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Storytime: Reading Synesius On Dreams

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The On Dreams of Synesius is one of those works which, if you study ancient esotericism, you have seen cited hundreds of times but, if you’re like me, never actually sat down and read through. And, boy, does it reward the effort of doing so! This essay is the real stuff.

The reason for all the citations is that our work contains numerous Chaldæan Oracles fragments, and contains more details on the theory of the pneumatic soul-vehicle – its ascents, descents, purifications, and functions – than any antique text aside from Hierocles’ commentary on the Pythagorean Golden Verses (which we’ll be covering, naturally). It draws on a Hellenic wisdom lineage including the usual suspects, but with a strong ‘Chaldæan’ vein, and very much in a Iamblichean line vis à vis theory. If this work of Bishop Synesius is Christian, this is not your grandma’s Christianity; it is  Platonising Christianity of a theurgic type.

But the essay may not be Christian at all, and in fact may be an esoteric anti-Christian response to the persecution and decline which Synesius and his generation saw all around them. This work’s written esotericism is fascinating. The text begins with a note to the effect that what you are about to read is, in the best tradition of Plato, a serious work hiding beneath a seemingly-nugatory surface. The work then goes on to recommend self-purification with the aim of having a subtle body pure and light enough to capture those evanescent true, clear, noetic dreams which unambiguously reveal to us the secrets of the future, protect us from harm, and, in general, bring the divine directly into our daily life; it suggests dream-divination as the best form of divinatory practice for the reason that its practitioners cannot be persecuted by ‘tyrants’; it lays out a detailed, medico-metaphysical theory of how the imagination functions through the pneumatic soul-body, allowing the gods to contact us directly; it details the signs and causes of diseases of this subtle body; it alludes to ‘secret philosophy’ and ‘purifying rituals’ which allow for the soul’s ascent to god. It ends with a return to the opening theme of the esoteric, suggesting that those who write works such as this, if their intentions are pure and in line with the divine will, should not hesitate to publish them in the hopes that time will prove a worthy guardian.

Works Cited in this Episode:


Donald A. Russell and Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, editors. On Prophecy, Dreams and Human Imagination: Synesius, De insomniis. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2014. Find it here for free on open access!


For Corbin’s theory of the ‘imaginal’, see e.g. Henry Corbin. Alone with the Alone: Creative Imagination in the Sūfism of Ibn Arabī, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1969. Antoine Faivre. Access to Western Esotericism. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 1994.

Antoine Faivre. Access to Western Esotericism. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 1994.

Recommended Reading:

Note: For a more general bibliography to do with the Platonist subtle body, pneuma, and so forth, see the extensive reading-list to Episode 131.

Maria Di Pasquale Barbanti. Ochema-pneuma e phantasia nel Neoplatonismo: aspetti psicologici e prospettive religiose. Number 19 in Symbolon. Studi e testi di filosofia antica e medievale. CUECM, Catania, 1998.

Sebastian Gertz. Dream Divination and the Neoplatonic Search for Salvation. In Donald A. Russell and Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, editors, On Prophecy, Dreams and Human Imagination: Synesius, De insommniis, pages 111–24. Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 2014.

Robert Christian Kissling. The OXHMA-ΠΝΕΥΜΑ of the Neo-Platonists and the De insomniis of Synesius of Cyrene. American Journal of Philology, 43(4):318–30, 1922.

W. Lang. Das Traumbuch des Synesius von Kyrene. Übersetzung und Analyse der philosophischen Grundlagen. Number 10 in Heidelberger Abhandlungen zur Philosophie und ihrer Geschichte. Tübingen, 1926.

J.J. Poortman. Ochêma. Geschiedenis en zin van het hylisch pluralisme, VI-A. van Gorcum, Assen, 1967.

Ilinca Tanaseanu-Döbler. Synesios und die Theurgie. In Helmut Seng and Lars Martin Hoffmann, editors, Synesios von Kyrene. Politik, Literatur, Philosophie, pages 201–30. Brepols, Turnhout, 2012.

Idem. Synesius and the pneumatic vehicle of the soul in early neoplatonism. In Donald A. Russell and Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, editors, On Prophecy, Dreams and Human Imagination: Synesius, De insommniis, pages 125– 56. Mohr Siebeck, 2014.

Augustine Fitzgerald. Synesius of Cyrene. The Essays and Hymns. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1930 [for an earlies English version than Russel / Nesselrath].

Willy Theiler. Die Chaldäischen Orakel und die Hymnen des Synesios. Schriften der Königsberger Gelehrten Gesellschaft, 18:1–41, 1942.

G. Verbeke. L’évolution de la doctrine du pneuma du Stoı̈cisme à S. Augustin. Desclée de Brouwer, Paris, 1945.

Gerard Watson. Phantasia in Classical Thought. Officina Typographica, Galway, 1988.