The Secret Lives of Words: White Christmases and ancient dreams
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,” Bing Crosby crooned in his 1942 recording of Irving Berlin’s holiday reverie. Though Bing was initially underwhelmed by the song (he is said to have unenthusiastically remarked to its composer, “I don’t think we have any problems with that one, Irving”), it ultimately produced endless green (as in cash) Christmases. Soon after composing “White Christmas,” Berlin declared to his secretary that “not only is it the best song I ever wrote, it’s the best song anybody ever wrote.” Crosby’s recording, the first and perhaps still the best of many, remains the world’s most popular single of all time, selling more than 50 million copies to date.
The song’s dream of a Christmas past, “Where the treetops glisten and children listen / To hear sleigh bells in the snow,” is a classic exercise in NOSTALGia. The term comes to us from ancient Greek roots and means literally a “painful longing to return home.” Algos was the word for “pain” or “grief,” as in English myALGia/muscle pain, neurALGia/nerve pain and anALGesic, a pain-killer. And nostos meant “a journey home,” a return to one’s NEST (yes, NOST- and NEST are related). Homer’s "The Odyssey" was a nostos, an epic tale of homecoming, recounting the adventures of the hero Odysseus (the Roman Ulysses) as he traveled back to his homeland of Ithaca and his wife Penelope after the Trojan War.
Our dreams and the songs we sing about them often look longingly backward in this way. The Everly Brothers’ 1958 hit, “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” and Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” (1963) lament lost love and lovers seen only in the embrace of sleep. Other dreams and dream-songs are aspirational, like Irving Berlin’s, looking forward to regained joys. Aerosmith’s powerful 1973 anthem “Dream On,” conceived by Steven Tyler when he was just 17 or 18, urged its youthful listeners to “dream on, dream until your dreams come true.” There are nearly as many songs of dreams as there are dreamers, it seems; you’ll perhaps remember some of my other personal favorites by Elvis, the Eurythmics, David Bowie, the Mamas and Papas, Bob Dylan, Brandi Carlile, and Radiohead. You can find Paste Magazine’s lengthy list online.
Many of our dreams are chaotic neuron storms, clouded in ambiguity. The Netflix series “The Mind, Explained” includes an episode “On Dreams” that sparked the idea for this column. Dreams inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the show points out, and the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and let’s not forget Dorothy’s dream in “The Wizard of Oz.” The report explores the latest research on our emotional, irrational REM sleep and the view that “our dreams are constructed entirely from our memories.”
The ancient Greeks and Romans shared our fascination with the world of dreams. In Hesiod’s eighth-century B.C. epic poem the "Theogony" (“Birth of the Gods”), Nyx, daughter of Chaos and goddess of the night (her name is connected to Latin nox/noctis, as in NOCTurnal), not only birthed the twin brothers Sleep/Hypnos (source of HYPNosis/HYPNotic) and Death/Thanatos (as in THANATology, the scientific study of death), but was also mother of the tribe of Dreams, the Oneiroi. She and other divinities dispatched dreams to mortals, as Zeus in Homer’s " The Iliad" sent an Oneiros to the Greek commander Agamemnon, urging him on to battle with the Trojans.
Centuries later, the Roman poet Vergil adapted a notion from Homer’s "The Odyssey" in Book 6 of his Roman epic, "The Aeneid." As the Trojan prince Aeneas concludes his mystical visit to the Underworld, where he had met and been counseled by the ghost of his father Anchises, he is faced with returning to the upper world through one or the other of the two Gates of Sleep (the Romans’ word for sleep, somnus, gives us our words SOMNolent/sleepy, SOMNambulist/sleep-walker and inSOMNia/the inability to sleep). The Gate of Horn afforded passage back to the land of the living only to “true shades” (verae umbrae), while the Gate of Ivory admitted only “false apparitions” (falsa insomnia) to the upper world. Anchises sends Aeneas, and his guide the Sibyl, out of Hades through the Ivory Gate: is it because the two are not in fact real ghosts, or that the visions Anchises has shown his son are unreal, or is it a signal that the entire episode of Aeneas’ descent into the Underworld was only a nightmare. The enigma has puzzled readers for more than 2,000 years, ever since the poem was published - every bit as much as we ourselves are often confounded by details of our own dreams.
The ancients believed, as we do, that some dreams were significant, others not; some were prophetic, portents sent by the gods and some merely rehashed events of the day or from our past. The Roman statesman and author Cicero believed dreams could be predictive, and the sixth book of his "De Republica" (“On the Republic”) narrates a dream sequence, the "Somnium Scipionis," in which the Roman general Scipio the Elder reveals to his grandson the nine celestial spheres of the universe and the young man’s own future fate.
Like Freud and Jung, Greek and Roman philosophers viewed the content of dreams as symbols open to analysis. Professional interpreters might be needed, and the dream-book published by Artemidorus of Ephesus in the second century A.D., "The Oneirocritica" ("The Interpretation of Dreams"), based on interviews he conducted throughout the empire, served into the Renaissance as a guide to dream analysis. The polymath Aelius Aristides, a contemporary of Artemidorus, kept a detailed dream journal in which he recorded diagnoses from the healing god Asclepius and how following the deity’s instructions led to regaining his health.
A great deal of research has been conducted in recent years on the phenomenon of “lucid dreaming,” dream activity that can be consciously manipulated by the dreamer. With practice, you can become aware that you’re in a dream and then begin to direct it. Let’s all try lucidly dreaming of a white Christmas, devoid of politics and strife, and hope it’s prophetic like a vision from Zeus… Wait, are those sleigh bells I’m hearing?
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is “Ubi Fera Sunt,” a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, “Where the Wild Things Are,” ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.