Despite a day job which involves working with some very grand examples of 19th and 20th century art and design, I have long had a love affair with folk art, ephemera and popular forms of visual and literary culture. What fascinates me are the ways in which these objects and texts can help to shed light upon popular ideas and beliefs, especially those outside of mainstream religion or thinking.
One such form of popular belief was in ‘oneiromancy’, or divination through dreams. In the mid 19th century (and into the early twentieth century). ‘Dream Books’ such as “The Universal Dream Book” (Derby 1838) and the particularly wonderful “Park’s New Egyptian Dream Book” (London 1845) were cheap, printed booklets (chap books) sold from house to house or at fairs by pedlars. By using one of these handy manuals the user could, it was claimed, draw upon their night time visions to predict their future. The books consisted of a list of subjects and symbols that might feature in one’s dreams, and an explanation of what future events these would presage.
Sometimes the explanations offered were fairly obvious, such as the New Universal Dream Book’s claim that: “Anchor. To dream that you see one signifies great assurance and certain hope”. However, sometimes they were less so: “Apes. To dream of apes forebodes no good, they are a sign of wicked and secret enemies, who will seek, by many devices, to injure you…” And the assertion in Park’s New Egyptian Dream Book that to dream of “Laughing…is very unfortunate’ seems a touch counterintuitive,
Nevertheless, is interesting that even in the mid 19th century, the age of the Industrial Revolution, manifold scientific discovery and the growth of Christian Evangelicalism, a time when many historians have claimed that popular ‘folk’ practices and beliefs were on the wane, these beliefs were as strong as ever. Rather than even attempting to present dream divination as a ‘science’, dream books claimed to draw upon some ancient source of wisdom. ‘The Universal Dream Book’ professed to be based on prophecies of the medieval Yorkshire seer Mother Shipton (AKA Ursula Southeil c. 1488–1561). Others such as the particularly wonderful ‘Park’s New Egyptian Dream Book’ published by Archibald Alexander Park (London 1845) asserted that it was derived from an Ancient Egyptian manuscript unearthed at Thebes.
Egyptian mysteries and secret knowledge had been regarded as a source of magic and mysticism in Western Europe at least since the Renaissance. A whole welter of popular beliefs, as well as more arcane practices such as Hermetic Magic, Alchemy and Freemasonry, and even the seemingly non-esoteric craft of engraving, claimed that the secret knowledge they possessed had a lineage which could be traced back to the Hermetica, a series of secret texts ascribed to the Graeco-Egyptian deity Hermes Trismegistus.
Moreover, during the 18th and 19th centuries, a heady combination of looting and archaeological excavations were uncovering all manner of Egyptian artefacts that demonstrated a culture suffused with belief in ritual and the supernatural. These included ancient papyrus dream books, such as that found at Deir-el-Medina (now in the British Museum).
It was these ancient Egyptian texts that provided the blueprint for the 18th, 19th and early 20th century imitations that followed. However, as entertaining as the lists of dreams are, for me it is the illustrations in the nineteenth century dream books that are of greatest interest. Some are positively strange and very much in the vein of the literary and artistic Gothic horrors which had been popular since the late 18th century. Skeletons, serpents, body parts, dastardly cads, and prone, helpless heroines are the stuff of this world of symbolism.
As the fold-out illustrations depictions female dreamers in both chap books indicate, dream books were particularly aimed at, and popular with, women. This is not because women were more ‘suggestible’ or ‘superstitious’ than men; most likely it was because the vast majority of women lived precarious lives dependent on fathers, husbands and other menfolk. If Dame Fortune didn’t look benevolently upon a woman and offer her a kind and gentle husband or a generous father or brother or uncle, or some other means of financial support, many would face destitution, or worse. The idea that dream interpretation (or some other mode of fortune telling) might predict the future, for good or ill, must have been hugely comforting.
As the illustration on Park’s leaflet shows, our female dreamer is being visited by a whole host of visions: A cornucopia is overflowing with fruit, signalling abundance; dancers symbolise fun, frivolity and entertainment; her successful future courtship, marriage and motherhood is played out; a treasure chest is overflowing with gold and jewels.
But these images of wealth and happiness and plenty are interspersed with more dangerous, or even occult, symbols. Coiled round the treasure chest is a serpent, symbolising the dangers of material wealth; it may also symbolise the dangerous sexual qualities of men who might seduce and abandon a woman to a dismal fate. Two men fight a duel to the death, presumably fighting over her honour or her love. A winged demonic figure holds out a glass containing a tiny snake, presumably a symbol of the ‘demon drink’. A strange, half covered skeletal procession carries plumes and a coffin, and we are reminded that even though the church is a place of happy weddings, it is also a site of death and burial. Another smaller image on the illustration to Park’s New Egyptian Dream Book depicts a dreaming man who is quite possibly the beloved of our female dreamer. The fact that he is ignoring the directions of the spectral female figure of his vision may be the cause of our female dreamer’s potential future ill fortune.
Presiding over all of these dreams of good and ill is a personification of the Sun (or perhaps the Sun god Helios) who bears quite a resemblance to William Blake’s vision of The Sun at His Eastern Gate (c.1816-20), albeit one with clothing.
Here, perhaps, the Sun is at his eastern gate, waiting to rouse the sleeper from her dreams. be they sweet or of a more nightmarish quality.
Most interesting of all of the symbols in the illustration is the ancient symbol of the snake swallowing its tail, or ouroboros. The ouroboros (literally ‘tail-devourer’ in Greek )has been used in alchemy, Hermetic magic and belief and Gnosticism. It can be seen to symbolise the cyclical nature of life and the universe, and in Ancient Egypt it also represented the path of the sun. For our dreamer the light will return after her night of dreaming, and the cycle of life and death represented in the symbols of her dreams will continue eternally.
In the twentieth century the psychologist and psychotherapist Carl Gustav Jung built a number of ideas and experiments around oneiromancy. Unlike Freud who saw dreams as symbolic of the unconscious thought of the individual, Jung developed the idea that symbolic dreams could represent the archetypes that underpinned the Collective Unconscious. This was, Jung asserted, our shared spiritual humanity. But Jung’s codification of the strange, wonderful and, sometimes, terrifying world of our dreams is only one manifestation of the enduring belief that the fruits of our slumbers may offer us some enlightenment and some comfort.