Stomach-Churning

James Davidson

  • Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism and Power in the Greek World, AD 50-250 by Simon Swain
    Oxford, 499 pp, £50.00, April 1996, ISBN 0 19 814772 4

Summer 165 AD. I dreamed of Athena with her aegis, in the form of the statue in Athens made by Phidias, and just as massive and beautiful. The aegis, moreover, was giving off a perfume, as sweet as could be, a perfume like wax ... It immediately occurred to me to have an enema of Attic honey.

20 January 166 AD. I dreamed that after my food had not digested properly I consulted Zosimus, my adopted father, about bathing and asked if it were necessary to bathe more. He said it wasn’t. I dreamed that I did bathe and had trouble with my stomach.

21 January. I vomited again in the evening – I had had a dream that a bone was troubling me and there was a need to expel it.

26 January. I dreamed that the lamps were brought into the Temple in accordance with a vow on my behalf and it was necessary to vomit – I vomited.

14 February. I dreamed that I was in Smyrna, though, since I was not aware of having made the journey, I did not believe for a second what was right before my eyes. I was offered figs. Then Corus appeared, the seer. He indicated the figs contained a quick-acting poison. I was full of suspicion and eagerly vomited, but at the same time a thought occurred to me: ‘What if I haven’t vomited completely?’ Next, someone said there was poison in some other figs as well. I was even more distressed. I was angry, too, because I had not heard it sooner ... After such dreams, I suspected that fasting was indicated (I preferred it anyway, even if it wasn’t) but I asked the god to show more clearly which he meant: fasting or vomiting.

Publius Aelius Aristides (117-c.187) suffered from chronic indigestion and scanned his dreams for a cure. The source of these dreams was the god Asclepius, for whom Aristides’ health was a matter of great concern. On one occasion the oneiroscopist records a (real) voyage to Smyrna. As the boat was approaching its destination, a violent storm suddenly sprang up, sending the other passengers into a panic. Aristides, however, understands it is the work of the deity and simply calls out his name. The ship eventually makes it safely into port. All is revealed in the god’s nocturnal broadcast. He was just trying to churn Aristides’ stomach a little in preparation for a truly massive purgation.

In return for such constant consideration, Aristides carried out immediately whatever he thought the god was asking him to do. Usually, this involved some kind of regimen made up of vomiting, not bathing (for years), or fasting, but it might also involve running a race without shoes in winter, sailing across a bay in a high wind in order to eat honey and acorns on the other side (and vomit); putting out in a small boat and arranging for it to capsize – ‘and the contrivance of the shipwreck, which occurred with real danger, seemed wonderful to all.’ ‘We were ordered to do many strange things,’ concludes Aristides cheerfully.

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