdom in the applications he makes of it. He gives as the true results of observations, the most singular fancies, only worthy of a theosoph of the sixteenth century. I will cite but one of them :
" When one sees, in his dreams, either the sun or the moon, or the sky with the pure and serene stars, it is a good sign ; it indicates the health of the body. Observation has proved that the firmament res- ponds to the surface of the body ; the sun to the muscles, and the moon to the cavities that contain the viscera. When in the dreams, one of these stars appears to be changed or is obscured, or arrested in its course, the seat of the malady is its corresponding part in the body. If there appears any disorder in the sky, occasioned by the air or the clouds. the evil is less than if produced by rain or hail ; it indicates a separation of watery humors and phlegm, which are carried to the skin. In this case it is necessary to take exercise by running, being clothed ; commencing gently, then quicker, so as to sweat freely. On leaving the gymnasium, long walks should be taken, while fasting. For five days, one-third of the food should be left off to be gradually assumed again. If the above sign was very strong, a vapor-bath should be used, as it is necessary then to deplete the skin, because the disease is in the periphery of the body. Dry food should be used, with bitters, astringents and spices, and such exercise be taken as will produce free perspiration." (Oeuvres Hippocratiques," Gardeil, t.III- Songes, § 111)
The treatise from which I have drawn these fragments belongs to the historic period that follows this ; but I have inserted them in this chapter to complete what I have to say concerning dreams, for 1 shall have no other occasion to recur to this matter ; the great physicians of following ages having occupied themselves with other objects which they judged better calculated to improve the diagnosis of diseases.