Magical Dream Provocation in the Later Middle Ages

Magical Dream Provocation in the Later Middle Ages

Magical Dream Provocation in the Later Middle Ages

Frank Klaassen (University of Saskatchewan)

EsotericaVol.8 (2006)


The historian of dream literature, Steven Kruger, attributes the medieval ambivalence with dreams to their “middleness.” They are physical but also supra-physical, they are legitimate points of contact with the divine but also illegitimate divinatory devices, they may be inspired by angels or demons, they may reveal high reality or deceive him with “thick-coming fancies.” Medieval Europeans were no different from any other world culture in regarding dreams as significant points of contact with the numinous. Divinely inspired dreams could provide powerful otherworldly visions; Kruger analyses rich examples from medieval literature such as the autobiographical dreams of Herman of Cologne’s Opusculum de conversione sua.

Yet given the complex medieval ideas about dreams and a literary landscape full of examples of powerful, otherworldly, and life-altering dream visions, the works of dream divination seem oddly flat and controlled. Works like the Sompnia Danielis provide a systematic and relatively inflexible key for interpreting dream symbols in dreams that have already happened. Such interpretive keys focus on relatively mundane matters such as whether to begin an enterprise, and also are limited by the fact that one would have to wait passively for a dream to occur. However, the more dramatic and less controlled literary and biblical antecedents are not without practical analogues. Hidden in the manuscripts of illicit magic we may find a hitherto untreated practical literature of dream divination. Unlike the examples discussed by Kruger and others, this literature sets out to provoke specific kinds of dreams. In some cases, the operations use dreams to determine specific kinds of information, while in others they seek dreams of an overwhelming even life-altering, kind which involve experiences of the numinous or the transfer of spiritual and intellectual gifts. They also do not reduce the interpretive process to a symbolic key, but most often leave the door wide open to individual interpretation (with all the associated problems that involves). They also may seek dreams in which the subject directly communicates and interacts with otherworldly beings. Finally, the texts of formulaic dream interpretation and dream provocation occupy distinctive locations in the library of magical literature. The more formulaic dream texts tend more often to be associated with image magic and naturalia; the more open-ended dream provocation rituals tend to be associated solely with the literature of ritual magic.

Click here to read this article from Michigan State University

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Smartphone and Tablet users click here to sign up for
our weekly email