July 3, 2020

Back in March when the pandemic was getting into gear, I decided to do two things: first, to grow my beard out until it was all over; and second, to keep a record of my predictions.

My track record as a prophet isn’t too bad: I thought the SNP would lose and that the Brexiteers would win and anticipated that Trump might just squeak it over Clinton in that epochal unpopularity contest all those (four) years ago. But I hadn’t examined those predictions closely; I just went with my gut.

Meanwhile, I’d been delighting my family with predictions of a pandemic for years. So when one finally arrived — and I was going to be spending a lot of time indoors — I figured it was as good a time as any to test the limits of my prescience.

At first I was quite successful. The initial mass freak out I saw coming a mile off, and was able to stay ahead of the various stages of the panic buying; and I was only 24 hours out when it came to predicting the day a stay-in-place order would be imposed in my part of Texas. I was confident that people wouldn’t be able to put up with much more than three months of lockdown — and I was correct — but I thought it would be anxiety about a looming economic disaster that would drive people to rebel. Instead it was the killing of a black man by a cop in Minnesota, captured on video for the whole world to see. What has happened since I didn’t foresee at all.

Anticipating what comes next is no idle game and sure enough, on social media, in the media, the prophecies and predictions flourish. But what are they based on? How do we know we are considering the right information? What information should we consider?

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This, of course, is a problem that has plagued humanity since the dawn of time. For our ancestors the anxiety was considerably more pronounced: they lived precariously in environments that were regularly ravaged by warfare, plague, famine and were subject to arbitrary (in)justice. In response, they developed a bewildering array of techniques for divining the future.

The I-ching, one of the oldest works in Chinese literature, is a divination text. The haruspices in Etruria saw the future in the entrail of dead animals; the Babylonians found it in the stars. The Greeks had their oracles, the Romans their augurs and both looked to the sky to see in which direction the birds were flying (though they disagreed on the significance of direction). In Rome you could even find gainful employment as a pullarius or keeper of the scared chickens and advise generals on whether to go to war or not.

And then, of course, there were dreams. In the 20th century Freud persuaded us that these nocturnal visions revealed what lay within us, but the ancients believed that they revealed what lay ahead of us. Greek literature is full of prophetic dreams, and the Bible has its celebrated oneirocritics also. In the Old Testament, when Joseph interpreted pharaoh’s dream he was rewarded with an appointment at the royal court; when Daniel interpreted the dream of Nebuchadnezzar, he produced a vision that apocalyptic Christians are still decoding to this fay.

Read in isolation a couple of millennia later, these stories read like eruptions of the supernatural or divine, rich in mystery. But dream interpretation was not only widespread in the ancient world; it was a job, and there were manuals that taught you how to do it. Today, however, only one of these survives: The Interpretation of Dreams by Artemidorus, recently published by Oxford World Classics in a new translation by Martin Hammond.

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Artemidorus, a professional dream interpreter based in Ephesus (now Efes in Turkey) wrote his dream manual in five books over a thirty-year period between AD 180 and 210. As the time required to finish the thing indicates, he wasn’t content to pass along some old wives’ tales he had heard at this mother’s knee; interpreting the future was a responsibility he took very seriously and he made a serious attempt to systematise dream interpretation, traveling widely throughout Asia minor, the Aegean islands, Greece and Italy to collect his material.

In the end he included more than 1,400 “dream elements” in the finished work, to which he applied a critical eye. He was careful to distinguish between dreams that simply reflected the mind turning over the day’s events and those which he identified as “prophetic”, which he divided into two categories — those which were directly predictive and required no interpretation and allegorical dreams, which did. He also stressed the importance of setting dreams in context and finding out as much as possible about the dreamer’s situation, then applied numerology, etymological analyses and other techniques to decoding dream imagery.

The results are fascinating, less for what they reveal about ancient futures long since passed but rather for what they reveal about our ancestor’s dreams and, by extension, the world they inhabited. Back then Greek gods were constant visitors to slumber, while people also dreamt a lot about sundials, stoning, whetstones, cloaks and gladiators considerably more than they do nowadays. Artemidorus’ job was to understand what, say, that gladiator represented (answer: a lawsuit would feature in your destiny).

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But there was also lots of dream material that Artemidorus collected which people still dream about today: family members, employers, journeys, animals, drunkenness, death and, of course, sex. Artemidorus’ writings on sex tickled Freud and Foucault no end, but don’t let that put you off. Indeed, this part of the book is so wild it is difficult to include too much of it on a respectable publication such as UnHerd.

Artemidorus is not very interested in female sexuality it must be said, but he does include multiple analyses of men having sex with their mothers in various permutations of intercourse, and without any of Freud’s pretentious references to Greek tragedy. The practical, hard-headed Artemidorus rather insists that this flavor of oneiric coitus has a “multifaceted complexity” allowing it degree of analysis which has “escaped many of the dream interpreters”, which he then proceeds to expound upon in graphic yet clinical detail.

For instance, says Artemidorus, not only is it important to consider the sexual position when foretelling the future, but also whether or not your mother is alive in the dream. A face-to-face/alive combo is bad, indicating that you will fall out with father; however, if your father is in poor health then the dream indicates he will die, as it shows you “presiding” over your mother. Dreams of sex with your mother while she is dead are worse, needless to say: they indicate that you, the dreamer, will die.

As Artemidorus’ helpfully points out, the earth is your “mother” and the dream shows that you are returning to her. Oral sex was highly frowned upon in Artemidorus’ day and so Mother-son fellatio is still worse: it foretells death for your children, the loss of all your property, or a serious illness. Lest anyone doubts the seriousness of the threat, he supplies sceptical readers with the evidence: he knew of a man who was castrated after having this dream.

Far better to dream of sleeping on a dunghill: for the poor man this indicates a future in which he will acquire property, while the rich man can look forward to being appointed to high office (all members of the public make a contribution to the dunghill, you see). Being shat upon by a rich man, is a good thing as it means that, like in the dream, you will receive some of his… uh… stuff. Move over, Alain de Botton: that’s some heavy status anxiety right there.

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But what can Artemidorus possibly tell us today, in this era of pandemic and other panics? It’s unlikely many will look to him to foretell our futures, though you can learn a lot about life in second century Asia Minor: dreams being visual, he inadvertently opens a window on a colourful past filled with details found in no other ancient authors.

That’s pretty good; I think it definitely makes him worth reading. As for me, however, I am fascinated by the underlying structure of Artemidorus’ thinking, and his approach to dream interpretation. Like most people, he only went so far in investigating his assumptions. He accepted the belief that dreams contained messages about the future; after all he was carrying on a tradition that was more than half a millennium old and which carried the weight both of custom and authority. Custom may be less defensible to us today, but authority still draws a lot of water in twenty-first century town.

From that point, however, he gathered as much data as he could and tried to be as systematic as possible and so starts to seem quasi-modern. He studied the works of past masters and sought real life examples to “prove” his points, and and over the decades assembled a complex matrix for understanding the future.

This was predictive analytics, second century AD style. Yes, it was nonsense, but if someone back then wanted to assuage their anxiety about the future, what other options were there? Chickens? Entrails? The stars? You could try not believing in any of it (as Cicero had recommended two and a half centuries earlier) but humans are not great at that and it hardly solves the problem of the future: our minds, like nature, abhor a vacuum. Thus our ancestors cast around and assembled predictions from what they could lay their hands on: dreams, rich in symbols and plentiful as they are, were clearly one of the better options.

That anxiety is something deeply human. And I’m not sure that on a fundamental level we’ve changed much, if at all. Most of us, presented with the future, cast around for what we can find — a historical precedent there, a hunch here, something we read in a book there — and produce predictions at a rapid clip, only to forget them soon afterwards; pundits spit them out on a regular basis and are forgiven when none of it comes to pass. The occasional superforecaster aside, getting it right doesn’t even seem to matter that much;  our visions are fuelled by anxiety, or hope, more than cool reasoning. Even our complex models are obviously incomplete, full of holes, and frequently turn out to be wrong — yet still we act on them because, well, what is the alternative?

The future is coming for us, regardless: the pandemic, and upheaval, have a ways to go yet. As for me, I continue to test my skills as a prophet, though I grow less cocky by the day. My beard, at least, is coming along nicely. It’s not quite at prophet length yet, unless you count Karl Marx (he tried, anyway.) I do feel confident making one prediction, however: it will be at Elijah-on-an-Orthodox icon levels before this is all over.

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