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Goblet of Gold

Dreamed between 450-406 BC by Sophocles.

From Cicero, De Divinatione (1st century BC), quoted in The Literature and Curiosities of Dreams (1865, v.2, ed. Frank Seafield).

When a golden goblet of great weight had been stolen from the Temple of Hercules, Sophocles, a most learned man, and a poet quite divine, saw in a dream the god himself appearing to him, and declaring who was the robber. Sophocles paid no attention to this vision, though it was repeated more than once.

When it had presented itself to him several times, he proceeded up to the Court of Areopagus, and laid the matter before them. On this, the judges issued an order for the arrest of the offender nominated by Sophocles.

On the application of the torture the criminal confessed his guilt, and restored the goblet; from which event this Temple of Hercules was afterwards called the Temple of Hercules the Indicator.

--Cicero

EDITOR'S NOTE

Reading just up to the first comma in the final sentence, this account is pretty alarming--torture was common in classical Greece, but... torturing a random citizen based only on a dream?

Yet consider the next phrase! He had the goblet. He really was the thief.

I see five possibilities. I'm confident there's something here to offend everyone.

  1. Cicero is lying or fooled by his own sources. But he isn't a 19th century spiritualist writing hearsay of an anonymous "respectable gentleman in Shropshire." He names names--those of a famous man and a temple whose name was changed because of this story. By its nature, the story was public. Of course it's hearsay--but far better evidence than we have for most events of the time. Few were literate, so few accounts were firsthand.
  2. Sophocles stole the goblet himself, to frame this man for reasons unknown. Pretty sleazy for a world-class playwright--and stupid, since he could safely ruin the man with a well-placed couplet in his next play! But let's say Sophocles planted the goblet--no wonder he knew who to accuse! One tiny problem: the accused "confessed his guilt, and restored the goblet." He might falsely confess if framed, just to end the torture, but he wouldn't know where the goblet was. No, famous-writer-as-criminal is a temptingly lurid hypothesis, but it doesn't add up.
  3. Sophocles is psychic as well as a world-class playwright. Seems an excess of talent, but "Them as has, gits." I've tried ESP experiments, and I will say that the clear mental state getting you the highest scores is much like the creative state: inner critics silenced, listening for one's inner voice (Latin genius, Greek daimon). Sophocles was a genius; to write as he did required a mind-state conducive to extrasensory perception. I don't mean the arts make you psychic, or even calm--the tormented artist, drug-using rock star and hard-drinking novelist are cliches for a reason! But Sophocles was a great poet, a job that demands (as a later poet put it) "emotion recollected in tranquility." The muse speaks to many; but only the silent can hear. Same with ESP. So I find this the least outrageous assumption...
  4. Spirits speak in our dreams. Worse than ESP, but the Greeks who lived this little story generally believed it (with the notable exception of Socrates). So: say you're a spirit in Hercules's temple who saw the theft. Pestering the nearest receptive soul is a poor tactic! Better to be picky--find a famous, respected man in town who's receptive (see 4 above!)... in short, Sophocles.
  5. For readers who reject both spirits and ESP of some sort ...well, good luck explaining why a famous playwright would be motivated to dream obsessively of a crime that wasn't his business... let alone solve the crime. Coincidence? Sorry, no. That only "explains" Sophocles's success (if a thousand world-class writers solve famous crimes in a million dreams, a few will be right by chance. But how many, famous or not, writer or not, contact a court based on a dream?) Coincidence does NOT explain why he'd dream such a thing over and over until he felt forced to go public. And he was forced: to ancient peoples, recurring dreams signaled urgency, importance, public import. Sophocles himself dismissed the dream as idle, until relentless repetition changed his own reading from personal to public.
"Goblet of Gold" exemplifies a whole genre of ancient dreams. I singled it out because both dreamer and reporter were such reputable public figures. Well, I also like that this dreamer's not seeing war or a death--people fought and died all the time. Any pessimist could rack up a decent batting average! But out of 200,000+ people in Athens, just one had the golden goblet. Those are terrible odds. Yet Sophocles caught him. He dreamed a hole in one.

--Chris Wayan



LISTS AND LINKS: temples - treasure - chalices - crime - detectives - recurrent dreams - psychic dreams - ESP in general - gods - Hercules - a different Hercules plays detective in Poirot -

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