Erotic Dreams and Nightmares from Antiquity to the Present

Erotic Dreams and Nightmares from Antiquity to the Present

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Charles Stewart

The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute: Vol. 8, No. 2 (2002)

The history of erotic dreams, nightmares, and erotic nightmares offers a valuable opportunity to study how such dreams tested Western ideas about the self, desire, and self-control. Like Foucault, I find it more productive to analyse these dreams, and the struggles to introject them, as sites of self-making rather than of repression. Erotic dreams and nightmares have been inflected by various historical strategies of self-making, themselves produced by different regimes of knowledge such as Christian asceticism, medicine, or philosophy. Erotic nightmares still proliferate today in reports of alien abductions. A reason for this historical tenacity has been the ease with which the affective sensations of the erotic nightmare – terror and sexual arousal – have jumped between genres as various as monastic handbooks, medieval folk-tales, gothic fiction, and personal dreams. This study demonstrates the importance of historical perspective for the ability to identify and understand culturally elaborated (‘culture-bound’) syndromes.

Erotic dreams have raised perennial questions about the boundaries of the self and the individual’s ability to control and produce this self. Do erotic dreams result from divine intercession, an immoral life, or recent memories? Are they products of the self for which the individual dreamer may be held responsible? Or are they determined by a force majeure such as original sin, or human physiology?

The answers that various societies supply to these questions no doubt condition the ways in which people in different cultures and historical periods react to their experiences of erotic dreams. The Hadza of northern Tanzania publicly marked a boy’s first nocturnal emission by decorating him with beads in exactly the same way as they decorated a girl with beads at the time of her first menstruation. Both occasions were unequivocally positive and celebratory. By contrast, the monks addressed in the fifth-century CE writings of John Cassian were instructed that:

It [an emission] is a sign of some sickness hidden inside, something hidden in the inmost fibres of the soul, something that night-time has not produced anew but rather has brought to the surface of the skin by means of sleep’s restorative powers. It [night-time] exposes the hidden fibres of the agitations that we have collected by feasting on harmful thoughts all day long.

Granted the value or danger accorded to erotic dreams in different societies, it is not surprising that vastly different practical techniques have been formulated cross-culturally to cultivate intended results. In order to fend off erotic dreams Graeco-Roman doctors variously recommended sleeping on one’s side, excluding warming foods from one’s diet, sleeping with a lead plate in contact with one’s testicles, or having intercourse in the dark so as to avoid mentally registering lust-provoking visual images that could later recur during sleep. By contrast, among the Umeda of Papua New Guinea a hunter intentionally slept on a net-bag scented with magic pighunting perfume (oktesap) in hopes of receiving the erotic dream that presaged a successful hunting expedition. Such erotic dreams held out the promise of real sexual consummation, which often followed after a kill was made.

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